In an Academy Award-nominated role, he played a double amputee injured in Vietnam, battling booze and bitterness at home and ultimately walking again.
Now, actor Gary Sinise is a crusader for service members severely injured in wars who routinely recognize him for his portrayal as Lt. Dan Taylor in the 1994 classic "Forrest Gump."
Sinise returns with his Lt. Dan Band to headline Rockin' for the Troops, a one-day concert benefiting Naperville-based Operation Support Our Troops-America, Saturday, July 21, at Cantigny Park in Wheaton.
"I just hope we're as jam-packed as we always are, and that people have a great time this year," said Sinise, who plays bass guitar in his band. "I know we're going to have a lot of great music to play."
Operation Support Our Troops-America donated a portion of last year's proceeds to a project Sinise suggested to organizers: the construction of a customized "smart" home for Marine Cpl. John Peck, a native of Antioch and a quadruple amputee. A groundbreaking ceremony was set for this week near Bethesda, Md., Sinise said.
The actor recently talked with the Daily Herald about the home-building project, as well as the Lt. Dan character that inspired his concert tours across the country and overseas to military troops and their families. This is an edited version of that conversation.
Q. The Gary Sinise Foundation has teamed with the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation to build homes for severely injured service members, some of whom have lost all of their limbs. What are some of the homes' innovative features and what do they mean for the vets?
A. It can mean independence. It can mean that whenever they walk into that house or roll into that house in their wheelchair, they'll be reminded that there was a community of support out there who cared enough about them to see that they would have a specially designed home to make their life more independent and more manageable.
That's significant for somebody who's going to live the rest of their lives with a disability because of their service to their country.
Obviously, this wounded warrior is going to have issues for the rest of his life. One thing that he won't have to worry about is where is he going to live and is that house conducive to his needs.
While there are many, many, many wounded warriors out there, we're trying to help some of the more severely wounded warriors first. The concert last year for Operation Support Our Troops-America really, really helped to go toward this effort for Marine Cpl. John Peck.
All of the houses that we are designing have very smart technology. He has one usable prosthetic arm right now. He has no arms and no legs, so life is difficult, but this smart technology and the iPad-run home can really help make things a lot easier for him. This house completely and totally will be designed for him.
Q. Why do you think the Lt. Dan character resonates with troops and veterans?
A. Lt. Dan is an Army guy. He's a military guy. He's hard core and then he gets that taken away from him and he has to sort of work to survive and move on with his life.
Having been involved with so many wounded and disabled veterans, there's no way I can kind of ignore the fact that they relate to the character. Therefore, I went ahead and named my band after the character, because everywhere I go in the military, for years now, they're always associating me with that character and calling me that character.
I know I just said, "Better just embrace it and have some fun with it." I realize the character has a meaning to them. They understand and they want that ending. The ending of Lt. Dan's story in that movie is that he's standing up and he's moving on with his life. He's successful and he's been able to put his combat experience and the catastrophic event of losing his legs behind him.
Certainly, all our wounded warriors want to be able to move forward and succeed in life after their combat service.
Q. What are your goals for your foundation and for your band?
A. The Gary Sinise Foundation, I hope, can just move forward and live a long life and make a difference and continue to make a difference.
I'm always on the move, and they're like the base camp, and I'm like the soldier in the field, constantly out there engaging with people, meeting soldiers, visiting hospitals, playing concerts, supporting charities, attending events in support of our military.
It's just something that I feel is very, very important.