Twenty-five years ago, Gary Sinise played the role of Lt. Dan Taylor in the blockbuster movie “Forrest Gump.” It transformed his acting career and changed his life. Today, Sinise is an outspoken advocate for America’s military veterans. He’s also the author of “Grateful American: A Journey from Self to Service.” Sinise recently spoke to The Daily Signal about the book, his acting career, and his passion for helping veterans.
Rob Bluey: Gary Sinise, the famous actor from “Forrest Gump,” is the author of a new book called “Grateful American: A Journey From Self to Service.” Gary, thanks for being with us.
Gary Sinise: Thanks for having me.
Bluey: I want to start with the book. It’s a great book. It tells your story. Tell us why you decided to write it.
Sinise: I’ve been very, very active with military and veterans support for many years. I’ve engaged with many different military charities. I’ve been all around the world. I’ve been to the war zones. I’ve been to the hospitals. I’ve been involved with many projects to support the men and women who serve.
I thought maybe I’d start to document that in some kind of way, through a book or essays or whatever. And then I started to think, “Well, how did I kind of get to all that?”
So I started to retrace my steps, and it turned into an autobiography that really starts with where I grew up and how I grew up. How I got into acting. My sort of singular focus on self, career, movie business, television business, theater, to the broader focus of service to others after Sept. 11.
There is a great chapter in the book called “Turning Point.” It talks about that moment in my life where I turned kind of away from just this focus on my career to this much broader effort to try to help our veterans and support our military. That’s turned into just a full-time thing.
Bluey: It certainly has.
Sinise: It’s all documented in there.
Bluey: We appreciate you telling that story. You grew up in the Chicago suburbs. You were early on interested in sports and music, and then acting really changed your life. But it was that role that you played, Lt. Dan in “Forrest Gump,” that really introduced you to Americans in a new way. Did you ever imagine that that movie would have that transformational effect on your life?
Sinise: Not at the time. I knew I was working with good people. Tom Hanks was very popular at the time. Bob Zemeckis was an outstanding director. He’d already directed the “Back to the Future” series and “Roger Rabbit,” very, very successful films. So I knew I was working with a lot of good people, so that’s a good start. But you can never tell how something’s going to go.
We didn’t know that the movie would be as big a hit as it was. I knew I very much wanted to play that part. I had Vietnam veterans in my family. I had supported Vietnam veterans in the ’80s, ’70s and ’80s, trying to help them in various ways in Chicago.
And then along comes this opportunity very early in my movie career—I’d only done a few things—to audition to play a wounded Vietnam veteran. I very much wanted to do it, I was lucky to get the part.
It changed my life in many ways. Not just with the acting career and what it did to kind of reshape that, because the movie was so popular and all of that. But it opened a door to helping our wounded veterans in a way that I couldn’t have predicted at the time.
Bluey: Today you have the Gary Sinise Foundation, you have the Lt. Dan Band. There’s a lot that you do for veterans. What’s one of the most memorable moments that you’ve had, or experiences you’ve had, working with a veteran?
Sinise: It’s very difficult to pin-point one thing. I try to talk about a number of people that have inspired me in the book. From Medal of Honor recipients—I’m very involved with the Medal of Honor Society and the Medal of Honor Foundation. I have been for over a dozen years now.
I’ve met extraordinary Americans who did extraordinary things and survived, and received the Medal of Honor, Congressional Medal of Honor for that. Some of those I talk about in the book. I have many, many friends in the Medal of Honor Society.
I could tell stories all day long about each and every one of them. Some of the many, many hundreds, if not thousands, of wounded service members that I’ve met over the years going to the hospitals, and watching them in various stages of their recovery. And being inspired by how they persevered through that physical challenge that they’ve had.
We’ve built houses for quadruple amputees and triple amputees, and double amputees, dramatic brain injury, very severe burns, spinal cord injuries. You name it, I’ve met these folks and they have changed my life for the better. They really put things in perspective, and giving back to them has been a great privilege.
Bluey: How can people find out more about the work that you’re doing or support the foundation?
Sinise: I’ve been involved in this for many many years. My foundation is actually, in the scope of things, for how long I’ve been at it, the foundation is relatively new. We’re only about eight-and-a-half, almost nine years in. But I’ve been doing this for many, many years, supporting many other military charities.
My particular military nonprofit is the Gary Sinise Foundation, and you can go to GarySiniseFoundation.org. You can pick up a copy of “Grateful American,” learn the story of how I got into this and why I’m so passionately involved in it, why I care so much about it, what my goals are in the future, you can learn some of those things at the Gary Sinise Foundation.
[We have] tremendous videos on our YouTube channel that show the people that we’re working with and the impact that we’re making on them. And the impact that they make on us as well.
Bluey: You wrote a piece that … our listeners can find on The Daily Signal on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and how that day had a profound impact on your life and how it changed your thinking. The work that you do supports not only veterans, but as I understand it, first responders and others who come to the aid of others.
Can you talk a little bit about where we stand? We’ve just had a terrible attack in Sri Lanka. Terrorism is still having a profound effect across the globe.
Sinise: No question, and our people are still getting hurt. We lose people every month, they get blown up or hurt. There was a funeral just today for a firefighter in New York City who also was serving in the Marine Corps and was killed. Just terrible things that continue to happen.
Our Gold Star Families, there’s thousands of them. We take care of them, try to help them through. I would say that, unfortunately, there’s kind of a disconnect between the average American and its military. If you don’t have a personal relationship with somebody serving in the military—a friend, a family member, somebody you’ve grown up with, or something like that—you may not have any relation to what the military actually does for us.
I would caution that puts us in jeopardy. There’s a great quote from Calvin Coolidge that says, “The nation which forgets its defenders will itself be forgotten.”
I don’t think we can ever forget our defenders. It weakens our nation when we do. We saw that after Vietnam when we forgot our defenders and turned our back on them. I work each and every day to try to ensure that that doesn’t happen again. If people go to garysinisefoundation.org, they can learn a lot. A lot more about the great people that are serving our country.
Bluey: Gary Sinise, thank you for reminding us about the contributions they made. Thank you for spending time with The Daily Signal and sharing your story.
Sinise: I appreciate that, bud.B