Ron Onesti: The REAL Lt. Dan

Backstage with The Arcada Theatre’s Ron Onesti

A guy whom I have admired for a long time is actor Gary Sinise. Many know him as the wheelchair-bound wounded Vietnam vet Lt. Dan Taylor in the blockbuster film “Forrest Gump.” He is known for so many other projects including “Of Mice and Men,” “Truman,” “The Green Mile” and of course, “Apollo 13.” On television, Gary has had many appearances including a regular spot on “CSI:NY” and “Criminal Minds.” He also started a small theater group as a teenager with his friend John Malkovich that has thrived for over 50 years, the Steppenwolf Theatre, in his hometown of Chicago.

I was fortunate to meet Gary as we both received an award in 2008 called the “Ellis Island Medal of Honor,” one of only a handful of medals recognized by Congress. Several presidents, world leaders, scientists, athletes and show biz greats have also been bestowed with this honor. It is given to civilians who have contributed much to the American experience. How I got it, I will never be sure!

Since then, we have bumped into each other at various events. Most recently, I saw him at a Gary Sinise Foundation event at Hines Veterans Hospital, celebrating the 1 millionth meal provided to wounded vets by the organization. Gary was serving food to the vets. A more humble superstar you will not find.

As a musician, Gary played in a couple of scratch bands during high school and after. But it wasn’t until his famed role as Lt. Dan that his musical destiny and passion for veterans truly emerged from his very soul.

Although Gary’s father and uncles were in WWII and the Korean War, they did not speak very much about their experiences. It was his brothers-in-law who fought in the Vietnam War that really gave Gary a better understanding of the perils of war, and the resounding effects it had later on for those veterans.

“When I became more aware of what had happened during Vietnam, it hit me hard,” Gary said when I ran into him recently. “We were losing a thousand soldiers a week; the casualty reports were devastating.”

After the release of “Forrest Gump,” Gary’s role as a double-amputee wounded war Vet drew greater awareness and placed him at the forefront of fundraising for organizations including Disabled American Veterans and the USO.

“When the film first came out, not a lot of folks knew who Gary Sinise was, but so many more people knew Lt. Dan,” Gary said. “So I got my music buddies together and formed a band named after that character, and the Lt. Dan Band was born!”

The band has played numerous events raising millions of dollars for well over 25 organizations for veterans.

I have found Gary to be a quiet hero, a soft-spoken yet driven individual who parlayed an acting career into a lifetime of making a difference in the lives of American soldiers and their families.

“When my brothers-in-law told me of how they were treated when they returned from battle in ’Nam, I was devastated,” he said. “Here they were, just two days before they were in a rice field exchanging bullets and losing battlefield brothers. They landed at the airport, proudly wearing their uniforms expecting a hero’s welcome. However, they were greeted by anti-war protesters who literally spit at them. They went into the bathroom and immediately changed their uniforms. They never really overcame the pain they felt both on the battlefield and on their home turf.”

When we think of great films of the 20th century, the 1995 Oscar Award winning “Forrest Gump” comes in at #37 on the American Film Institute’s 1,500 most inspirational films. We all know the “Life is like a box of chocolates” analogy Forrest wisely states on the park bench. We know his scenes with Elvis, Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Nixon. We know his love affair with his beloved Jenny.

But what I believe does not get the attention it deserves is the power the film had to propel Lt. Dan to become a “real” person, initiative and lasting life-altering brand. Gary has received many awards and commendations, but if you ask him what he is most proud of, he will not hesitate to bring up the effect Lt. Dan had on him, and on veterans today.

“It’s hard to believe the film came out about 30 years ago and Lt. Dan and the Lt. Dan Band are still going strong,” said Sinise. “It’s a great feeling that the foundation and the band has touched so many lives, and it fuels my fire to keep it going to impact even more,” Gary said.

If you know me, you know that I am a huge fan of veterans and our American flag. To know Gary Sinise is to know a true American hero. I bet nobody would have thought that somewhat “quirky” film would have had such a lasting impact on veterans even to this day.

For me, “Life is like an Italian deli, you never know what ‘hero’ you are going to get!” It is truly amazing to see how tall a double-amputee can stand, and just how limitless the power of passion can be. Long live Lt. Dan, and God bless Gary Sinise.

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