Actor Gary Sinise has spent years entertaining U.S. servicemen with his Lt. Dan Band, named after the wounded Vietnam veteran he played in “Forrest Gump.”
Then in 2001 the Blue Island, Illinois, native started a foundation to aid severely disabled war veterans and Sept. 11 first responders. Its work includes aiding nonprofits that provide scholarships to Navy and Marine children, counseling veterans and building $500,000 smart homes for amputees.
Sinise, 58, who played Detective Mac Taylor on CBS’s “Crime Scene Investigation: New York,” for nine years, talked to me about his charitable work over lunch at Bloomberg News headquarters:
Cole: Why do veterans still relate to your Lt. Dan character.
Sinise: I realized early on that character was more than just a funny guy in a movie. He was resonating for a portion of our population in a different way.
He was a character who wanted to serve, wanted to be a military leader, and that was taken away when he got injured. At the end of the story, he’s standing up, he has a positive, hopeful ending. I don’t think the Vietnam veteran had been portrayed in that way before -- as someone who could get beyond the injuries.
Cole: How did you begin connecting with veterans?
Sinise: I have veterans in my family and on my wife’s side of the family, so I’ve grown up around veterans. I got involved with veterans groups back in the ’80s. Then I played one (in “Forrest Gump”) in the ’90s and then got involved with disabled veterans.
Cole: Your commitment has increased in the past dozen years.
Sinise: After Sept. 11th, I felt that there was a role for me to play in supporting our active-duty personnel when they were deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Cole: At the same time, you were shooting “CSI: NY.”
Sinise: It was difficult to manage the shooting of the show and the traveling on the weekends, but there was a lot of need out there.
Cole: Can foundations like yours make a difference?
Sinise: Without these strong foundations and nongovernment organizations, we’d have many veterans falling through the cracks. We still have many falling through the cracks.
Cole: Has the public’s outlook on veterans improved?
Sinise: Here the media and corporations and the general public have taken a different attitude toward the service member. We did learn some hard lessons from Vietnam, so people do tend to treat the veteran better. On the other hand, if you’re not in the papers, if you’re not on the front pages, life goes on, and we kind of forget the residual effects of what we’ve asked this military to do over the last dozen years.
Cole: How do you decide which veterans need help?
Sinise: I’ll go into a community like Cedar Falls, Iowa, or Marietta, Ohio. We want to go to that small community, to ensure that the veteran knows he’s a local hero.
Cole: Your foundation has helped build $500,000 “smart” homes for amputees and severely disabled veterans. How did that start?
Sinise: Sal Cassano, the commissioner of the New York Fire Department, came to me in 2009 and said they wanted to build a home for a Staten Island kid who had lost both his arms and both his legs. He was the first surviving quarduple amputee in the Iraq war.
We did a concert on Staten Island to raise money and built him a home that has an elevator and a lot of smart technology.
Then another kid, a Marine, came in with the same injury. So I said let’s do another concert. That began what has become a 2-year, 26-project effort to build homes for quadruple, triple amputees and very, very severely wounded warriors.
Cole: What’s the state of medical treatment of veterans in general?
Sinise: We’re finding that techniques of survival are better, the equipment is better, but the traumatic brain injuries we’re seeing now are much greater. You might survive a blast, but your brain is rattled. We’re finding a lot of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Cole: How can the public help veterans?
Sinise: I always say first start in your town. Find out who the veterans are, find out who the families are, who are the military families.
There are militaries all over the world that take away your freedom, that oppress you, that support the dictator and scare the crap out of you. Our military is here as freedom providers and they respond when this nation is in jeopardy.
(Patrick Cole is a reporter for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)
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