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Gary Sinise Salutes Our Combat Wounded

We should give everything possible back to our heroic veterans who have sacrificed so much for us


spinner image gary sinise, wearing a dark blue suit, and veteran travis mills, wearing a gray polo and dark shorts, pose with five military members in dress whites
Through his foundation, Gary Sinise has been able to meet and help wounded veterans.
Jerod Harris/WireImage/Getty Images

I will never forget the first time I met Travis Mills. It was 2012 at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center just outside Washington, D.C. Travis, a U.S. Army staff sergeant had just been in Afghanistan for his third deployment when he removed his backpack, put it down on the ground and set off an improvised explosive device (IED). 

spinner image closeup of a rusty dog tag with the text thank you veterans engraved in it, next to a flag of the United States

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Travis had lost both legs above the knee, his right arm below the shoulder and his left arm below the elbow, leaving him a quadruple amputee. Yet, when I first met him, he wasn’t feeling sorry for himself. His sense of humor was engaging, and I was humbled to be with him. A wonderful, inspirational guy, he was pressing on in his recovery, taking each day as it came, determined to live a good and meaningful life.

In the 11 years since then, Travis has made good on his promise. His is the story that we want for everybody who is wounded while serving our country. We want them to be OK, and we pledge to walk alongside them to ease their burdens. 

On Aug. 7, National Purple Heart Day, we honor the brave service men and women like Travis Mills who have been wounded in the line of duty. And we redouble our efforts to give everything possible back, so their journey forward is filled with support and hope. 

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The story of Travis Mills is similar to that of Lt. Dan Taylor, the fictional hero I played in the 1994 movie Forrest Gump. It was a role that changed my life.

I got so many letters from Vietnam veterans and people reaching out to me who were moved by the story of Lt. Dan. Many from service members who had been wounded in combat.

The Disabled American Veterans organization contacted me about six weeks after that movie opened, inviting me to come to the group’s national convention in Chicago.

When I walked out on stage, there were more than 2,000 wounded veterans in the audience, going back all the way to World War II. They were applauding me for playing Lt. Dan, and I was presented with an award for my “hard work” on the film.

Hard work? Compared with what the people in that ballroom had endured, my job wasn’t close to that. All I’d done was say my lines. Hard work was being far from home, up to your elbows in dust and facing the enemy. Hard work was losing a limb, or worse, and having to carry on.

That day in Chicago galvanized my support for our wounded. I had seen the power of what playing that character had done for people. Lt. Dan was more than a movie part. He resonated profoundly with the community that I have dedicated much of my life to trying to help.

In 2011, I founded the Gary Sinise Foundation to serve and honor the needs of our defenders and their families, and in 2014, Travis Mills and his family moved into a specially adapted smart home that we helped to build for them. A short while later, I was able to visit, and Travis’ little daughter, Chloe, then just 3 years old, proudly showed me around.

Today, the Gary Sinise Foundation continues to build homes for our most severely wounded heroes through our R.I.S.E. (Restoring Independence Supporting Empowerment) program. You see, home is where most of us take comfort from the world, but for our severely wounded heroes, life there can be a constant battle. Simple everyday tasks are challenging and frustrating. Our smart homes provide accessibility and a safe haven to help empower these warriors to reclaim their independence.

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We also provide home modifications, mobility devices and adapted vehicles — all in the effort to help our wounded heroes live free from obstacles and barriers.

President Abraham Lincoln once said, “Any nation that does not honor its heroes will not long endure.” Our nation briefly lost sight of that sacred obligation in the aftermath of Vietnam, but I am confident we will never again forget those who have served and sacrificed.

From my first fundraising effort in 2010 to today, I have had the great blessing to play a role in building 84 smart homes across the country for severely wounded veterans who returned home from Afghanistan and Iraq, and two of them built for police officers wounded in the line of duty. The construction of these homes supported by the American people who donate to the Gary Sinise Foundation and our many in-kind sponsors. This in addition to countless home renovations large and small, adapted vehicles that can hold the whole family, and mobility devices that put daily life in reach for our warriors.

Travis Mills is just one of the many incredible Americans I have had the privilege to meet and support. He currently resides in Maine with his wife, Kelsey, his daughter, Chloe, and his son, Dax. I am inspired by him and so many like him who show the resilience and sheer grit to prevail, just as Lt. Dan did. I believe we must always look for ways to help our wounded heroes to be able to live the lives they deserve.

You can subscribe here to AARP Veteran Report, a free e-newsletter published twice a month. If you have feedback or a story idea then please contact us here.

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