Gary Sinise is a man on a mission. The actor, known for his role as Lieutenant Dan Taylor in the 1994 film Forrest Gump, and since 2004 as Detective Mac Taylor in CBS’s CSI:NY, has made it his life’s work to support, entertain, and advocate for the nation’s military service members and first responders. In June 2011, after 30 years of involvement with military veterans and their families, he formed the Gary Sinise Foundation. “Over the years, I have gotten involved with many fine organizations and helped them raise money with concerts or events, donating my time and personal finances. The next logical step was to have my own charity to help support a lot of the things I’m interested in.”

Those “things” include everything from sponsoring once-a-month barbecue dinners for deploying troops at USO at LAX (and rolling out to other airports in 2013) to building “smart” homes for severely injured veterans through Building for America’s Bravest in partnership with the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation. According to Executive Director Judith Otter, the Gary Sinise Foundation is planning to build 13 homes in 2013. “We partner with all kinds of organizations that provide every level of care for our military service members. We don’t just move them into a house and walk away. Scholarship programs, care and support for kids who have lost a parent, babysitting, training programs for vets who need to get back to work, we cover the whole range.” Currently the website lists 30 charities that the foundation supports and the number continues to grow.

In addition, the foundation has corporate partnerships to support programs such as the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation and the “Get Skills to Work” initiative with the goal of getting 100,000 veterans back into the workforce by 2015. Says Otter, “Corporate sponsorship is growing by leaps and bounds. American Airlines is our official airline. It, along with Air Compassion for Veterans, provides all of the air travel for the band members and crew for our Building for America’s Bravest concert series. The GM Military Discount program is another partner. We have new ones coming on board every day.”

Sinise comes from a military family, but he first became involved with veterans in Chicago in the early 1980s through Steppenwolf, the theater company he founded with fellow Chicagoans Jeff Perry and Terry Kinney. “We were working on a play called Tracers, written by several Vietnam veterans,” says Sinise. As word got out about the production (which Sinise directed), local Chicago-area vets began attending the show. Says Sinise, “I really wanted to honor our Vietnam veterans with this production and do something for them, and so we created Vets’ Night. It became a long-standing tradition where we started bringing veterans in to the dress rehearsals of our plays, to treat them to a free show.”

In 1994 Sinise costarred with Tom Hanks and Sally Field in Forrest Gump. Playing Lieutenant Dan Taylor (a role that garnered him an Academy Award nomination) proved to be a pivotal moment for the then-38-year-old actor. “Having been involved with these local Vietnam veterans groups over the years, I very much wanted to pay tribute as an actor,” says Sinise. “When I had the opportunity to play a vet, I just jumped at it.” That year, the Disabled American Veterans presented Sinise with its National Commander’s Award. “I’m an actor. I play parts. These people lived the part that I played, and were wounded—some of them severely—and they were applauding me.”

Lieutenant Dan is a role that resonates with military personnel all over the world, and Sinise believes it is due to the character’s ultimate victory over his disability and his demons. “Prior to Forrest Gump,” says the actor, “portrayals of Vietnam veterans in movies were not very positive. But this is a hopeful, resilient story line. All Lieutenant Dan wants to do is be a great warrior. He’s either going to be a great leader and have a long military career, or he’s going to die in battle like the rest of his relatives. He never considers the alternative, which is getting his military career taken away because he’s catastrophically injured.” Sinise continues, “That was the story of many Vietnam veterans who put their experiences in perspective and moved on, but we hadn’t seen that portrayed in a movie before.”

Like most Americans, Sinise remembers exactly where he was and how he felt when the 9/11 attacks happened. “My daughter told me to turn on the TV and I watched in horror from my bedroom in Los Angeles. That day affected me in a profound and powerful way.” Those feelings of pain and loss became his call to action.

After his first USO tour in Iraq in June 2003, Sinise didn’t stop for six months. “In July I did a tour of bases in Italy, in August I went to Germany, and then in September I went to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and Fort Stewart. In October, I visited bases down in San Diego. In November I went back to Iraq. I just kept doing it.” He adds, laughing, “I didn’t have a job at that time, so I guess it was okay to travel.” The multitalented actor also plays the bass guitar. He says, “For that first group of tours, I was visiting as an actor, but then I wanted to take a group of musicians and play for the troops. I wanted to entertain them.”

Sinise met musician Kimo Williams in 1997 when Williams was hired to compose the score for a Steppenwolf production of A Streetcar Named Desire. When Williams discovered that Sinise played the bass guitar, the two started to jam, inviting other Chicago-area musicians to join in. Eventually Sinise asked the USO if he could bring some musicians along to entertain the troops. Of course the answer was yes.

Originally known as the G&K Band (for Gary and Kimo), Sinise decided they needed a more recognizable name. Servicemen and -women, upon seeing him, often shouted “Lieutenant Dan!” like a joyful Forrest Gump did in the movie, and he knew it was the perfect way to identify the band.

Gary Sinise & the Lt. Dan Band began its first overseas USO tour traveling to Korea, Singapore, and Diego Garcia in 2004. Since that first tour the band has played an average of 30 to 40 shows per year, primarily for the USO and assorted charities benefiting veterans and first responders. On July 4, 2011, to coincide with the official launch of the Gary Sinise Foundation, a documentary was released entitled Lt. Dan Band: For The Common Good. The film’s director/producer, Jonathan Flora (a Vietnam vet himself), says he had some convincing to do before the actor would agree to make the documentary. “When I proposed the idea of making the movie, he was hesitant because he doesn’t do this for publicity.” The director continues, “I used my small farm town in Ohio as an example and I said, ‘Gary you’re never going to go to Eaton, Ohio, but now you can.’ And he realized this could help him reach people who he would never be able to reach either by himself or with the band.” Flora followed Sinise and the band off and on for about two years. “I wanted to show people this is what he does all the time. The military and first responders know who’s there for a photo op and who really has their back. And Gary certainly has their back because he’s been consistent for so long and at a level that nobody else can touch. He really is the Bob Hope of this generation.”

With what seems to be one of the busiest schedules in Hollywood, the 57-year-old actor doesn’t appear to be slowing down any time soon. He spends five days a week during the season filming CSI:NY, and his weekends and time off making appearances on behalf of the foundation and the numerous charitable organizations it supports. Committed and passionate, Sinise is determined to say thank you in a tangible way to our servicemen and -women.

“We are going to have residual issues for years to come from the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. The problems are not going to go away just because the wars end. There’s a lot to do and that’s why I created the foundation. I want it to live on as a reliable resource for people who are looking to support military families, first responders, people who sacrifice for us every single day. We can never take that for granted. Never.”

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