When Gary Sinise signed on to act in "Forrest Gump" 20 years ago, he didn't know his character, Lt. Dan, would still be meaningful to so many people all these years later.
"The only thing I knew was that it was a quality production team. I knew we were working with top folks in the business on a good script and a good story," Sinise said Tuesday. "But I didn't know it would do as well as it did. There was no way I could predict that playing that character would evolve into something that's much bigger than a movie."
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The Lt. Dan character found a new audience shortly after 9/11, Sinise said, when he started hearing from veterans who saw themselves in the double amputee he played on the big screen.
"I realized early on in the Iraq War that the character meant more to these veterans than a funny guy in a movie," Sinise said. "Little did we know that we'd have a whole new generation of real life Lt. Dans after 9/11, but we do. If I can use that character and my celebrity to help them, then that's the way I can serve."
Sinise -- a suburban native -- will be doing just that on Sunday when he visits Arlington Heights for a full day of fundraising for veterans through The Gary Sinise Foundation at Arlington International Racecourse's First Responders Day.
Part of Sunday's event will include a ticketed luncheon led by Master of Ceremonies Tom Dreesen, a comedian and an ambassador for the foundation.
Former Army Sgt. Bryan Anderson, a triple amputee from Rolling Meadows and an ambassador for Sinise's foundation, will be an honored guest at the event.
Sinise first met Anderson when he was being treated at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in 2005. Sinise was visiting wounded veterans and bonded with Anderson because they were both from Illinois.
The Gary Sinise Foundation Fundraiser Luncheon starts at noon in the International Room at Arlington International Racecourse. Tickets are $250 per person and can be purchased online.
Arlington Park will honor veterans and first responders through other events Sunday, with proceeds going to the Gary Sinise Foundation. Admission is free for firefighters, police officers, other first responders and military members with badge or proof of ID. First responders also will receive a 25 percent discount on food in the park.
Music from Detailed Guys, a band of Chicago Fire Department members, will entertain. Other activities will include bagpipe performances, a police K9 unit, a chili cook-off and fire trucks on site to explore. Also, the former FDNY Rescue Truck 4 that was at ground zero on Sept. 11, 2001, will be there courtesy of the Remembrance Rescue Project.
"I've met thousands of military service members and veterans over the years and I have been so inspired by them. I try to go out and inspire others to get involved with supporting them," Sinise said. "These are the men and women who defend our freedom. We want to make sure that they know they are appreciated."