An interview with FMC’s Civic Statesmanship Award Nominee Gary Sinise by Dava Guerin

BORN TO SERVE: WHAT MOTIVATES GARY SINISE TO KEEP ON GIVING

By Dava Guerin

Gary Sinise is an actor whose script was not written for the big screen, small screen or the stage. It is the role he plays from within, and the story goes like this: “Call me Gary. I’m just an actor. That’s what I do for a living. Let me tell you something. When I first got into this business, I never thought of myself as anything that special. It wasn’t until I played Lt. Dan in the film Forrest Gump that I realized the impact it had on the wounded warriors I visited in military hospitals. If my presence can make a difference in just one person’s life, and they know I’m in it with them, too, well, that is my inspiration!”

Gary Sinise is a Hollywood anomaly. Having been an actor since high school, he founded Chicago’s acclaimed Steppenwolf Theatre in 1974 and worked as a director in two episodes of the television series, Crime Story. That was followed by feature films, including Forrest Gump, where he played the disabled, emotionally- challenged veteran, Lt. Dan, a role that earned him numerous awards including an Oscar nomination. He also starred with Tom Hanks in Apollo 13. He currently plays “Mack,” a character he named in memory of his late brother-in-law, a lieutenant colonel in the Army, in the hit TV drama, CSI: NY, among many other notable appearances. Rather than focusing his life on himself, or simply donating money to charities in hopes of landing on the cover of People Magazine, Sinise is a person of substance and sincerity, a man with a passion to serve; rooted in his exposure to the Vietnam veterans he worked with at Steppenwolf.

“I would say my belief in service stems from a combination of things,” Sinise said. “When I was working with Vietnam vets in the early eighties, and seeing what they went through, I felt so much compassion for their ongoing plight. Also, I was surrounded on both sides of my family by service members, and was really inspired by my brother-in-law, Mack Boyd McKenna Harrison. He was a great leader, and would have become a four-star general if he hadn’t been struck down by cancer at such a young age. Everyone who knew Mack, or studied under him, realized he was an exemplary leader. I even named my character after him on my TV series, CSI: NY, and it reminds me every day of his inspirational qualities.”

The most significant catalyst for Sinise’s desire to ramp up his involvement with service members and their families came in the aftermath of the tragic events of September 11. Like every American, Sinise wanted to do more than raise money or use his name, now widely recognized, to make a difference. Armed with the knowledge of the neglect and pain experienced by those who served in Vietnam, Sinise knew he could help by boosting the morale of the military serving in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Philippines. He teamed up with the USO, performing with his Lt. Dan Band in military bases abroad and here in the U.S. “Over the years I was very involved in helping the veteran community in what I believe is a very important mission. After September 11 I knew I could play a role, and so I began playing concerts, meeting with service members, and lending my support in any way I could,” said Sinise. “I would work all week, then travel over the weekend. When we were not taping a show or filming a movie, I would make another visit to a military base. It was tricky to fit it all in, but I’ll tell you something, it was and still is worth it. I’ve always found it hard to think of myself as something that special. Acting is what I do for a living, but I use the notoriety to bring happiness to folks who are the real heroes.”

Sinise said that spending time with wounded warriors is especially rewarding. “When I walk into a service member’s hospital room and realize that his or her body is broken, maybe missing legs, or arms from a blast, I am humbled. And, when they wait in line for me to sign a picture because they relate to me because of the role I played as Lt. Dan, well, wait a minute, I am the one who is grateful. I am the one who is happy to be stopping by to meet them.”

In 2003, after Sinise’s second trip to Iraq, he went to a local school and noticed U.S. troops helping young children by working to make much-needed repairs such as pouring concrete floors and adding windows and doors, among other things. This transforming experience led Sinise to found a grass roots program, along with author Laura Hillenbrand called, Operation Iraqi Children. What was once a small outreach effort, today, is a full-fledged non-profit organization that has delivered more than $250 million for school supply kits, $500 million toys and thousands of blankets.

“After working with the USO and going all around Iraq, Kuwait, and visiting bases in Italy, Germany and back to Iraq, I was hooked,” Sinise added. “I could see how someone like me could make a difference, and I wanted to be that person who did make a difference. I also realized over the years, that playing concerts, visiting military hospitals and bases, made for a very full weekend. I began to realize that I could do even more by starting a foundation of my own, and that would be a great way to provide consistency. It was the logical next step for me to provide financial support, as well as help people who want to donate money know the best military charities to place their donations.”

In 2010, The Gary Sinise Foundation was created and operates under its mission: “Serving honor and need.” Among its many philanthropic efforts, it hopes to provide many opportunities for people to give back and recognize that one person’s service means everything. “There are so many people who are personally connected with the military, but not everyone has been lucky enough to visit war zones as a public figure, like I have. I have seen these brave defenders of our freedom, and we should all be very grateful,” Sinise said.

On March 19, 2013, Sinise will be presented with the U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress (FMC) Civic Statesmanship Award, at the non-profit organization’s 16th Annual, “Salute to Service: Statesmanship Award Dinner” in Washington, D.C. He will be honored for his dedication to service along with Senators Richard Lugar and Sam Nunn, and Margery Kraus, CEO and Founder of APCO worldwide. For the past 40 years, FMC’s volunteers—all Former Members of Congress– have donated their time to promote civic literacy in the U.S. and abroad, as well as to help emerging democracies with a wide range of educational programs. They have also participated in election monitoring in Iraq, and other bridge-building efforts.

Sinise in accepting the award said, “I am thrilled to accept this award, and be invited to attend what I know will be a great event. I was inspired to serve going back to the 1980’s, and the Former Members of Congress and I share that same commitment to a life of giving back. I was also pleased to learn that President George H. W. Bush was a past recipient of FMC’s Lifetime Achievement Award. He is one of my heroes, too. And we also have another connection with Lance Cor. Mark Fidler, a wounded warrior, who I know you support, and I met at Walter Reed last year. I look forward to catching up with him at the dinner and wish him well on his upcoming surgery.”