Actor, activist, and now author, Gary Sinise stopped by Fort Belvoir on Valentine’s Day, and Soldiers, families and retirees were already in lined up by the hundreds, books in hand, to show Sinise some love at a signing of his first book, Grateful American. The book documents Sinise’s rise as an actor and how one acting role would change the lives of so many Soldiers and families he had never met.
Sinise became immersed in acting after getting a part in a high school production of West Side Story – so much so that he and his friends founded Steppenwolf Theater Company.
However, it was his pivotal role as Lt. Dan Taylor in the Oscar-winning 1994 movie Forrest Gump that brought a new awareness of America’s Soldiers and their families across the United States. The character is an over-the-top Army officer who loses both his legs in Vietnam, sending him into a spiral of depression. He’s subsequently saved by the title character Forrest Gump’s optimism and innocence.
“He’s (Lt. Dan Taylor) angry at God and angry at life and all of that, but he’s able to put that all in perspective and move on, and at the end of the movie, he’s rich he’s married and he’s standing up on two legs and he’s a whole different guy,” Sinise explained in a 2012 interview with 60 Minutes.
That cinematic transformation made Lt. Dan, as Forrest Gump called him, into something of a role model for many wounded warriors. So Sinise, a talented bass player, decided to form Gary Sinise and the Lt. Dan Band to tour and raise money for veterans and families. Eventually he started his own Gary Sinise Foundation.
Impacting Military Lives
One veteran impacted by Sinise and his foundation is Maj. Jeremy Haynes, who is now medically retired after being shot four times in Afghanistan. Along with his wife, Sgt. 1st Class Chelsea Haynes and their eight children, the Gary Sinise Foundation is building an adapted smart home in Fairfax to meet Jeremy’s and the family’s needs.
“It’s empowering, providing independence for myself as well as giving us a forever home, since a lot of homes we’ve looked at are not accessible,” Jeremy said.
A Gold Star family was also there to get autographs and give some thanks. Miriam Hamilton was there with her son, Andru Nylander and daughter, Elisabeth. Capt. Nathan Nylander was killed in Afghanistan in 2011, and the family was introduced to another Gary Sinise Foundation program, Snowball Express, in 2014. The kids flew out to California for a concert.
“When I say concert, it’s not ‘he’s over there, the kids are over here’ – it’s hands on,” Hamilton said. “The kids are on stage. The kids are jumping on him. He makes those kids feel like they are his.”
This year, Snowball Express is taking the kids – all expenses paid – to Walt Disney World for five days. Sinise will perform for them, and hang out with them.
“It’s just nonstop what he does for Gold Star Kids, and just shows them appreciation. We know you’ve lost your parent so here’s something just to let you know we care,” Hamilton explained.
“We found out he was coming, and in my opinion, I feel we owe him for taking care of us.”
Elisabeth Nylander says his warmth is so genuine. “They always have a Lt. Dan concert, and every time I’ve gone to Snowball Express, I’ve gotten to get up on stage and sing with Gary. He makes it feel like we’re all best friends.”
The Post Exchange ordered 600 books for the autograph session, and they sold out in a few hours. It seems that Sinise’s journey from self to service has grown larger than anyone had anticipated.
“He’s an amazing man that does great things not just for veterans for but for this nation,” said Chelsea Haynes.
Gary Sinise and the Lt. Dan Band will be back, according to Sinise, on Fort Belvoir May 23 for another concert, as he continues to serve the nation.