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Gary Sinise Salutes the Greatest Generation

78 years after the end of WWII, we honor those who served. Each veteran is a living library we can learn from


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Gary Sinise meets World War II veterans.
Gary Sinise Foundation

In the 1940s, our World War II troops fought to save the world from tyranny. Thankfully, they succeeded. The United States and our Allies defeated the Axis powers of Germany, Italy and Japan. More than 400,000 Americans gave their lives in the fight. Those who survived returned home to resume their family lives and help build this great country’s prosperity.

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The freedom we enjoy today is thanks to their bravery and valor. They taught us the true meaning of patriotism, and we remain forever grateful for their sacrifices. Their numbers are quickly dwindling — they leave us at an average rate of 294 a day — and we want to do everything we can for them while they are still with us. 

We are about to mark the 78th anniversary of V-J Day, the effective end of World War II. Of the 16 million Americans who served in that conflict, just 167,000 were alive by last year. By next year, fewer than 60,000 of these brave veterans are expected to still be with us.

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It is critically important that we teach new generations of Americans about members of this greatest generation — who they are, what they endured and what they achieved. Our young people must understand the cost of the freedom they enjoy. 

I have great respect for our veterans. My grandfather Daniel served in the U.S. Army in France during World War I. My father, Robert, the youngest brother of three, served in the Navy during the Korean War, and his two older brothers, my uncles, fought in WWII. Jerry Sinise served in the U.S. Navy, part of the invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, and was afloat in the Pacific when the Japanese surrendered in 1945. His older brother, Jack Sinise, was a navigator on B-17 bombers. Though Jerry died in the mid-’90s, I had the great pleasure to spend much time with Uncle Jack, hearing stories about his 30 missions over Europe.

In 2009, my friend Tom Hanks made me aware of the National WWII Museum in New Orleans. He was involved and asked me to do the voice of war correspondent Ernie Pyle in Beyond All Boundaries, the film that plays in the theater there. Uncle Jack made me realize that every veteran of WWII is a living library. He was a great inspiration for me, and I will never forget his stories. So, after getting to know the cofounder of the museum, Nick Mueller, I arranged for the museum to record Uncle Jack on video. His story went into the museum archives. 

The year after Uncle Jack’s death in 2014, at age 90, I was touched to be presented with a DVD of his recorded oral history. A seed had been planted in my mind, and in 2015, the Gary Sinise Foundation began its Soaring Valor program, partnering with the National WWII Museum to record the unique stories of our greatest generation and share them with the world, and with American Airlines providing the travel support, we began bringing hundreds of these heroes to see the museum.

In 2017, we expanded the program by inviting high school students to join the experience. This educational opportunity gives young people the incredible honor of learning about WWII directly from those who lived it.

For those WWII veterans who can no longer travel, we sponsor a historian to conduct interviews with them in the comfort of their homes. So far, 1,121 veterans and their guardians have participated in our Soaring Valor experiences while 203 high school students have accompanied them.

I have many joyful memories of getting Jack and my father together each year for the National Memorial Day Concert and the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation’s Celebration of Freedom events at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum in Simi Valley, California.

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Many years ago, through kind friends at the Disabled American Veterans organization, I was able to arrange a flight for Uncle Jack on a B-17. He came to a few of my veterans concerts at the AirVenture Air Show in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and felt so proud to be among his fellow veterans there. He also traveled with many WWII veterans to Washington on an Honor Flight. 

I’ve been a part of more than a dozen of these special Soaring Valor events and have met so many humble heroes. On our 2016 trip, I met 106-year-old Lawrence Brooks. A wonderful man, a great American WWII hero, he died just last year at the age of 112. 

In 2019, I spent time at the WWII museum with Teddy Kirkpatrick, who served with the 379th Bomb Group and flew B-17 missions with Uncle Jack out of Kimbolton, England. To mark his 96th birthday, Teddy went skydiving. Sadly, Teddy died in February this year, five months short of his 100th birthday. 

There’s my friend Les Jones, a Navy veteran who was in the European theater, American theater and Pacific theater during WWII and is now 97. On Memorial Day, he noted that he was “the only one left” from his group of service friends and remarked, “I love our country.” 

Still looking forward in his life rather than back, Les shook hands with one young man and told him, “You’re the kind of guy I put my life on the line for.”

When I caught up with Les in a video phone call, he greeted me with “Gary, you son of a gun,” then teased me about my graying hair. He stroked his own full head of white hair and told me, “We still have it, Gary. We don’t like the color of it, but we still have it.”

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And there’s George Ciampa, also 97, who was fresh from high school when he spent 11 months with the U.S. Army’s 607th Graves Registration Company, collecting the bodies of fallen soldiers from the invasion of Normandy and Battle of the Bulge.

“If anyone saw the high price of freedom, we did,” George tells us. He reminds people of the American cemeteries across Europe today: “When I talk to people about the high price of freedom, I tell them you have to put a face on every one of those crosses or stars of David.”

George has spent his life as a documentary filmmaker, preserving the stories of WWII, and I have had the great privilege of narrating a few of his films. God bless you, my friend.

I talk to WWII veterans whenever I can. I am conscious that I will not always have this privilege. I feel this is what we should all do for those who gave so much for us by serving — checking in, catching up and thanking them. It is our goal to send as many of these heroes to the museum as possible in the next few years and record many more stories for the museum archive. These great Americans did their duty and made history. I feel proud that this country produced such people. We stand on their shoulders. Without their sacrifice, where would our country and the world be? They saved the world during one of the darkest periods in human history. 

To our beloved WWII veterans, we are all in your debt. God bless you and thank you. 

Your grateful American pal,

Gary Sinise 

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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