When actor and musician Gary Sinise was deciding what to name his touring USO band, he turned to what many consider his most iconic character: Lt. Dan Taylor from the 1994 film "Forrest Gump."
"Lt. Dan at the end of the movie is standing up and moving on with his life," Sinise said this week. "And I think many of the veterans I've worked with can relate to that -- putting their combat experience behind them and moving forward."
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Sinise and his Lt. Dan Band will headline the annual Rockin' for the Troops event Saturday, July 19, at Cantigny Park near Wheaton. Amid the tanks and memorials, a temporary concert stage will be set up for nearly 12 hours of music and arts to support the troops.
The event draws thousands to hear Sinise's band and others performing to benefit Operation Support our Troops America, a Naperville-based organization that sends care packages to active-duty military personnel and provides support to their families at home.
The turnout for Rockin' for the Troops is impressive given that Operation Support Our Troops began just a decade ago. Established in 2003 after Deborah Rickert's family responded to the Sept. 11 attacks with two of her three sons eventually joining the U.S. military, the group began operating from her Naperville kitchen. With care packages for U.S. soldiers overseas needing postage and shipping costs, Rickert and her small but hardy band of volunteers eventually expanded into warehouses, and fundraising events such as the car show Cruisin' for the Troops were needed to keep up with demand.
Then the word of Lt. Dan onstage caught Rickert's attention and she made the connection between her mission and Sinise's.
"They've been doing exceptional work for such a long time," Sinise said. "I grew up in the Chicago area and at one point went to Glenbard West when I was a freshman. So when they asked me to come and do this show nine years ago in Wheaton where I'd spent time as a young person, I was eager to do it."
Rickert's invitation for the well-known actor to play music onstage was not out of the blue. Sinise had for a while been increasing his visibility as a musician in addition to his high-profile film and television work. And while he may best be known for films like "Apollo 13" and TV shows like "CSI: NY," Sinise was a musician long before he pursued acting.
"I was in fourth grade when my parents got me my first guitar," he remembers. "And even before that I'd lip-sync to records before I really knew how to play."
Lessons and endless hours rehearsing in garage bands eventually led Sinise to become a formidable guitar and bass player by high school, and he continued playing in groups into his early 20s. Establishing Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre and increased film roles eventually limited his time to play, and Sinise set aside his music for the time being. But by then music was in his blood for good.
"I was in a performance of 'A Streetcar Named Desire' in 1997 at Steppenwolf," he said, "And I was working with Columbia College professor Kimo Williams, who was writing music for the play."
Eventually the two jammed and rehearsed when not working on the production, and when Sinise started looking for musicians to bring overseas on USO tours in 2004, he knew who to call first. Together, Sinise and Williams founded the Lt. Dan Band.
"It was the deployments to Iraq in Afghanistan after Sept. 11 that were really the catalyst for me to get involved with the USO," he said. "I was doing these handshake tours overseas and I thought to myself that I could be doing so much more if I had a band, so I reached out to my friends and we've been doing our best to support the troops ever since."
The past decade has seen the Lt. Dan Band give hundreds of performances across the country to raise money and awareness for military members overseas, and the group's USO shows have taken them from Iraq and Afghanistan to Germany and Japan. The group has developed a healthy setlist of Motown and classic rock covers, and performances often fill venues seating thousands.
And just as the Lt. Dan Band's profile was rising, so too was OSOT, which was looking for a larger and entertainment-based fundraising opportunity.
"We saw the success of the Lt. Dan Band and when we reached out to Gary, and saw the largest park nearby was Cantigny and that it was military themed, we thought the pairing couldn't be better," Rickert said.
Sinise accepted, and with the exception of a scheduling conflict last year, the Lt. Dan Band has returned to Cantigny every July to please thousands of concertgoers.
"It really is one of the best and most memorable events we do," Sinise said. "The crowd is great and OSOT has done such great things over the years that we really look forward to it."
Rockin' for the Troops has become OSOT's signature event, and is one of the largest service member fundraisers of its kind in the country. The organization now ships 120,000 pounds of comfort items to U.S. troops annually, and is able to fund programs like Leap of Faith, which helps family members with the grieving process for those lost during war.
Rockin' for the Troops has expanded as well, with three additional music acts like the Motown cover group The Voices and Christian rock band Audio Adrenaline sharing time with an All-Veteran Parachute Team and cooking demonstrations from celebrity chef Myron Mixon.
"It's wonderful we get this variety and turnout because Chicago perhaps doesn't have as much visibility for veterans affairs as the coasts," Rickert said, "So to see people coming from all across the country to see Gary and share in this really means so much. I always say it's like a wedding because it goes by so fast!"
But for Rickert, it's the clear-eyed dedication for U.S. troops embodied by Sinise that keeps supporters coming.
"He really is the Bob Hope of our time."