By Jennifer Grubb
(CNN) — Gary Sinise has played many characters on television and the big screen, but one of his most important roles in real life is fighting for veterans.
“I have a passionate love for our country. I know that our freedom is provided by men and women, ordinary men and women who take up the call and serve our country,” he says. “We can never forget our defenders, and we should do everything we can for them before the battle, during the battle and after the battle when things get rough for them. We should take care of them.”
And that’s just what the actor is doing through programs at The Gary Sinise Foundation.
The nonprofit helps veterans translate their military skills to civilian careers, sponsors military scholarships and even helps build customized homes for the severely wounded.
“If you’re a quadruple amputee, you’ve lost both arms and both legs, you’re going to have some physical challenges for the rest of your life. We want your home to be the most secure, safe, manageable place in your life,” explains Sinise. In partnership with Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation, homes are built with smart technology such as automated doors and iPad-controlled electronics.
Cpl. Christian Brown, who lost both legs serving in Afghanistan, is looking forward to gaining more independence after he moves into his specialized house.
“Sometimes I get so focused on the small things that are easy for you but hard for me,” the Marine says. “And now I actually have to think my way through them. So it’s actually very tiring mentally and just to be able to scoot through your house and do the things you need to do, whether that be laundry, you know, use the bathroom, get to a certain area of the house without actually having to put so much thought into it. I think it’ll be relief.”
The Gary Sinise Foundation raises money for these homes by hosting concerts featuring The Lt. Dan Band. Sinise plays bass in the group he named after his iconic character from the 1994 movie “Forrest Gump.”
“I never thought years ago that when I was in my 50s I’d be playing concerts all over the world,” says the Oscar-nominated actor. “It’s part of my overall mission to raise spirits, raise awareness and raise funds to support the men and women who serve our country.”
Sinise was a passionate supporter of the military long before he played disabled Vietnam vet Lt. Dan. He comes from a family of men who served.
“My dad served in the Navy, my two uncles were in World War Two,” he says. “My grandfather served in World War One in the Army, drove an ambulance in France.”
Sinise also has connections to the military through his wife, Moira. Her two brothers served in Vietnam. Her sister was in the Army and married a Vietnam veteran. Their son just returned from his second tour in Afghanistan.
The success of “Forrest Gump” propelled Sinise to advocate for the military even more. He went to a Disabled American Veterans convention and received an award for playing Lt. Dan.
“I was very moved and touched by the people that I met and the actual wounded veterans from many wars prior,” he remembers. “But it also led me to an association with our wounded that now goes back 20 years.”
The attacks of 9/11 reinforced Sinise’s commitment to the troops.
“When our men and women started deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan, they started getting hurt and killed,” he somberly states. “Families started struggling and suffering in the military. Having Vietnam veterans in my family, remembering what happened to them when they came home, it was very troubling to think that our men and women would deploy in reaction to September 11th and come home to a nation that didn’t appreciate them.”
To show his appreciation, the actor visited service men and women all over the world through the USO and provided entertainment with The Lt. Dan Band. Eventually, The Gary Sinise Foundation was established.
When it comes to identifying with wounded veterans, Brown says Sinise just “gets it.”
“A lot of people don’t get it. People don’t even know what’s going on over there or the severity of the situations that these guys come back in.” The double amputee adds, “They never take a chance to look up from their phone and see what’s going on around the world.”
Maybe we can take a cue from Sinise and realize we don’t have to wear a uniform to serve our country.
We can simply honor, remember and care for wounded veterans in our communities.
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