Gary Sinise: Remembrance, Gratitude, Appreciation

By Jenny Peters

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For award-winning actor Gary Sinise, Hollywood success was only his life’s second act, following decades of being a teenage delinquent, garage band rocker, and struggling actor. It was his breakout role as wounded Vietnam soldier Lieutenant Dan Taylor in the 1994 hit Forrest Gump that made him a national name, confirmed by an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. After that, his career skyrocketed, with Emmy, SAG, and Golden Globe wins to follow for roles in film, television, and theater, like Mac Taylor on CSI: NY and Jack Garrett on Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders, and Ken Mattingly in Apollo 13. 

That time of coming of age, his years in Hollywood, and much more are chronicled in Sinise’s new autobiography, Grateful American: A Journey from Self to Service, published in February 2019 and a New York Times bestseller. Co-written with Marcus Brotherton over the course of a year, the book covers his life from conception (in D.C.’s Anacostia) to today, with much of the emphasis on his very personal shift in focus that began with his role as Lieutenant Dan and intensified in the aftermath of 9/11, leading to his life’s third act — supporting the men and women of the armed forces. 

“As I worked on the book,” Sinise recounts, “I realized the autobiography aspect of the book was really documenting how the movie business, how the theater business, how the acting career focus started to evolve into something different later on. That was post-September 11, after I’d achieved a certain amount of success and wanted to push into a more service-oriented focus in my life. That’s why the subtitle of the book is ‘A Journey from Self to Service.’”

As with so many Americans, the attacks of that horrible day left a significant impact on Sinise. “September 11 was a big turning point in my life,” he recalls. “I called the chapter in the book, when I talk about that event and what happened afterward, ‘Turning Point,’ because it really was a moment where something shifted completely in what I wanted to do and what I wanted to focus on. Having veterans in my family, both my side of the family and my wife’s side, and having met such extraordinary people serving our country, I just knew after September 11 that there was a place for me in helping to support these folks.”

For years prior to that American tragedy, Sinise was already moving toward the place he is today, at the epicenter of a wide range of initiatives designed to support and honor American servicemen and women. Since playing Lieutenant Dan, the actor has been devoting even more time to supporting active-service troops and veterans, going on USO tours — during which he started the Lt. Dan Band with a group of Chicago friends and musicians to entertain the troops — working with the Disabled American Veterans Charity organization and others, and, in 2011, establishing the Gary Sinise Foundation.

To achieve the foundation’s goals of “honoring our defenders, veterans, first responders, their families and those in need,” Sinise and his partners are working to create and support unique programs “designed to entertain, educate, inspire, strengthen and build communities.” As Sinise explains in Grateful American, the foundation uses a multi-pronged attack to address the issues of American veterans and first responders. These include programs like R.I.S.E. (Restoring Independence Supporting Empowerment), which builds “specially adapted smart homes for our most wounded heroes.” Fifty-five mortgage-free homes have been built so far, and many other houses and vehicles have been modified to meet specific needs.

Another program, Relief + Resiliency, offers more support for military families — before, during, and after the battle — in a variety of ways, including several special events. This includes the Snowball Express program, for children of fallen soldiers and their surviving parent or guardian. “Snowball Express was started by a couple of veterans, a couple of guys who just wanted to do something for the children of our fallen heroes. They thought, ‘Well, let’s see if we can figure out a way to get a bunch of these kids to Disneyland.’ And so, in 2006, they rallied some support and they brought almost 800 kids there for four days,” Sinise remembers.

Sinise got involved in 2007 and soon brought the whole organization into the foundation as a program under its umbrella. “With my having a great relationship with Disney,” he remembers, “We were able to make a nice arrangement to take all the kids and families down to Disney World right before Christmas in 2018 — more than 1,700 of them — for four days. It’s a great way for these children who have lost a parent to meet each other. We give them a lot of joy and a lot of love and a lot of fun,” he says. “They do a lot of healing because they’re meeting a lot of other kids that are going through the same thing.”

Other events hosted and organized by the foundation include The Invincible Spirit Festivals, which welcome wounded servicemen and -women and their families. It’s here that Sinise finds yet more motivation for his cause. “I would see very, very badly wounded folks, but yet they were pushing forward in their lives, trying to do great things, not letting their injuries get them down, and that would always be inspirational to me.” At Concerts for Defenders, led by the 13-piece Lt. Dan Band and held in different locations around the country, the bass-playing Sinise brings both cheers and tribute to those who serve to protect our freedom, security, and well-being.

Perhaps the best evidence of the foundation’s success is its ever-growing size. Sinise began the work with one collaborator and his own personal investment of time and money; today, the foundation boasts 26 ambassadors representing the foundation, has over 50,000 donors and is a $30M organization. “The foundation has grown relatively rapidly because of our successes,” Sinise reflects. “The donors see the work on building specialty designed homes for our wounded and all the different programs that we’re involved in. They’ve seen the people. They’ve gotten to know the people who we’re helping. Now we’re able to impact a lot more people.”

Clearly Sinise is a man constantly on the move, with and beyond his work with his foundation, but he constantly returns to Washington, D.C. and will be in the nation’s capital again on May 26 to co-host live the 30th Annual National Memorial Day Concert at the Capitol with friend and fellow award-winning actor, Joe Mantegna. That’s a gig they have shared for more than a decade, and one of Sinise’s favorites every year.

“In 2005 my buddy Joe contacted me and invited me to become a part of a USO segment on the Memorial Day Concert in D.C.,” Sinise says with a chuckle. “I’d been very, very busy with doing USO concerts and events. We’d gotten my band ramped up and really rocking in 2003, doing all kinds of things for the troops. In 2005, we flew right to Washington, D.C., after a seven-show USO tour across Europe — it was something! We were playing for decent-sized crowds for the USO, and then there we were on stage at the Capitol, in front of 200,000 people, with 10 million watching the show on television. That was a very, very special and moving day.”

And thus a tradition was born, as Sinise and Mantegna continue to play hosts. This year’s show features performances by Patti LaBelle, Alison Krauss, and Justin Moore, with Sam Elliott and Jaina Lee Ortiz lending a helping hand, too. Aired live from the West Lawn of the Capitol on PBS beginning at 8 pm EST on May 26, the concert also brings to the stage the National Symphony Orchestra, the U.S. Army Herald Trumpets, the U.S. Army Chorus and Army Voices, the U.S. Navy Band Sea Chanters, the U.S. Air Force Singing Sergeants, the Soldiers’ Chorus of the United States Army Field Band, as well as special tributes to America’s fallen heroes.

“The show is a wonderful way to spend Memorial Day, and a great show that furthers this message that I’m delivering all the time,” Sinise reflects, “the message of remembrance, appreciation, and gratitude, as well as paying tribute to the men and women who’ve served our country, and their families.

Fans of Gary Sinise the actor will be comforted to hear that this compelling third act of his life, filled with giving back and service to others, doesn’t preclude his continuing with his chosen profession, and the 64-year-old thespian has no plans to stop acting. He was in a supporting role in the 2019 film SGT. Will Gardner, about Iraq War veteran Will Gardner who returns home suffering from a traumatic brain injury and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) sustained in combat. 

And there’s more on the horizon for this consummate performer. “In fact, I’ve got a couple of things I may be doing this year,” Sinise says, “just smaller things with friends of mine who want me to be involved in their projects. And something may very well come along — like another television series or something like that — that’ll be of interest.” It just takes the right fit. “There’s a great chapter in my book called “Perfect Timing.” It was about CSI New York and how the timing of getting that television series and the nine years that it lasted was perfect because it just fit my life and what I wanted to do at that point.” As for the future, Sinise considers, “I can play great-grandfathers, as long as I can keep going and remember my lines.” 

Right now, Sinise is happy to take the time to do some other types of things that have become very important to him, especially being with his family — Moira, his wife of forty years, their three children, and two granddaughters. As he candidly reveals in Grateful American, his home life hasn’t always been picture perfect, but these days their challenges are more physical than emotional. 

“My dad had a stroke a couple of years ago, and he has special needs, so I’m trying to be home more, to help the family out here,” Sinise reveals. He too, had a scary brush with death in 2012, while in Washington, D.C. to do a charity concert with his band, as a car rear-ended the vehicle he was traveling in. “I woke up in the emergency room. I never saw it coming. I had a fracture in my neck and a concussion. Thankfully, I woke up. It could have all been gone, and I wouldn’t have known the difference.”

Fully recovered today, Gary Sinise certainly values his health and the blessings that life has bestowed on him and hopes to keep paying it forward to others for as long as he can. “The blessing here is that I have had some success and that I can take that success and do something positive for other people with it. At the back of my book, you’ll see a call to action. I decided to list a number of these organizations and efforts that I’ve been involved with in the years prior to the creation of my foundation because they were important catalysts to me. 
Anything I can do to shine a spotlight on their work, help them raise more money, help raise more awareness for them, I want to do.”