When America failed its veterans after Vietnam, the nation compounded the mistakes of an already tragic era, making millions of soldiers and their families feel like their sacrifices had been in vain.
Gary Sinise has spent his life fighting to ensure that this terrible period in our history doesn’t repeat itself. He has parlayed his fame and fortune into the Gary Sinise Foundation, raising awareness for veterans’
issues and building homes for the wounded veterans who need it most.
BY MATT TUTHILL
It is fitting that the face of veteran plight in popular culture turned out to be Gary Sinise. By the time Sinise took on the role of Lt. Dan in 1994’s Forrest Gump, he had already been actively engaged in volunteering and raising awareness for veteran causes for over a decade. His poignant portrayal of Lt. Dan, wounded in Vietnam and forgotten when he returned home, helped shine a light on a dark period in American history and issue an artful warning to younger generations who hadn’t experienced the horror firsthand.
In 2011, after decades of volunteering and throwing the weight of his celebrity behind veterans causes, he founded the Gary Sinise Foundation to create an even bigger impact. In addition to raising money to build specially adapted smart homes for disabled veterans, the foundation hosts Invincible Spirit Festivals on military bases to raise morale for troops and their families. Sinise is usually front and center with his Lt. Dan Band. Robert is also a mainstay at the festivals. (You can read what the festivals entail and about Robert’s involvement HERE.)
Sinise has enjoyed a long and storied career in theater, television, and film which began when he founded Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company when he was fresh out of high school in 1974. From there he went on to act in dozens of movies including Forrest Gump, Apollo 13, The Green Mile, and Mission to Mars, to name just a small handful. Most recently he starred for nine seasons on CSI: NY and he is currently starring in Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders, airing Wednesday nights on CBS.
In an exclusive interview with RI Magazine, Sinise says the greatest benefit to a résumé as long as his is the fact that it gives him a bigger platform from which he can help the troops.
RI MAGAZINE: Most people would be surprised to learn that you took up the cause of improving veterans affairs long before you took the role of Lt. Dan in Forrest Gump. What was it that spurred you to take up this cause?
GARY SINISE: It goes back to the late ‘70’s and early ‘80’s when I really started thinking about military service and what our veterans were going through. When I was in high school, the Vietnam War was raging. I remember my parents being very scared that I was going to get drafted, that it was going to go on. The country was being torn apart by divisions over the war. All the college campuses were exploding because there was a draft and lots of people were being drafted into military service who really didn’t want to be there.
The Vietnam War was not going well according to the press at that time. As I was in high school, I remember a little bit, but not a lot. The little that I do remember are the casualty reports on television every night. At the height of the war, we were taking 500 to 1,000 casualties a week. It was very devastating. There were many, many wounded. I would notice these news reports, but then I would just go back to being a high school kid worrying about playing in a band, or acting in high school plays and whatnot.
After high school I started a theater company, Steppenwolf Theatre, and I met my wife to be, Moira Harris, through that company in 1976. Through her, I met her two brothers who were Vietnam veterans. Boyd McCanna Harris and Arthur Harris. One was a helicopter pilot in Vietnam, the other was a West Point graduate and served as a platoon leader, a lieutenant, and then went back for a second tour as a company commander, a captain, and then became a major.
Then my wife’s sister also joined the army out of college and she married a soldier who was a combat medic in Vietnam. I had three Vietnam veterans around me at that time. I began to get this lesson about what it was like to serve in Vietnam, what it was like to come home after the war, how the nation literally turned its back on our veterans. I started to think, “Oh, yeah, I remember all that now.” Then I started to feel guilty because I wasn’t really paying attention that much as a high school kid.
I just had this terrible sadness for what happened to our Vietnam veterans. I felt a guilt and a shame that I had been so unaware. I started to try to do something in the Chicago area to support Vietnam veterans and got involved with some local Vietnam veterans groups and ended up doing some theater pieces that were about Vietnam. One of them was written by a group of Vietnam veterans; I rehearsed it in ‘83 and it opened in ‘84. I started a program in my theater where we would let veterans in free of charge for that particular play on Tuesday nights. Every Tuesday night was a veterans night. We would have 200 veterans out there watching this play. It was very healing for a lot of them because … This is back in the mid 80s. It was right around the time when the country was starting to say, “Hey, we’re sorry for the way you were treated.”
In the late 80s and early 90s I supported Vietnam veterans who had seen the play—specifically Tom Luberda, a Marine, by raising funds to help them build a veterans memorial in Lansing, Illinois. And because I helped them with that, they put my brother-in-law, Boyd on the wall because, unfortunately, right before I ended up doing that play I was talking about, he passed away of cancer. He was a Lieutenant Colonel at the time. I was very sad about that because I was looking forward to showing him the play and telling him how much his influence on me was reflected in my desire to make that a great show.
Recently I supported the restoration of that memorial, and as one of my other brothers-in-law, Jack Treese, the combat medic, had passed away on October 1, 2014, Tom Luberda added Jack’s name to the memorial as well. I wasn’t expecting that. It was very nice of them to do that.
Over the years, I would do little things here and there to support our Vietnam veterans. Then I had the opportunity, about 10 years later, to audition for Forrest Gump and to play the Vietnam veteran. That got me started working with our wounded because he was a wounded soldier. That was the relationship that began with the Disabled American Veterans Organization going back to 1994. I’ve had a 22-year relationship with them.
After September 11, I knew where I was going to place my energy to support my country after those attacks. It was towards the men and women who were deploying to Afghanistan and Iraq in reaction to that attack.
I started volunteering for the USO and to support many, many different military charities, and raising money, and playing concerts, and traveling, and trying to keep awareness up for what our men and women were going through in Iraq and Afghanistan. It all came to a head when I decided that this felt like a calling to me to serve the men and women who defend us. I decided that I would take the good fortune I’ve had in my career and apply it to the creation of the Gary Sinise Foundation.
RI: I know one of the signature things that the Gary Sinise Foundation does is build specially adapted smart homes for disabled veterans. How many homes have you built to date?
GS: I’ve been involved with, or am involved with, over 50 at this point, but in various incarnations. When I started with the first couple of homes that I worked on, I didn’t have my foundation. I was doing that by supporting another organization. We built homes through an entity called Building for America’s Bravest. They asked me if I would do a concert to raise money for a quadruple amputee. He was the first surviving quadruple amputee injured in 2009. We’ve had five of those guys since then. I ended up being involved in building houses for all of them.
After launching my foundation in 2011, we created our R.I.S.E. program, Restoring Independence Supporting Empowerment. We’ve worked on several projects since our launch, some in collaboration with other organizations, some are in process, and some are slated to go into construction in 2017 and 2018. From the beginning it’s over over 50 that I’ve been involved with, but at thise point all the homes are built under our R.I.S.E. program, supported by many great companies and individuals.
RI: One of your ambassadors, Michael Schlitz—we wrote Part I of his story in November and we have Part II in this issue. What kind of ambassador has he been for the foundation?
GS: I met Mike about six years ago, I think it was 2010. My friend Leeann Tweeden who I’d been on some USO trips with, brought him to the set of CSI: NY. Mike had just been to UCLA to go to Operation Mend which is a great program where a number of surgeons and plastic surgeons all come together to try to do corrective surgery on those who have been badly wounded. Mike has undergone dozens and dozens of surgeries (91) as you might suspect.
As the home building effort grew and grew, I called up Mike one day and said, “It would be my honor to build a house for you,” and we ended up building a house for Mike. He’s a great Army Ranger, very good communicator, resilient guy who’s been through a lot, obviously, and has become a pal. At one point, I asked Mike if he would like to be an ambassador for my foundation. As I was expanding, it started to become more difficult for me to continue to shoot TV and then travel all over the place doing events, and speaking. We created the Ambassadors Council as a program of my foundation and started asking certain pals of mine if they would come on board to help raise awareness by doing events for us and speaking on my behalf and for the foundation. Mike has been a great ambassador as has my pal Robert Irvine.
RI: Twenty-two veterans a day commit suicide. I’m sure you’ve seen that statistic. There’s been somewhat of an effort to draw attention to that, but the 22 Pushup Challenge that’s been going around on Facebook hasn’t gotten anywhere near the kind of publicity that something like the Ice Bucket Challenge did. That statistic is so huge and so alarming. Why do you think we’re still seeing these numbers?
GS: We’re going to, unfortunately, face the residual effects of military service, and long, long wars and deployments for years. This has been the longest war in our nation’s history. It still goes on. We still have troops in Afghanistan and have had them there for 15 years. That’s longer than any conflict we’ve ever been in. Every effort that we can make to keep awareness up, and to draw attention to where the problems are, and to shine a light on them, we should make.
The mental health problem is a very serious problem and it’s not always combat related. You have people in the military that are stressed out for a number of reasons. Maybe they haven’t even been to combat, but the pressure and the strain that is placed on our military is gigantic. Our military–they’re trained to kill people. That’s the nature of war. That’s what you do in war. You fight and you kill people, and you see people get killed and maimed. You see innocents lose their lives and lose their families. You see all kinds of horrific things and then you have to come home from that and try to push on.
That can be very, very difficult. As I said, we’ve had a number of service members over this long period of time, since September 11, who have deployed over, and over, and over, and over again. The amount of stress that that places on their family and them is gigantic. Imagine a kid, he’s eight years old and for the next 10 or 12 years, his mom or dad is gone in war eight or nine times over that 10- to 12-year period. That’s a lot of stress on a family. So I believe that we can never do enough to give back and show our support. We’ve got to keep trying to do our best to do more.
RI: I would argue that the length of the war has worked against it in terms of keeping awareness up for what these guys are facing. In the very beginning of the conflict, there is a ton of news footage that you get from the war zone. Over a decade plus, it starts to taper and it seems like most of the coverage now—yes, you’ll see a brilliant front of the battle lines kind of report on 60 Minutes—but for the vast majority of the time on TV, they’re talking about it in abstract terms as a policy decision that is happening somewhere in Washington. Do you think if we were presented with the face of this more often, we’d understand it better and we wouldn’t tolerate the plight of these veterans?
GS: You’ll get no argument from me on that. I agree with that. That’s absolutely true. This has been a very long war. If our troops are not on the front pages for some big event, or something like that, we tend to forget that we have people continuing to serve in harm’s way. That’s where awareness raising comes in. I’ve tried for 15 years to keep awareness up and to keep reminding people that we have families, military families, sacrificing on a daily basis whether they’re on the front pages or not.
RI: Our President Elect has publicly defamed a Gold Star family as well as John McCain—who I know you supported in ‘08—saying he likes veterans who, “weren’t captured.” Are you worried that veterans affairs won’t be treated with the attention and compassion that they deserve under our new president?
GS: Here’s how I’ll answer that question: I always worry about how our veterans are going to be treated, no matter who the president is. You always hope that each president will make improvements, but the Veterans Administration is a pretty giant bureaucracy and a pretty big beast to get a handle on. There’s a lot of good people that are trying, but it’s a difficult beast. I’m hopeful that the new president will, as he has said, improve the lives of our veterans. I wish him well and the new administration well on that. I want to see them make improvements to the VA. I’ll also say that it’s always important to have good solid non-government, non-profit organizations out there serving the needs of the men and the women who serve.
We are the citizens of the United States who benefit from the freedom that is provided by these defenders. To take some responsibility for trying to ensure that they’re taken care of and to place our energies into supporting organizations or helping particular veterans in our own communities—that’s something that we can do. We don’t have to wait around for the government to do that. Every citizen has an ability to reach out to somebody and help them.
RI: Excellent point. You’ve been called the new Bob Hope. Is that a nickname that you embrace?
GS: Those are very big shoes to fill. I’m just trying to do my part.
RI: You’ve had an incredibly storied career and been in some films—like Forrest Gump and Apollo 13—that will go down as a couple of the all-time greats. Are you at a point in your career where you do appreciate looking back at things like that or are you not much for nostalgia?
GS: I’m somebody who has been blessed with some good success. The way I look at that success now is through the work that I’m doing on behalf of our veterans, and the charitable efforts, and the foundation. The reward of having a good career is that I get to do good things for our defenders and the people that I care about. I’ve had financial success. I’ve had creative and artistic success. I was blessed to start a theater company at an early age that has lasted for over 40 years and continues to do great work in the city of Chicago. That gave me my education as an actor. I was able to take that education and use it to go into the movie and television business and make some money and have this public platform as a recognizable actor to be able to talk about things that I feel are important—such as standing strong for the men and women who serve our country no matter who their Commander-in-Chief is.
The hard lessons that we learned from the Vietnam War is that we should never turn our backs on the people that serve our country even if we don’t agree with the war they’re fighting. But that’s what happened during Vietnam. It was a shameful period in our history. It was bad for our country. I think we learned some valuable lessons from that because you can see that there is a great respect for the men and women who serve our country now. It was a bit tougher during the height of the Iraq War if you recall. The media was printing story after story about how the war was failing. It was a tough time. Any positive stories of progress and success were overshadowed by things like Abu Ghraib and all the things that were going wrong in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was a very tough time for our service members over there. It felt to me a bit like what it must have felt like for our Vietnam veterans. I wanted to do something to make sure our military folks felt appreciated for what they were doing over there.
I tried to do my best to talk to the press about what I would see when I would go to the war zones at that time. I saw some great Americans trying to do their best to get through that as best they could and to get rid of a terrible dictator and try to help some people over there. It was a tough scene for a lot of them. Fifteen idiots from Abu Ghraib were dominating the new and, with the exception of a few positive news stories here and there, the other 150,000 who were serving honorably were being virtually ignored.
We don’t want any of our service members to ever feel like their service wasn’t worth it. That’s what I feared so much during that period because I’d seen that happen with our Vietnam veterans. I had terrible fear that our men and women would come home from Iraq and Afghanistan and think no one cared, nobody appreciated. That they would think, “I got wounded for nothing. I lost my buddies for nothing.”
I want them to know that I appreciate what they do, that I recognize the sacrifices they and their families make, and I don’t forget. I’m grateful that we have people like them who are willing to go out there and do the hard, dangerous work to keep us free and safe. Therefore, I hope that they feel like their sacrifices were worth it. We can never forget that freedom is not something we just automatically have in this life.
Freedom must be fought for and protected. I hope our defenders always remember that there are millions of Americans who value the freedom that they provide, we recognize where it comes from, and we don’t take it for granted. If I can do a little something to remind them of this and to inspire others to step up and give back to them, then that is a way that I can serve. And service to others is a great healer.
To learn more about the Gary Sinise Foundation or to donate, visit GarySiniseFoundation.org.