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Gary Sinise Salutes American Patriots

In his first monthly column, AARP ambassador Gary Sinise reflects on the origins of his mission to support those who have served


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Gary Sinise spends much of his time meeting American servicemembers and veterans. Here he meets troops at Naval Base Ventura County in 2018.
Julia Robinson/Gary Sinise Foundation

We can never do enough to support and honor our veterans, whose service, sacrifice and willingness to give their lives for something greater than themselves humbles me every day. On the Fourth of July this year — America’s 247th birthday — we celebrate our nation and the patriots who gave their all to make it great.

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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.

A few days before that, on June 30, my staff and I will be reflecting on the 12th anniversary of the Gary Sinise Foundation. With four program pillars and an expanding set of initiatives, our mission ­— to serve our nation by honoring our defenders, veterans, first responders, their families and those in need — is broad and wide ranging. 

Our hands-on approach is designed to meet people where they are and ease their journey. For example, we help restore independence to severely wounded heroes through modified transportation and accessible housing. We bring together families of our fallen heroes to help them build community with others who have experienced similar losses, and provide them with resources and tools to help them navigate their new normal. 

For first responders in communities all across the nation, we provide essential equipment and state-of-the-art training to ensure our neighborhoods remain safe and protected. We do all of this and more. It’s been quite a journey, and one that has enriched my life beyond anything I could have ever imagined.

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But the journey did not begin in 2011 or even in 2001, when the 9/11 terrorist attacks prompted me to begin devoting much of my time to supporting the men and women who were deployed. It did not begin in 1994, when I began supporting the Disabled American Veterans after playing the wounded Vietnam veteran Lt. Dan Taylor, in a movie you might have heard of, Forrest Gump.

Certainly, these were all key moments. But I now realize that I was on this journey from childhood. I was not aware of it at the time, but it was at the core of my family.

I grew up in Chicago and my grandfather, Daniel Sinise, worked for the railroad on the South Side. At 17 years old, he had served in the U.S. Army as an ambulance driver on the front line in France in WWI during the Meuse-Argonne offensive. 

My uncles Jerry, who was afloat in the Pacific when the Japanese surrendered in 1945, and Jack, a navigator on a B-17 bomber, served in WWII. My father, Robert Sinise, who was the youngest, served in the Navy during the Korean War. 

I began to become more conscious of what my relatives had given when my wife Moira and I got together as a couple a few years after the Vietnam War ended, and I began to meet her family members who had served in the U.S. Army.

One of Moira’s brothers, Arthur Harris, was a helicopter pilot who had flown 800 combat hours in Vietnam. The other, Boyd McCanna "Mac" Harris, graduated from West Point with the class of ’66 and had been to Vietnam twice, first as a lieutenant and platoon leader, and second as a captain and company commander. He’d received the Silver Star for gallantry in combat. 

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Moira’s twin sister, Amy, went through ROTC in college and joined the Army after graduation. She married Jack Treese, who’d served as a combat medic with the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam, earning two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts; he spent 22 years in the Army. 

When I was given the part in Forrest Gump of Lt. Dan, a combat-wounded double amputee who went through some tough times, but ultimately prevailed to live a happy and fulfilled life, I brought Jack down to the set when we were filming the battle scenes. In the movie, I wore his dog tags, which he’d hung on a string of rosary beads in Vietnam. 

After our nation began deploying troops to Afghanistan and Iraq, with many returning with severe wounds, I wanted to help these real-life “Lt. Dans” and their families, and so the mission expanded. After many years, in 2011, I founded the Gary Sinise Foundation.

Our mission statement is simple, but profound: “At the Gary Sinise Foundation, we serve our nation by honoring our defenders, veterans, first responders, their families and those in need. We do this by creating and supporting unique programs designed to entertain, educate, inspire, strengthen and build communities.”

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We put a lot of thought into those words, and each day we continue to honor our mission statement as we follow our core values of integrity, service and commitment. At the Gary Sinise Foundation we believe that freedom and security are precious gifts that we, as Americans, should never take for granted. There is a cost of our freedom and security, a price that is paid by those who are willing to protect it.

The journey always continues and along with the sobering moments, there’s been a lot of fun along the way­. For the past 20 years I have donated my time playing 546 concerts with the Lt. Dan Band. Lifting the spirits of our troops and veterans is at the heart of the mission. It’s taken me all over the world. And last year, part of the journey was a physical one as the Foundation relocated from California to Tennessee, close to many veterans. 

The military service of my family, which has been so supportive of my work, has not stopped. My nephew Gavin Treese served as a Marine and then in in the Army, including two deployments to Afghanistan. He is now training to become a police officer.

This Fourth of July, I urge everyone to think about doing something a little extra for our veterans. Every American has a part to play. And while we can never do enough to show our gratitude to our nation’s defenders, I believe we can always do a little more.

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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