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How Actor Gary Sinise Found His Calling To Honor Our Nation’s Defenders

Perhaps best known for his performance as Lt. Dan Taylor in the landmark film Forest Gump, actor Gary Sinise has made it his life’s mission to support the men and women who serve and defend our country. To further his efforts, Sinise founded the Gary Sinise Foundation in 2011. He also recently authored the book “Grateful American: A Journey From Self to Service.”

Among his many distinguished honors, Sinise has earned the Bob Hope Award for Excellence in Entertainment from the Medal of Honor Society, the Spirit of the USO Award, the Ellis Island Medal of Honor, the Doughboy Award, the Sylvanus Thayer Award, and the Dwight D. Eisenhower Award from the National Defense Industrial Association.

1) You got more involved in supporting our nation’s military and first responders after the tragic events on September 11, 2001. What inspired you to start a foundation honoring these defenders and their families?

I first started supporting active duty service members, their families, veterans and first responders in various ways, starting in the early ’80s in the Chicago area. Post-September 11th, I began a very active mission to take that support to another level. I have had the opportunity to travel to military bases across our country and around the world and have helped support many military nonprofits that have been working hard to give back to our defenders. After the many years of supporting numerous military and first-responder support organizations, I decided to start my own foundation. In creating a foundation, it was always my hope that the experience I had gained over decades could be channeled into an entity that the American people would trust as a reliable means to support the men and women who serve our country and communities.

2) What do you believe are the most pressing issues facing veterans, first responders and their families in America today?

There are a variety of issues, and we really try to address as many as we can through our various programs at Gary Sinise Foundation.  Helping our severely wounded by addressing their needs in the home is something we take very seriously. Through our R.I.S.E. (Restoring Independence, Supporting Empowerment) program, we’re building specially adapted mortgage-free smart homes that help make getting through everyday life easier for them and their families. On a daily basis, we are losing many of our WWII veterans as the average age is now in the mid-90’s, so we sponsor trips for them through our Soaring Valor program. Those who are able to travel get to visit the WWII Museum in New Orleans and our foundation also supports a museum historian recording the veteran’s oral histories on video. These videos are preserved in the archive at the museum and saved for future generations. Making sure our first responders have the necessary equipment they need in order to do their job is something we address through our First Responders Outreach program.  For us, any need big or small is important when it comes to those how voluntarily put themselves in harm’s way to protect and help the citizens of the United States. These are just some of the challenges our defenders and their families face that we address at Gary Sinise Foundation.

What are you most proud of when it comes to your work with veterans and first responders? Is there a particular story, either personally or through the organization, that stands out to you?

It’s really hard to choose any one thing. I’m so proud to see the difference we’re making in so many areas, but at the same time, we never lose sight of the fact that there is always more work to be done. That being said, I’ve long been involved with Snowball Express, which is an annual event that brings together children of our fallen heroes to give them a multi-day experience that includes a lot of fun activities as well as resources for them to help in their healing. It all concludes with a big Lt Dan Band concert. In 2017, my foundation officially took over Snowball and added it to our slate of programs, and we officially kicked off our first GSF event on in December 2018. We hosted 1722 Gold Star family members, over 1000 of them children, from all over the country and took them all to Disney World for four days of fun, hope, and healing… and a Lt Dan Band concert of course. There is an amazingly warm feeling that comes over me when I see the joy those kids are experiencing.  It’s incredibly special.

You recently published a book called “Grateful American.” What do you hope the reader takes away from that book? 

I hope readers are inspired by my story, my personal journey from self to service. After the attacks on September 11, my heart was broken. As fear crept in as to what the future would hold for our country, I needed to do something to help assuage that fear, to help heal that broken heart. There is a healing power in service work and I know where my freedom comes from. It comes at a cost. We don’t have a draft for the military or first responders. They volunteer themselves for the freedoms we all get to enjoy and the safe communities we live in. Many years ago, when I began this journey, it became abundantly clear that we can never do enough for those who serve and who sacrifice to defend our precious liberty and freedom. But I also learned that we can always do a little more. I’ve been inspired by so many people over the years and I hope I can pass that inspiration on to others.

What will you be thinking about this Memorial Day? What message would you like to share with your fellow Americans on this special holiday?

With every ounce of energy within me, I will continue to try to do my part to ensure that we always remember where our precious freedom comes from and that the sacrifices made to protect that freedom are never forgotten or taken for granted. This is a great country. We have a lot to be thankful for. And in these turbulent times, it can be easy to forget that. I’m truly a Grateful American.

How can our readers get involved with the Gary Sinise Foundation, or learn more? 

I encourage folks to check out the website and visit our YouTube page. We have numerous videos that showcase the many programs at the Gary Sinise Foundation in action. That’s a great place to start. In creating the Foundation, it was my hope to provide a reliable way for our fellow citizens to do a little more for our heroes and I can’t thank the American people enough for their continued support.

This essay was featured in the May 26th edition of Maria Shriver’s Sunday Paper newsletter. The Sunday Paper is the paper of record for individuals who want to be Architects of Change, lead meaningful lives and Move Humanity Forward.  To get inspiring and informative content like this essay delivered to your inbox each Sunday morning for free, click here to subscribe.