By Brady Rhoades
When the inaugural issue of U.S. Veterans Magazine hit the stands — and the internet — Gary Sinise was on the cover.
He’s back, and for good reason.
Sinise, best known as Lt. Dan in the movie Forrest Gump, has devoted his life to serving veterans.
What’s the author of the New York Times best-selling Grateful American: A Journey from Self to Service have to say 10 years down the road?
“I’ve been honored to be featured, and it’s an honor and a pleasure to be featured again,” he said. “I did not serve. One way I can serve is by shining a light on those who do serve. U.S. Veterans Magazine does that.”
The 67-year-old husband and father of three has been busy for the past couple of years. He continues supporting veterans through the Gary Sinise Foundation, and the Illinois native moved from California to Nashville, Tenn.
“I was looking for a change, and there are so many veterans groups from that part of the country,” he said, adding that his foundation — which supports veterans and their families by building homes for wounded warriors (as part of its R.I.S.E. program), hosting day-long festivals at military medical bases and serving meals to deploying troops — is in its 11th year. “We’re poised and positive to do so much of service to the men and women of our military.”
He said he’s looking forward to Veterans Day and a salute to veterans ceremony at the National World War II museum in New Orleans, La. That week, he’ll be giving away another house to a wounded veteran, as well.
When Forrest Gump first played in theaters in 1994, Lt. Dan — Gump’s no-nonsense platoon leader in Vietnam — resonated with veterans, especially those who served in Vietnam. One oft-cited scene, which critics have called a classic in American film, involves Lt. Dan climbing to the top of the mast on Gump’s shrimping boat during a lashing storm, shaking his fist and hollering at God.
“Never once did he think that either one was going to happen, that he was going to lose his legs and also suffer PTSD and tremendous guilt,” Sinise said. “This is not an uncommon thing, and then he isolates, drowning himself in alcohol and drugs.
“That scene is an absolute metaphor for wrestling those demons… That was the story of many Vietnam veterans.
“And he wins. It’s the story of a Vietnam vet that we hadn’t seen before.”
After the storm, Lt. Dan is seen floating on his back in the calm waters of Bayou La Batre. Later, at Gump’s wedding, he shows up with what Gump calls “magic legs.” Lt. Dan has received prosthetics. He is newly married and clearly sober and happy.
Sinise, a rock and roller from the Chicago area (he’s a lifelong Bears and Cubs fan), didn’t anticipate the attention that would come his way.
But it did, and quickly.
It was a pivot point in Sinise’s life. He said he was so deeply moved that he felt compelled to turn his emotions into action.
Around the turn of the new century, that’s what he did. One strategy he employed was to introduce himself as Lt. Dan when trying to make inroads with organizations.
“They’d patch me right through,” he joked in an earlier interview.
In time, the bass player formed the Lt. Dan Band, which has put on more than 500 concerts for veterans who get to revel for a few hours in the 13-member group’s covers of Adele, Stevie Wonder, Bruno Mars, Charlie Daniels and others.
Said one Marine, who asked to remain anonymous for privacy reasons: “Upon returning from my first tour in Afghanistan, the loss of more brothers than I’d like to remember was taking its toll. I saw a poster that the Lt. Dan Band was performing in my area and decided to attend. I like to believe that one show kept me from doing the unthinkable. Thank you for all you do.”
Sinise’s work on behalf of the military is described in detail in Grateful American, which includes, Sinise said, “hilarious things about my childhood.”
Mostly, it’s about his transformation.
“The book continues to sell three years later,” he said. “It’s an interesting journey from self to service.”
None other than Clint Eastwood said about the 254-pager: “The book is called Grateful American, and I promise you after you read it, you will be grateful for what Gary has accomplished and contributed to our country.”
Forrest Gump won Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director (Robert Zemeckis) and Best Actor (Tom Hanks). Hanks and Sinise went on to team up in two other classics, Apollo 13 and The Green Mile.
“We hit it off,” Sinise said.
Hanks has joined Sinise on several occasions in efforts to benefit veterans.
“Tom’s been a good supporter of mine and what I’m trying to do,” Sinise said.
Sinise has also starred in Of Mice and Men (which he directed), Reindeer Games, Snake Eyes, Ransom, Mission to Mars, The Stand and Impostor.
In 2004, he began his first regular television series with the crime drama CSI: New York, in which he played Detective Mac Taylor. He was credited as a producer from season two onward and wrote the storyline of an episode.
In 2008, he was the narrator for the Discovery Channel’s miniseries, When We Left Earth.
Sinise was the executive producer — along with David Scantling — of the Iraq War documentary Brothers at War. The film features an American military family and the experiences of three brothers.
In 2009, Sinise narrated the highly acclaimed World War II in HD on the History Channel. In 2010, he narrated the World War II documentary, Missions That Changed the War on the Military Channel.
He has been honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and with the Presidential Citizen Medal — given to him by President George W. Bush for helping the military and Iraqi children.
But for all his fame and accolades, Sinise is that rare celebrity whose off-screen work might turn out to be his greatest legacy.
His foundation faced a major challenge when the United States withdrew from Afghanistan in 2021, ending the longest war in American history.
“That was a tragic withdrawal,” he said. “To watch the Taliban raise their flag was difficult for our military members to watch… We found ourselves reaching out to a lot of Afghanistan veterans and letting them know they have our support.”
The impact of Sinise’s foundation (garysinisefoundation.org) on the lives of veterans, first responders and their families is evident in the math.
To date, the foundation has built, modified or retrofitted 77 homes for severely-wounded heroes, dished out 771,144 meals to the nation’s defenders, donated 12,020 pieces of essential equipment to the military and first responders and provided supportive experiences and resources to 11,181 children of fallen servicemen and women.
“It is upon us to give back to our heroes to ensure they have the tools and resources to deal with their physical and invisible wounds,” he said. “It’s up to us to give them comfort. To give them support. To give them hope. I believe while we can never do enough for our nation’s defenders and the families who sacrifice alongside them, we can always do a little more.”