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Gary Sinise Salutes Our Real Lt. Dans

How Vietnam veteran family members, Steppenwolf Theatre and Lt. Dan led me to Scott Mann and his play ‘Last Out’

spinner image Gary Sinise received the Disabled American Veterans' National Commanders Award in 1994.
Gary Sinise received the Disabled American Veterans' National Commanders Award in 1994.
Courtesy Gary Sinise Foundation

Playing the role of wounded Vietnam veteran Lt. Dan Taylor in the movie “Forrest Gump” forever changed my life.

A month after the movie’s release in 1994, the Disabled American Veterans presented me with the National Commanders Award at their annual convention.

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My portrayal of a proud soldier who lost both legs in battle had resonated in ways I could never have imagined. We had presented an honest, unflinching look at the demons our returning veterans had largely faced alone. Lt. Dan wrestled with bitterness, alcoholism, poverty and a descent into living in the shadows. But, with the support of his battle buddy, Forrest Gump, he also found redemption and emerged as a man intent on creating a good life for himself. He became the hero of his own story.

I accepted the award on stage, in front of a crowd of over 2,000 wounded veterans.

As I wrote in the opening chapter of my book, Grateful American, “…I make my way to the stage, clear my throat, and choke out a few words. 'I'm not prepared for the emotion I feel right now,' I say spontaneously, and I pause again. Looking out at the audience, I realize why they were applauding. Lieutenant Dan has somehow become more than just a character in a movie. To these veterans he has become a symbol of our country’s collective awareness of all our injured veterans, especially the Vietnam veteran.”

It was a profoundly humbling moment to be in the presence of so many real-life Lt. Dans.

That award now hangs on the walls of the Gary Sinise Foundation, which was established in 2011, a direct result of the overwhelming reaction to my Lt. Dan role and what would come later, after the attack on our country on Sept. 11, 2001. I still get recognized as Lt. Dan, and it has been an honor to embrace that fact as a special part of my life.

Many people don’t know this, but my work with veterans actually began a decade before “Forrest Gump,” in the early 1980s, when I was still in my 20s and I directed Tracers, a play that had been conceived by Vietnam veteran John Di Fusco and was written and performed by Vietnam veterans at the Odyssey Theatre in Los Angeles. It told stories of the Vietnam veteran experience during the war, and I secured the rights to direct it in 1984 at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago.

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With veterans in my own family, it was a personal mission for me to bring a great production to the public so that these warriors would know that their service to our country was appreciated and that their sacrifices would never be forgotten.

And in 2021, my friend, singer-songwriter John Ondrasik (Five For Fighting) , who had written the hits “Superman,” “100 Years,” and most recently a searing ballad “Blood on My Hands” about the Afghanistan withdrawal, called to tell me that there was a play called Last Out written by Scott Mann, an Afghanistan and Iraq veteran, who retired as a Green Beret lieutenant colonel, and that it was very much like a post 9/11 “Tracers.” I had heard about it but not seen it, and when I watched a video of the play it was clear that this play spoke to a new generation of veterans the way Tracers had for our Vietnam veterans.

spinner image The Gary Sinise Foundation presented Scott Mann's play 'Last Out', sponsoring the production in nine cities across the country in 2023.
The Gary Sinise Foundation sponsored Scott Mann's play 'Last Out' in nine cities across the country in 2023.
Courtesy Scott Mann

The protagonist in Last Out, played by Scott, is Green Beret Danny Patton, a modern-day warrior fighting on battlefields ranging from tribal Afghanistan to his own living room. It has a small, remarkably talented cast of veterans, including two Purple Heart recipients, and military-family members playing multiple roles.

Scott, an incredible soldier and human being, has been candid about the struggles from post-traumatic stress that led him, at his lowest point, to contemplate taking his own life. But, like Lt. Dan, with the grit to prevail, and also with the support of a battle buddy, his beautiful wife Monty, Scott powered through and emerged from the darkness.

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As Scott himself has put it: “It’s all about the power of storytelling as a way to heal yourself, to bridge the civil military gaps that are out there. We’ve been using storytelling for thousands of years as a way to bring our warriors home and to reconnect them to civil society.”

The Gary Sinise Foundation was honored to present Last Out under our Foundation’s Community and Education pillar, sponsoring the production in nine cities across the country this past year, including performances at Steppenwolf Theatre. In each of these cities, Scott was able to hold his “Generosity of Scars” storytelling workshop, which engages with the audience to address trauma and healing alongside the performances.

Mental wellness is a major priority for the Gary Sinise Foundation. We want to see every veteran live the Lt. Dan story, where they put their war years behind them and move on to a future of hope, love and success. We don’t want veterans to feel isolated and to contain all the pent-up feelings to the point where everything explodes. Too many of today’s veterans come home feeling alone as they struggle with the invisible wounds of war.

To meet great Americans such as Scott Mann, and hundreds if not thousands of real life Lt. Dans, has been one of the privileges of my lifetime. To help bring hope and positivity to the lives of veterans and to highlight how inspirational they are is an incredible gift each and every day.

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