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A Conversation with GARY SINISE

By Brennen Matthews

Photographs courtesy of Veterans United

Actor Gary Sinise is well-known for his films – Forrest Gump, Apollo 13 and The Green Mile, to name a few, and television shows such as CSI: NY and Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders, but these days Sinise has been using his gifts, passions and notoriety to create a different type of project. Helming the Gary Sinise Foundation, the thespian devotes himself to his work to support veterans day in and day out, making sure that the men and women who choose to fight for America are receiving the support and gratitude that they deserve.

You were born in Chicago, where Route 66 officially begins, and now you live in sunny California where the Route ends!

I remember Route 66, you bet. I remember the TV series.

Well, now you’re dating yourself...

(Laughs) I was a kid, but that show was on in black and white when I was a kid.

Your wife is from Bloomington-Normal, Illinois?

Actually, she went to college there. She went to Illinois State, but she’s from Pontiac, Illinois.

Another great Route 66 town! Pontiac is such a great place. So, obviously you’ve driven down sections of 66 then?

Oh yeah, years ago, but then they built the 55, and they built the freeways. And Route 66 just became, I don’t know, just became kind of the side street.

The next time you guys are visiting Illinois, you should use Route 66 instead of the Interstate.

One of these days, yes I will, and that’ll be something that maybe I’ll do with my son sometime.

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Your family has a very strong military history: your grandfather was in World War I, both your uncles were WWII veterans, and your dad served in the Navy?

That’s all correct. My dad served in the Navy in the early 50s during the Korean War, and then his two older brothers are both World War II veterans. One, my uncle Jack, [was] on a crew for a B-17 out of Kimbolton in England. The bomb group was the 379 Bomb Group, and he personally did 30 missions over Europe as a navigator. And then his younger brother, the middle brother, my uncle Jerry - my dad’s the youngest - was on a landing ship ... tank ... and it was called LST, and they would hit the shore and the ramps would come down, and tanks would roll out of the ship. He was in the Pacific at the tail end of World War II, probably for the last six months of the war, part of the invasions of Okinawa and Iwo Jima. He was part of the occupation of Japan for a while, after the surrender. And then my dad, he was in the Navy for four years from ’51 to ’55. And I was born right at the tailend of his service, when he was still serving in Washington, DC. I was born just about a week before my dad got out of the Navy.

Did you find that growing up in a family of war veterans shaped you in any way?

In those early years, I can’t say that it did, because I don’t remember my dad, my grandfather, or my uncles talking much about their service. When I was a young guy in elementary school or [during] my high school years, they were kind of, well, beyond their service years by the time I was old enough to comprehend anything about that. And they just never talked about it. It was only later in life, as I started to get more and more involved with our service members, and support issues regarding veterans, that I spent more time, especially with my uncle Jack Sinise, who was the World War II veteran. I spent a lot of good quality time with him. And you know, I actually spent a good dozen years taking [him] to events with me, talking to him about his service. Probably from the time he was about in his late 70s, until he was about 89. He slowed down in his 90th year and passed away. But up until a year before he passed, he was still going on trips with me. I would take him to the National Memorial Day concert in Washington, DC; I was actually able to take him up and fly him around on a B-17 with some buddies who had a plane, which was very very interesting. He had not been on that airplane since his final mission in 1945. So, I got to spend some good time with him.

When I met my wife, she introduced me to her two older brothers, both of whom served in Vietnam. And her twin sister went off and joined the army. She met a Vietnam veteran who was in the army, a combat medic in Vietnam. I learned the difficulties that they had when they came home from Vietnam ... it was just a terrible time to be a veteran, because our country was so divided over what was going on in Vietnam. Whether we should have been there or not, all that. And Vietnam veterans were the ones who were kind of the victims of all that division here.

I got a pretty good education early on when I was in my early twenties as to what it was like for them. To go off to war, to serve in that war, to get shot at, to see their buddies die, to get blown up and all of that and then to come home to a country that spit on them. [What I learned] really woke me up and awakened me. And that really manifested into a lot of the service work that I do now. I remember after September 11th, when we just started deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan, the thought of our soldiers responding to the attack of September 11th by signing up, going to fight the bad guys who had attackedus on September 11th, and then coming home to a nation that spit on them, I just couldn’t stand the thought of something like that happening to this current active duty military service. So, I just started going out, trying to pitch in wherever I could, to make sure that they knew that I appreciated them. I wanted them to know that they were supported. And that all manifested itself into so much service work and a full-time foundation and all that.

One of your most iconic roles is of course Lieutenant Dan Taylor in Forrest Gump; a favorite character for everyone who really came of age with that film. Did your experience, having war veterans in the family, help you prepare for that role?

Well, yes, in some ways. You know, having Vietnam veterans in my family, and having been involved with Vietnam veterans in the 80s, when the opportunity came in the mid-90s to play a Vietnam veteran in Forrest Gump, I very much wanted to do it. I wanted to get that part. I just felt very prepared to play the role. But you know, when you’re auditioning for a movie, [you] can’t get your hopes up too much. Because there’s only one part and there’s a thousand people trying out for it. So I went in, I auditioned for it, and I told my agent, “Boy, I hope I get this.” And then it was kind of quiet for a while, I didn’t hear anything. While I was hoping and praying that something good would happen with the part and that they would come back around and put me in it, I had to try and mentally put that out of my mind and move on. So, I went on to audition for other things, and got very close to being cast in a couple of other movies. Then all the sudden, I get this call that they had cast me as Lieutenant Dan, and I was thrilled!

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Did you get much response from veterans after the movie came out?

I did actually. About a month and a half after the movie opened, I was invited to go to the Disabled American Veterans [DAV] convention. This is a giant military support organization completely and totally devoted to injured veterans. At that time there were 1.5 million members, and these are all wounded veterans that are members. They invited me to come, and they presented me with an award for playing Lieutenant Dan, and I didn’t know what to expect when I went there. I didn’t know much about the DAV. I’d done some studying up on what it might be like to have a double amputation, be missing both legs. I did a little bit of research to get ready for that part of the role, but I hadn’t spent a lot of time with wounded veterans up until that point; compared to now where I’ve just spent countless hours. So, I had not had a lot of interactions with wounded veterans before this National Convention, and there’s 2,000 injured veterans in there giving me an ovation for playing what they considered to be a wounded veteran in a positive way.

Why do you think people connected so much to Lieutenant Dan?

If you look at the story of Lieutenant Dan, it’s a very positive story. He goes through all the natural despair and anguish, and heartbreak and confusion, and loss and guilt, and everything that he’s going through. He drinks himself under the table, he’s in a wheelchair and he secludes himself. I mean, what he’s dealing with is a lot of post-traumatic stress. He’s not only angry at Forrest Gump for rescuing him, because he felt like he should have died; he walked his men into an ambush in the jungle, and he felt responsible for getting his men wounded and killed. And then he loses his legs, and he’s angry and cast out as a Vietnam veteran ... things aren’t going well for him. Forrest Gump runs into him, in this seedy old room in a New York building, kind of a pretty cheap place, and he’s just barely making it. And all these years he’s wished that hadn’t happened, he didn’t want to be an injured veteran, he always wanted to be a military guy, and that got taken away from him. And by the end of the story, he’s kind of forgiven himself. He forgives Forrest, he thanks Forrest for saving his life. He’s at peace at the end. And what happens at the end of the story with Lieutenant Dan? He pulls up in a limousine and he’s a successful businessman, and he’s walking on new legs, he’s clean-cut looking and he’s married. He’s moving on with his life; things are very positive. And so, the members of the DAV invited me to come to their convention, because a story about a wounded veteran, especially a Vietnam veteran, had never been told like that before. There had never been a story that ended so positively for a wounded veteran as did the Lieutenant Dan story in Forrest Gump.

DAV wanted to recognize that. And I was humbled and honored and choked up. And that began my relationship with them, which has lasted well over 20 years, nearly 25 now. And it also planted the early seeds of what would develop to a full-time commitment to support our wounded veterans, now through my foundation. We do all kinds of positive things to support men and women who have been injured in battle, trying to provide various services for them.

The Gary Sinise Foundation has had a huge effect on the lives of many wounded veterans. Can you give us an idea of what kind of impact something like improving mobility has on a wounded veteran’s life?

Well, if you are missing your legs, your arms, all four limbs ... If you have a traumatic brain injury that prohibits you from taking care of yourself, if you have severe burns, if you’re blind ... you are going to have challenges for the rest of your life. And in some cases, when you are severely wounded like that, you become dependent on somebody else to assist you, to make things okay for you. And what we try to do through my foundation, through our home building efforts, through our mobility devices, specially adapted wheelchairs, specially adapted vehicles [that] somebody missing limbs can drive, all these things, is to empower the individual again to be more independent.

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These are people that prior to their injuries were used to taking care of themselves. Yeah, they take orders and this and that, but you know, they’re strong, they’re physically fit, and they’re mentally fit. They are tested all the time, and they rise to the challenge, and they take care of themselves, and they take care of their families. When they are injured, severely like this, all of a sudden they have to be taken care of, and that is disheartening, that is mentally stressful for an individual, especially if that individual has kids and a wife. All of a sudden, now the wife is not only taking care of the kids, and trying to make sure that they’re okay, but now the wife has to assist the physical needs of the injured soldier. And that can be very disheartening for somebody who’s used to being the provider. You know, when we provide these smart technology houses, for example, we put all kinds of things into these homes that will allow the service member who is injured to better care for themselves.

Let’s say you’re stuck in this little house that you’ve rented and there is carpeting all over the floor and you’re confined to a wheelchair, and you can’t get into your closet because the doorways are too thin, and if you do get into your closet, you can’t reach up to get your clothes because the hanging rack is too high up there. And so things have to be adapted, and you either need to have somebody come in and remodel your existing home, which we do - we also do refurbishing on existing homes - or we build these houses from the ground up, and we specifically take into consideration the needs of every individual that we build for. And every one is different. But to be able to get into the bathroom, and get into the shower yourself, rather than having somebody else help you with the shower, and manoeuvre around the sink, and all these different things ... It can be empowering, and all of a sudden self-respect comes back to that person who’s been limited because of his or her service to our country. They served, they got blown up, they got wounded, and they got things taken away from them. The Gary Sinise Foundation [has] many programs [that] can provide them a service that empowers them and gives them their self-respect, their dignity, their strength, all of that. It gives that back to them. Then we’ve done something for our country, we’ve helped that service member move on with life, look forward instead of looking back. And that’s a good feeling to be able to do that.

There’s a lot of wounded vets, and obviously, you can’t help every single person. How does the foundation determine who’s going to be supported?

In the beginning, when I first started doing this, I used to meet these folks at the hospital, and then we would, you know, get to know them and offer them the opportunity to have a home built or something like that. In fact, the first ... I got into home building back in 2009 and 2010. The first soldier to survive a quadruple amputation, meaning he got both his legs and both his arms blown off and he survived, his name is Brendan Marrocco. I knew some firefighters in New York; I had helped them after 9/11, to build a memorial there and raise some money for some New York fire family foundations there. And I happened to be shooting an episode of CSI: New York when I was there. And the commissioner of the fire department came and talked to me about the soldier Brendan Marrocco, who was from Staten Island, and how they wanted to try and build him a house on Staten Island. You know, I’d seen Brendan six months before at Walter Reed (The Walter Reed Army Medical Center). So, I knew exactly who he was talking about, and I offered to do a concert to raise money for Brendan. And then we had another marine who came into the hospital not too long after that, and he was blown up, missing both his arms and both his legs, his name was Marine Corporal Todd Nicely, and so I offered to raise money with a concert for Todd. And that began this focus on home building. We’ve had five survived quadruple amputees; five guys who had both their legs and both their arms blown off and they all survived. We are completing a house for the 5th quadruple amputee; his name is Taylor Morris. So, we will have built homes for all five quadruple amputees. Taylor got blown up back in 2012, but he’s been holding out for this piece of land that he wanted for years now. And we finally made the deal on the land, and we raised a bunch of money for him a while back, and held that money until we could make this deal on the land, we were able to do that. Now his house is almost complete and he and his wife, Danielle, will finally move in.

And so the home building stuff began addressing the needs of the guys who [had] lost both arms and both legs. And then we started building homes for triple amputees, many of them. We built homes for double amputees, traumatic brain injuries, guys that can’t take care of themselves at all because of their brain injuries. They are totally dependent on somebody helping them. We try to provide things in the homes ... If you go to our website, you can go to our YouTube channel and see dozens of videos. It’ll show you the houses, and show you some of the difficulties that some of our guys have. It’ll show you some of the special equipment that we put into the homes for the families to be able to assist these people better. You know, it really can relieve the stress when all of a sudden, you can get around your house, and you can see your service member kind of push a button and make things happen that he wouldn’t have been able to do in a house that was not specifically designed for him.

It’s amazing, the spirit of the people who come through such tragedy and loss...

Oh yeah, it’s very very ... I’ve been inspired thousands of times. I’ve met so many people in the military over the years. Some of my best friends are in the service. I’ve been inspired by just countless individuals who power through. If you go to our program page and you look at our Rise program, and you click on “Meet Our Heroes,” you can see almost 70 guys on there that we have built houses for, or that are in the process of getting a home. Very moving, powerful stuff.

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I’ve had a lot of things in my life, I’ve had a lot of good fortune in my career and to take that and just push it towards people who need a little help ... and we’re able to do that. I will say this, over the years, you know, I was the first donor of my foundation, I put in the start-up money and everything else at the beginning. But it was always my hope that our fellow citizens would see that we were a trusted way, a reliable way, to support the men and women who serve our country, and then they would support us in our work doing that. And so now we have over 40,000 donors. We have multiple companies that come in and help us build these houses. You know, we have to raise a certain amount of cash for each one of the houses, but we have a lot of great sponsors who will donate the floors and will donate the plumbing and the roofing, all the smart technology and all these different things. Great, wonderful organizations, people who just care about the troops and they want to do something they saw Gary Sinise doing it, and they said: “That sounds good to me, we’re gonna go support that.”

The foundation has an initiative called Education and Outreach. What is that all about?

I always wanted to try and provide opportunities to educate our fellow citizens about military service, about sacrifice, about character. To inspire folks to, you know, that you can do something too and all that. We have various ways that we do that, one of them is we built the Center for Education and Outreach at the Gary Sinise Foundation. Last week we had a group of firefighters in there who were educating military veterans about the fire service, and the possibility that perhaps, once one is done with the military, going into the fire service would be a next great step. We’ve had World War II veterans in the Center for Education and Outreach with high school students, imparting their wisdom about what the cost of freedom was, you know, 70 some years ago. The price that was paid for that, and the residual effects of the outcome of that war that each one of these students lives today.

I mean, just imagine if Hitler and Mussolini and Hirohito, if [that] axis of powers would have been the victor instead of the Allied powers. All of us, everyone in the world would be living in a different way if we were under the Thousand Year Reich. You know, fascist Italy would have become a superpower or something like that. So, we are all the beneficiaries of the sacrifices that have been made by so many, not only great American heroes or western heroes, including our Canadian pals. There were so many sacrifices made during World War II that we all benefit from, all these years ago. I don’t think we can ever stress enough for high school students that freedom is very precious. It’s not something that we all get to just have, somebody usually has to fight for it.

What’s going on with Gary Sinise outside of the foundation?

I’m spending all my time on the foundation [now]. We finished shooting Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders in December of 2016 ... You know, I’ve had great success, I was on television for nine years with CSI: New York and then another two years with Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders. 11 years on television has allowed me the opportunity to do some wonderful things. It has really provided me with great security for my family, and also the financial means to do something good. So, right now, I am very, very satisfied. I mean, over the years, my team added this up the other day, [I’ve done] over 400 concerts since 2003. And that’s all part of my mission work; I don’t get paid for playing music, it’s something I do for the troops. The band I have (Lt. Dan Band) is something that I started to play for the military. Well, we have a few other concerts here and there, but the majority, 95% of the concerts, are devoted to the military. Either with the USO, or we’ve done many fundraising concerts - just donate the band to raise money to build a house. I can call up a military base and say, I have this date [available, do] you want a concert? 99% of the time they’ll say yes. And we offer the concert so that we can come and deliver a message of support and appreciation and give them a little bit of fun. That’s the blessing of the American people supporting my foundation, allowing me to direct their generosity to the right places.

For more information on the Gary Sinise Foundation visit: www.garysinisefoundation.org
YouTube Channel: www.youtube.com/channel/UCXpGxlBYagBuRkMLm0eMgxw

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