Forrest Gump is one of those movies that continues to make a lasting impression on audiences, generation after generation. For Gary Sinise, the actor who played Lieutenant Dan, platoon leader and wounded companion to Tom Hanks' titular character, the role sparked a passion that transcended acting: honoring and supporting veterans, first responders and their families.
“When I started going into the hospital after playing Lieutenant Dan in Forrest Gump and visiting with people that were actually blown up — not pretend like I was in the movie — I was more interested in talking to them about this story of Lieutenant Dan's life after his injury," Sinise said. "To get to that place where they can move beyond their injuries.”
In 2011, the actor founded the Gary Sinise Foundation, a non-profit organization focused on giving back to those who sacrificed for the country. Since its creation, the charity has built 74 specially adapted smart homes for wounded heroes, served over half a million meals and provided over 300 relief grants to first responders, among many other programs.
A home fit for a hero
Shortly after creating the foundation, Sinise met Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Jason Ross, a double amputee recovering from an improvised explosive device (IED) blast in Afghanistan. At the time, Jason was one of the most severely injured servicemembers to have survived such an encounter.
When Sinise met Jason, he recalled being taken aback by the extent of his injuries.
“I looked at Jason and I recall I said, ‘Well, you are a miracle,’” said Sinise.
Jason's father, Gary Ross, recalled the doctors explaining that his son’s recovery process was going to take a long time and that he would require a lot of help.
“That's when I effectively recognized that I was going to be his caregiver,” said Gary.
The family was then approached by Sinise about building a smart home to aid in Jason’s recovery.
“One of the things we do is build these specially adapted smart technology homes for very badly wounded folks that might not be able to do that for themselves,” said Sinise. “We wanted to support Jason and his recovery and moving forward and to take the stress away”
By 2015, the home’s construction was complete and Jason was able to move in with his wife and parents.
The foundation made sure that everything was built specifically to accommodate his injuries. Since hallways were notoriously difficult for him to navigate in a wheelchair the home’s halls were made wider, the bathrooms have space for him to turn around and the counters were leveled so both Jason and his older parents could utilize them.
“The ability to have a home that he can move around and can get himself from one place to the next, and I don't have to worry about it, was very much a great godsend to us,” said Gary.
Sinise added, “[Jason] has inspired me. He has motivated me and people like Jason are the reason I started the Gary Sinise Foundation. I just want them to have a happy life going forward and to know that their service meant something.”
Visit the Gary Sinise Foundation website to learn how to get involved and support its mission.
This is the first episode from AARP Studios’ new documentary series, Reporting for Duty. Each month you can expect a new inspirational story about veterans and military families at YouTube.com/AARP.
Aaron Kassraie writes about issues important to military veterans and their families for AARP. He also serves as a general assignment reporter. Kassraie previously covered U.S. foreign policy as a correspondent for the Kuwait News Agency’s Washington bureau and worked in news gathering for USA Today and Al Jazeera English.