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AARP Purpose Prize Winner Gary Sinise: ‘Great Respect’ for Veterans Turns Into Full-Time Mission

The actor, who famously played Lt. Dan in ‘Forrest Gump,’ says he wants a happy ending for all veterans

spinner image Gary Sinise in a window office with an American flag visible behind him, along with a guitar painted like an American flag and many picture frames on a desk and bookshelf
Courtesy of Gary Sinise Foundation

Advocate and actor Gary Sinise has a long pedigree in the acting field, dating back to when he cofounded Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company at only 18 years old. While he has played a long list of characters over the years, there was one pivotal role — portraying Lieutenant Dan Taylor in the film Forrest Gump with Tom Hanks — that had a significant impact on Sinise personally and professionally, and took his life on a new path he never anticipated: creating a foundation to support veterans.​

Sinise is AARP’s honorary Purpose Prize Award winner for his founding and leadership of the Gary Sinise Foundation, which was formed in 2011. The Foundation honors military members, veterans, first responders, their families and those in need. It creates and supports unique programs designed to entertain, educate, inspire, strengthen and build communities. ​

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We spoke to Sinise, 68, shortly after the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks — which, coincidentally, became the catalyst for what would become an unforeseen life’s mission for the actor. ​

You are receiving this award for your work with the military and first responders, and you just celebrated a First Responder Appreciation Day event recently.

​As part of our Gary Sinise Foundation, we’ve done several of these events over the years, sometimes related to something that has happened, a fire, flood, hurricane or whatever. We roll in and try to back up the first responders who were responding to a particular event. This past weekend, it was revolving, of course, around the 22nd anniversary of September 11. We did a couple of different events, one in Charlotte, [North Carolina], and one in Erie, Pennsylvania.​

The foundation and your work with first responders and military has probably taken your life on a path that you never anticipated years ago.

There’s no question about it. There’s the pre-September 11 activities, and then there’s the post-September 11 activities, and I feel like some of the things that I was doing in the ’80s and ’90s were just a prerequisite, preparing me in some way for a broader mission of service that would take place after the attacks on our country on September 11, 2001. Could you predict where that was going to go? No, but nobody really saw that coming and what that would do to our country and what it would do to the men and women in uniform who responded to those attacks, and I just wanted to play a role in supporting them. With many veterans in my own family, I have great respect there, and I wanted to do something positive — and that turned into a full-time, full-on mission to go where the needs were and to raise money and to raise awareness and to create a foundation that could support people. ​​

As you know, veterans — especially Vietnam veterans in the past — sometimes didn’t get the support or the help that they needed.

That’s always been a great motivator for me, because it was probably more the Vietnam veterans on my wife’s side of the family that influenced me to try to give back. Once I met them back in the ’70s and ’80s, I really felt a need to do something to help our Vietnam veterans who weren’t getting the kind of support that they deserved.

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A lot of what motivates me today to try to take care of our active duty and first responders, the genesis for that is what happened when our Vietnam veterans came home, and they did not get the services they deserve for serving our country, and I didn’t want to see that happen again, to our Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. So I just started raising my hand where I could.​​

Obviously, not everyone can do it to the level that you are, but what would you want people to know about how they can support the military and veterans and first responders?

There are veterans and military families and communities all over this country. You never know when that military family may be experiencing something very difficult. Somebody’s deployed, or they’ve just lost somebody in military service, or they’re first responders in your area where a local firefighter loses their life trying to save somebody. All I did was just start taking action and reaching out and asking where I could help. You can reach out locally, to just support those folks, and let them know that what they do in service to our country – providing freedom and security and all that – matters to you.

​It could be anything, just wrapping your arms around somebody and listening to them, and telling them you care about them, and letting them know that you’re there for them. That can make a big difference. We have a very high suicide rate in the veteran community. That’s troublesome. You never know if your phone call or your pat on the back or your handshake might be the difference.

Video: How ‘Forrest Gump’ Changed Gary Sinise’s Destiny

Could you have ever imagined that this one role as Lieutenant Dan would have had such a life-changing impact for you — and for all the people that you have touched in some way?

Not at the time I was doing it. I knew it was a really good role. And I wanted to do it in honor of the Vietnam veterans in my own family. I wanted to portray a character honestly and tell a good story. And the story of Lieutenant Dan is a good story, because it’s a happy ending in the end. We really hadn’t seen that in films, regarding a Vietnam veteran. There were a lot of films that came out where you just wondered at the end of those stories if those Vietnam veterans were going to be OK. At the end of the Lieutenant Dan story, you know he’s good. So it did impact a lot of folks. Five weeks after the movie came out, I was invited to the Disabled American Veterans convention. They wanted to give me an award for playing Lieutenant Dan. There were over 2,000 veterans in the audience, and they were all wounded. And I can see that they were responding really positively to the story of a veteran who was wounded but who was OK in the end of the movie.​

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For years now I have been associated with that character. ... That’s a great story. It’s a great character. It’s the story that we want for every wounded veteran — we want them all to come home and be OK. So I just try to provide those opportunities at the Gary Sinise Foundation, and through our multiple partners and organizations that we team up with to try to give back to these folks, I just try to spread the word and make sure our veterans know where these services are provided.​

Forrest Gump will mark its 30th anniversary next year. Do you have any plans to celebrate in any way?

I’m usually playing a concert for the troops around July 4. Forrest Gump came out on July 6, 1994. So it’s likely I’ll be playing for the troops somewhere. [In February 2004, Sinise formed the Gary Sinise & the Lieutenant Dan Band, which performs dozens of shows each year, mostly at events benefiting the military or first responders.]​

You’ve taken a bit of a break from acting to focus more on your foundation, but do you have plans to devote more time to acting?

I’m actually in the middle of moving my family to Tennessee and getting us settled there. We’re moving from California to Tennessee. I’ve moved my foundation there. I’ve got a lot of foundation activities going on right now. But who knows? There’s one project that’s in development right now that I’ll be involved in down the road, but right now I’ve got a lot of things going on, a lot of good things going on, that I’ve gotta focus on.​​​

Gary Sinise writes a monthly column foAARP Veteran Report, a free email newsletter that features inspiring stories of service in uniform and practical information for veterans, their families and their supporters. Subscribe here.

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