“Growing up in this country I’m grateful for the men and women who serve this country and provide that freedom and I want to do everything I can to help my country and help those who serve.” When Gary Sinise said these words at the release of his autobiography Grateful American: A Journey from Self to Service, he wasn’t just talking. His actions have made good on those words.
While the actor was perhaps best known for his role as Lieutenant Dan Taylor in “Forrest Gump” (1994), since the September 11, 2001, attacks, he has devoted himself to supporting and entertaining military personnel, veterans, and their families in ways that are most needed.
The foundation in his namesake sponsors many different programs, including support for disabled veterans, training for veterans reentering the workforce, and fun vacations for families of fallen heroes.
But one project in particular always puts a smile on service members’ faces: his performances with the Lt. Dan band, where Sinise takes the stage and plays lead guitar before a live audience.
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Sinise’s history with the military goes back a long way, much like his character in the film, with family members who fought in World War I and II and the Korean War. Appropriately enough, the war that got him most involved with veterans’ awareness was Vietnam. As he explained to CNN, “My involvement with Vietnam Veterans goes back to the 1980s. We all remember how shamefully they were treated.”
For Sinise, seeing people who had served being scorned upon their return home was intolerable. “It was a very difficult period for us and they paid a price.” When the role of Lt. Dan came along, Sinise began to get involved in the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) charity and continues that work today. When new deployments took troops to Afghanistan and Iraq in the 2000s, Sinise decided to “make sure that they knew we were grateful for what they were doing.”
As Sinise began to travel the world to meet American soldiers deployed abroad, he found that his movie fame helped him connect with service members. After visiting wounded personnel in the Landstuhl base in Germany, as he shared, “They just recognized me from the movie, Lt. Dan. It was an automatic ice-breaker.” Though the soldiers understood that Sinise hadn’t been wounded in action, “They felt like I could understand what they were going through.”
This immediate recognition helped Sinise come up with the idea of the Lt. Dan Band, with whom he has performed 485 concerts since 2003. As Sinise explained to Pickler & Ben, they decided to name his band after the character because of the recognition, but also because it was one of the first positive portrayals of a disabled Vietnam veteran coming home and finding a way to overcome the scars of war.
The band brings a much-needed taste of home for soldiers who have spent months or even years away for the United States. The free shows are accompanied are by meet-and-greets and lots of selfies with “Lt. Dan,” which the soldiers can share with their friends and families. The band’s repertoire includes covers of all-American favorites like southern rock classic “Sweet Home Alabama,” the Vietnam era “Purple Haze,” and a crowd-fueled rendition of “God Bless the U.S.A.”
When Sinise and the Lt. Dan Band played in the villages in central Florida, an area with one of the largest veteran communities in the United States, residents were particularly grateful for the message of support the show sent.
Retired Air Force pilot Robyn Frailey told the Gary Sinise Foundation, “People really listen to Gary Sinise when it comes to veterans, and we really do need a strong voice, we really do.”
As the Gary Sinise Foundation has grown and developed, it has not only brought much-needed musical relief to soldiers around the world; it has also made contributions to police, firefighters, and paramedics, whose service embodies Sinise’s core beliefs.
“Freedom and security are precious gifts that we, as Americans, should never take for granted,” he writes on the Foundation’s website. “We must do all we can to extend our hand in times of need to those who willingly sacrifice each day to provide that freedom and security.”
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Author: Robert Jay Watson