Photo © Gary Sinise Foundation
In 1994, Gary Sinise played the role of Lt. Dan Taylor in the award-winning film Forrest Gump – a role that changed his life forever. The overwhelming positive response to his authentic portrayal of the disabled lieutenant galvanized Gary’s relationship with our nation’s service men and women, especially our wounded veterans.
The military community embraced the character he brought to life and more than 26 years later, Gary Sinise keeps the spirit of his famous character alive through the Gary Sinise Foundation, working to see that those who defend this country and its freedoms, receive the honor, respect, gratitude, and remembrance their service deserves.
This year, the Gary Sinise Foundation celebrates ten years of serving veterans, first responders, and their families. To celebrate this positive milestone, Gary Sinise looks back at how his foundation began and its impact on American heroes.
For many people, Lt. Dan was the first time they saw a disabled character on-screen, a representation that was important not only to the disabled community but also to veterans who had similar experiences. How did it feel to know that you had brought to life a character that touched so many people?
Prior to Forrest Gump, I had only acted in a small number of films. Suddenly, there I was in the most successful film of 1994. Having Vietnam veterans in my own family, I felt that the role of Lt. Dan Taylor was a way to honor our nation’s Vietnam Veterans, as the story of Lt. Dan is such a positive story in the end.
Almost immediately after it opened, I received a great deal of support from the wounded veteran community. I was honored to receive the National Commander’s Award from the Disabled American Veterans Organization for portraying a wounded veteran in a positive way and bringing the wounded veteran back into the consciousness of the American people.
During the ceremony, I was stunned and humbled, moved beyond words by the reaction I received in a room full of thousands of wounded veterans. Thousands of veterans and their family members were applauding me for playing a part in a movie. Little did I know how significant playing the role of Lt. Dan and this moment would become in my life. From that point on, I began supporting our wounded and finding ways to give back to them.
Between the Gary Sinise Foundation and all of its incredible programs and the Lt. Dan Band, you do a lot for veterans, first responders, and their families. What inspired you to create the Gary Sinise Foundation?
The roots of all this go back to the ’80s and supporting our Vietnam veterans and then in the ‘90s, beginning to work in support of our wounded after playing Lt Dan. After the tragic and devastating attacks on September 11, 2001, I began devoting much of my time to supporting the men and women who were answering the call to duty.
I personally felt called to service in some way and wanted to do more. I began volunteering my time with the USO and many other non-profits supporting our nation’s heroes, gold and blue star families, firefighters, police officers, and wounded veterans. I’ve entertained our troops across the globe and all over our country, playing over 500 concerts since 2003.
Over the years, it became clear to me that my journey was now a lifelong service mission to keep all of our defenders, first responders, and their families strong in difficult times by serving and honoring their needs. All of the programs at the Gary Sinise Foundation were born from a personal experience supporting our defenders.
The GSF takes its impact further by addressing the invisible needs of veterans and their families. The Avalon Network focuses on providing care to the nearly 30% of veterans and first responders who experience PTSD and depression. How do programs like the Avalon Network empower veterans and first responders to cope with and overcome their trauma?
The Gary Sinise Foundation Avalon Network was created to address the epidemic of “invisible wounds” that affect many of the honorable men and women who defend our country and protect our cities.
Our goal with this network of partners is to reduce barriers to care that many veterans and first responders face while leveraging the science of post-traumatic growth to help transform lives. The program is designed to ensure that our military and first responders stay strong through hardships by offering complete support before, during, and after battle.
Suffering from symptoms related to post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injuries are hardships that no veteran, first responder, or their families should battle alone. I teamed up with Bernie Marcus and Arthur M. Blank, two great philanthropists and the Co-Founders of The Home Depot, to provide services nationally that are currently being offered at only a few local sites through the Marcus Institute of Brain Health and Boulder Crest Foundation.
We think it will truly make a difference in saving lives by providing transformative care to veterans and first responders experiencing post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injuries, and substance abuse. We’ve built a tremendous team to address the “invisible wounds” afflicting our nation’s heroes.
You refer to the nation’s WWII heroes as living libraries, and through programs like Soaring Valor, the Gary Sinise Foundation ensures that their stories live on. Can you tell us more about the Soaring Valor program, how it connects our past to our present, and why you feel keeping these stories alive is so important?
The Gary Sinise Foundation’s Soaring Valor initiative was inspired by my uncle, Jack Sinise. In WWII, he served as a navigator aboard a B-17 Flying Fortress in the pre-Normandy invasion over Nazi-occupied France.
I was introduced to the museum by Tom Hanks in 2009. Tom asked me to do the voice of Ernie Pyle in the museum’s film, Beyond All Boundaries. Later, I arranged for a video recording of Uncle Jack’s oral history to be archived at the National World War II Museum.
This idea of sharing veteran stories led to The Gary Sinise Foundation’s Soaring Valor initiative, where we fly WWII veterans to New Orleans to tour the National WWII Museum and record their oral histories for future generations.
After Uncle Jack passed away in 2014, I created Soaring Valor in partnership with the museum’s founder Dr. Nick Mueller and American Airlines. Dr. Mueller calls these greatest generation heroes “living libraries” as they offer us firsthand historical accounts of what it took to defeat tyranny in the 1940s. Our first trip was in 2015 with a group of 45 California WWII veterans.
We originally focused on getting as many veterans to the museum as possible and recording them on video. However, in 2017, I felt it was important to add another component to Soaring Valor. We began expanding the trips to include high school students to experience the Museum side-by-side with WWII veterans.
Learning firsthand from the men and women who lived through what these students have only read about in textbooks has made an indelible impact on the next generation. And all this started because of my dear Uncle Jack and the honor of doing the voice of Ernie Pyle.
Over the last ten years, the Gary Sinise Foundation has evolved to include programming that supports these heroes and their empowerment. What is on the horizon for the GSF, and how can we get involved in supporting your important work?
As we approach the 20th anniversary of 9/11 this year, it’s important to recognize and express our gratitude to the three million Americans who have been deployed to war zones across the globe. The Gary Sinise Foundation is thoughtfully and intentionally doubling down on providing services designed to support the mental wellness of our nation’s veterans and first responders, as well as their families.
Our first chapter launch in Central Florida is building communities of support, engaging communities, and trying to inspire through action to step up and serve and honor the needs of our defender community. The chapter will be a rallying point for people who want to serve, support, and honor our troops, veterans, first responders, front-line medical workers, and their families. And having a strong footprint of military and veteran support in the San Diego area over the years, we have just opened our second chapter there, with more to come around the country in the years ahead.
This year, we also launched the Gary Sinise Foundation Avalon Network, a cognitive and mental wellness network that will establish 20 sites nationwide by 2023 to serve thousands of veterans and first responders experiencing post-traumatic stress and dealing with traumatic brain injuries.
The Avalon Network is the culmination of my Foundation’s 10-year journey of gratitude and service to our nation’s defenders and their loved ones, and we look forward to continuing this mission. As the subtitle of my book Grateful American states, it truly has been a journey from Self to Service.
To get involved and join our mission, I encourage you to go to our website at garysinisefoundation.org
Veterans and first responders seeking support can also find more information on the Gary Sinise Foundation Avalon Network and apply for assistance on our website at garysinisefoundation.org/Avalon-Network