Actor/musician Gary Sinise and the Lt. Dan Band perform during CBS' 7th Annual Mid-Season Bash at CBS Studios - Radford on October 28, 2011 in Studio City, California. / Frederick M. Brown / Getty Images
When Gary Sinise and his Lt. Dan Band play this Veterans Day weekend — in the Salute to the Troops at Las Vegas’ Mandalay Bay Casino & Resort — it’s just one piece of the Oscar-nominated actor’s dedication to America’s military men and women. His foundation, garysinisefoundation.org, has raised millions for causes serving troops and their families. Sinise, 57, who appears weekly in TV’s CSI: NY, talks about his mission.
What drew you in? I have veterans on both sides of the family, so I have a great respect for them. I got personally involved with Vietnam Veterans groups in the early ’80s prior even to the [Vietnam] Wall being made and the mid-’80s catharsis that American had [after we] shamefully treated our Vietnam Vets very poorly. I began a program at my theater company [The Steppenwolf Theatre Company] that lives on to today. We call it “Vets night” where I started bringing Vietnam Veterans to our theater for a free meal and a free show.
I got involved with disabled veterans in the mid-’90s when I played a disabled veteran [Lt. Dan Taylor] in Forrest Gump and was contacted by the Disabled Veterans of America. [After 9/11] it was important to me to do what I can to make sure that what happened to our Vietnam veterans — this divided nation turning its back on them — didn’t happen again. I wanted to try to do what I could to make sure our current active duty troops knew they were appreciated and that there were people that were grateful for their service.
What needs to be done? A big priority is jobs for our returning veterans getting out of service. We have to take care of them because they’ve taken care of us. We certainly have needs with traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress. We have thousands of amputees who are going to have to live with their disability for the rest of their lives. And we don’t want them to fall through the cracks. There’s a lot of need.
How can civilians show appreciation? One thing I support is something called Military Appreciation Monday [Nov. 12, 4-9 p.m.], where any veteran anywhere at any Golden Corral can go in and get a free meal. I think every restaurant should do that just to celebrate and show our gratitude to men and women who have served our country. It’s not that much to ask to give somebody some free chicken but it means a lot to them. They can come in and say, “Hey, someone thought enough of me to buy me dinner.” I just do that automatically when I see people in uniform in a restaurant. It’s something that is a nice gesture, something that says “thank you.”
Is there any unit or soldier that you’ll be thinking of this Veteran’s Day? All of them. I have relationships with so many people in the military, it would be hard for me to single them out. I do a lot of work with our wounded; I know so many outstanding people in the military that I’ve met all over the world. I’ve been to the hospitals, I’ve seen our incredible military doctors and hospitals, just so many outstanding people and they don’t get a lot of credit, if something goes wrong they get blamed, if they’re not on the front pages, people tend to forget that we’re at war and each and every day we have somebody get killed and we have somebody gets hurt. I have a nephew that’s heading back to Afghanistan after the first of year and he’s been there once already.
What is the biggest misconception about our armed forces? It’s difficult if you don’t have a personal relationship with somebody who is serving or never have, you may have a perception of the military as being something that someone does when they can’t do something else. Certainly, there are small towns all over America where the best option that somebody has is going into the service because it provides you a skill, it teaches you discipline, it trains you for various vocations. But somebody who has never met anybody in the military or has a family member who served may not understand what the military does or why the military is necessary. It’s like if your house is burning down you want the fire department to show up and if your country is in trouble on a national security level you want the military to be strong and to be able to defend the country.
If you just pay attention to the world these days, it’s a very volatile and dangerous world and things can go haywire. The United States is a leader of the free world and that’s who we are, and a big part of that is being able to deploy our military to various parts of the world when we need to. That’s not only for combat. Who do you call if there’s a typhoon or a hurricane or tsunami or an earthquake? You want the United States navy to show up off your shores and start sending the helicopters in.
Is there a patriotic song/video/image that without fail makes you tear up, feel emotional without fail? God Bless the USA is one that never fails. We play it on military bases for military charities all over the world. The audience sings a long with that song and they cry to that song. It’s one song they connect to very well and one song that brings a lot of people together at the end of our show. Lee Greenwood, he wrote a great song, that’s a classic patriotic song.
When you meet with the active duty soldiers, the wounded, the veterans what strikes you most about them? I’ve met many guys who are just resilient and ready to power through that and move on with their life. It’s going to be a challenge if you’ve got no arms and life and your used to being a strong solider type person whose very physical and very active, you have to find other ways to challenge yourself and keep you strong both mentally and physically. I’ve seen a lot of those guys ready to move forward with their lives. It’s pretty humbling and inspiring at times. It keeps me motivated to go on and keep doing what I’m doing.
What do the soldiers tell you when you meet them or after you perform for them? I’ve heard all kinds of things. People want to thank me for coming and returning as often as I do. My mission is to come out and thank them and to make sure that they know that people are grateful and appreciate what they do. They do it without any fanfare. They’re not asking for much and they don’t get paid much and they do a dangerous job and they go where they are told by the Commander In Chief and the Generals and they do their job over and over.