North County Times: Actor Gary Sinise as "the new Bob Hope": Advocate for wounded troops performing at Naval Medical Center San Diego

By Gretel C. Kovach | North County Times | | October 19, 2012

Some of actor Gary Sinise's most memorable roles have been public servants injured in the line of fire who found solace in the healing power of relationships.

As Lt. Dan in the 1994 movie "Forrest Gump," he played an angry Vietnam War veteran whose friendship with the title character helps him make peace with life as a double amputee. In the television series "CSI: NY," Sinise is a police detective who leans on his girlfriend to recover from a gunshot wound.

His interactions with real-life men and women on the front lines or struggling at home to overcome disability inspired another major role – globe-trotting fundraiser, entertainer and advocate for military and law enforcement personnel.

Lt. Dan Band
Lt. Dan Band, featuring Gary Sinise, center performing Oct. 28, 2011. Credit: Amy Kris

On Saturday, the 57-year-old actor from Los Angeles and his "Lt. Dan Band" will jam at a party for service members in treatment at Naval Medical Center San Diego. The event caps a weeklong observation of the five-year anniversary of C5, the medical center's Comprehensive Combat and Complex Casualty Care rehabilitation program.

Sinise said he has great respect for veterans, beginning with those in his family. He became involved with Vietnam War veterans in the 1980s in Chicago, long before his Academy Award-nominated supporting role alongside Tom Hanks.

"Along came Sept. 11th and we started deploying our troops to Afghanistan and Iraq. They started getting hurt and killed. There was a role I could play, I felt, in supporting them," Sinise said. "I started volunteering to visit and go overseas to the hospitals and doing what I could to show my appreciation for what they were doing, trying to give back to them as an entertainer."

He went on his first handshake tour with the USO in 2003 to Iraq and later persuaded the private service organization to let him bring his band. Since then he has helped raise millions of dollars through the Gary Sinise Foundation and other organizations.

As he continues his day job on "CSI: NY," Sinise and the Lt. Dan Band spend most weekends on the road. They have performed for hundreds of thousands of troops at military installations and treatment facilities around the world, from Alaska to Guantanamo Bay, Iraq to Afghanistan, earning Sinise the title "the new Bob Hope."

Many disabled service members and veterans connect with his role in "Forrest Gump."

"I played a character who went through a lot of despair and anger, being catastrophically wounded," Sinise said. "But at the end of the story, he is standing up and moving on with his life. I've met many real-life Lt. Dans out there."

Sinise is national spokesman for The American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial, a monument to the 3 million disabled U.S. veterans that broke ground in 2010. He has narrated Army recruitment ads, public service announcements for suicide prevention in the military and military history TV shows. His advocacy work with the Lt. Dan band has been the subject of more than one documentary and a "60 Minutes" feature.

His performance Saturday will be the first time Sinise has played bass guitar with his band at the Balboa Park facility, but he has been a frequent visitor in recent years with military personnel in San Diego County.

The Gary Sinise Foundation works with the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation to raise money to build "smart" homes for disabled veterans. On Sept. 11, Cpl. Juan Dominguez, a former Camp Pendleton Marine who lost three limbs fighting with the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment in Sangin, Afghanistan, in 2010 received the keys to his Temecula home.

Sinise and the Lt. Dan band have also teamed with The Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund, a national organization based in Oceanside supporting wounded Marines and their families, for local events such as the Ride to the Flags motorcycle fundraiser.

"Gary Sinise not only gives his talent, but he gives his heart to our veterans in so very many ways," said Wendy Lethin, a Semper Fi Fund board member. "He brings communities together with outstanding music and the most compelling of missions – to support our service members" by raising money and awareness for veteran needs.

Plus they're amazing musicians, and you can't help but sing and dance along, she said.

John Dooley, president of USO San Diego, has seen Sinise perform at Camp Pendleton and in Washington, D.C. It doesn't surprise him that an acclaimed Hollywood actor would be so passionate about supporting the troops.

"We have a lot of very successful people in the United States who appreciate the environment of security provided by our military forces and want to give something back," Dooley said, and thanks to the unique 71-year relationship between the USO and the armed forces, civilians like Sinise have an outlet to do so.

Sinise said he gets as much back as he gives. He could draw on hundreds of examples. One fresh in his mind unfolded last month at the annual Tunnel to Towers run honoring Siller, a firefighter who humped his gear through the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel on Sept. 11, 2001, only to be killed by rubble from the World Trade Center.

Sinise watched Army Sgt. Adam Keys struggle to walk the 3½-mile course with prosthetic legs and canes. Each step was painful for Keys, who lost both legs and an arm in a roadside bomb blast in Afghanistan in 2010 and underwent more than 100 surgeries.

"Everybody was done almost by the time he finally made it through that tunnel," Sinise recalled. "But he did it."

One can't help but be inspired and humbled by the strength of spirit of wounded service members like Keys, Sinise said: "They are constantly trying to show us 'hey, life isn't over.'"

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