Gary Sinise in his office. Photo: Gary Sinise Foundation

25 Apr Gary Sinise, Grateful American

By Carolyn Worthington

A word. An experience. A chance meeting. Any of these can be life-changing. Call it fate, luck, divine intervention. But whether you grab on to the moments and run with them is what makes them into transformative episodes.

Someone who did recognize these twists and turns and use them to positively shape his future was Gary Sinise.

Gary Sinise as Lt. Dan in Forrest Gump. Photo used with permission by Paramount Pictures

Gary Sinise? Who?

Even if his name doesn’t immediately ring a bell, his face certainly should. And his name will surely sound familiar when you hear him called Lieutenant Dan, his role as the embittered veteran in the 1994 movie Forrest Gump.

Or you may fearfully recognize him as Detective Jimmy Shaker from the 1996 crime thriller Ransom. Or maybe you can’t forget him as Harry S. Truman in Truman, George C. Wallace in George Wallace, or Mac Taylor in the CBS TV series CSI: NY.

And Now for the Next Act: Author

In his new memoir, Grateful American, A Journey From Self to Service, Gary Sinise artfully weaves together his personal journey of his career with the social framework of the ’60s, ’70s, and beyond—a tumultuous period to which most baby boomers can relate.

Sinise is much more than an accomplished actor, director, and musician with extensive awards, including an Emmy and Golden Globe award, an Oscar nomination, and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

What you might not know is how Sinise grew into his lifelong role as a humanitarian, advocating for America’s veterans for almost 40 years.

Demonstrating his talents as a director and storyteller, Sinise starts his book with an emotional scene that sets the stage for his compelling memoir.

Sinise has a message he hopes to deliver through his book.

“I love my country, and I’m grateful to be an American. I know where my freedom comes from, and I do not take for granted the sacrifices of those who provide it. Because of that, I want to do all I can to ensure America’s defenders and their families are never forgotten,” he said.

Lt. Dan Moves From Screen to Life

You undoubtedly remember Forrest Gump starring Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump and Sinise as Lt. Dan Taylor. Gump enlists in the army and is part of Lt. Dan’s 9th Infantry Division platoon in Vietnam in 1967. Lt. Dan loses both of his legs in an ambush but is saved by Gump who carries Lt. Dan, still shooting, out of harm’s way.

Sinise’s portrayal of Lt. Dan immediately resonated with civilian and veteran audiences in 1994. He plays a soldier who not only fights in a war but also must battle with becoming disabled, compounded by depression and bitter feelings—far too common issues affecting combat veterans.

August,1994 with Vietnam Veteran Richard Marbes receiving the- Disabled American Veterans National Commanders Award. Photo: J. Chaney. Courtesy of Thomas Nelson Books/Harper Collins

In his prologue, appropriately titled “Stunned,” Sinise describes how, that same year, he was honored by the Disabled American Veterans for his hard work on Forrest Gump.

As he stood before the crowd of disabled veterans, he could only wonder, “Why me?” And he offered this…

“Hard work?! … Compared to what the people in this ballroom have gone through, my job isn’t close to hard work. All I do is find my mark, say my lines,” he said. “Hard work is being far from home and up to your elbows in dust…wondering when the bullets will stop flying long enough so you can grab an MRE and wolf down your next meal. That’s hard work.”

From there, page after page, Sinise describes the ups and downs of his life and career, always circling back to his feeling of gratitude. “I was so much more than grateful. Already I’d made so many mistakes in my life and so many times I’d chosen the wrong path, yet somehow a mercy was still being shown to me… Something unseen was pulling me along, never giving up on me, helping me find and fulfill my purposes in life.”

Magic Life Moments

A theme throughout his book is how important singular moments can be in your life if we recognize them as the path forward. As he’s learned throughout his life, “Certain decisions, moments, and events in the past can shape and mold the present – and even the future – in uncanny ways.”

If you’re a contemporary of 64-year-old Sinise, you may well relate to the twists and turns of his life.

(Clockwise from top left) Great grandparents, Vito Sinise and Anna Maria Fusco, late 1800’s; Gary’s Dad  Robert Sinise,Early 1950’s Photo Mate US Navy; Gary, age 5, 1960. The uniform was a gift from an uncle serving in the U.S. Army; Family shot, 1964, in front of his first house in Highland Park. All photos from author’s personal collection. Used with permission by Thomas Nelson Books/Harper Collins

Early Years

Sinise is someone who may have seemed like an unlikely future star. Born in Blue Island, Illinois, just south of Chicago, he was the son of Robert and Mylles Sinise. His father was a film editor, starting in the early days of editing in Chicago before moving to Los Angeles. Sinise’s great-grandfather was a first-generation immigrant in America, passing through Ellis Island where he had his name changed from Sinisi to Sinise, presumably at the whim of the clerk.

Many of us can relate to Sinise staring out of classroom windows with glazed eyes or wanting to be part of the in crowd. From an early age, he was an organizer and risk taker, pulling together the neighborhood kids for pickup football, hockey, or baseball games and “borrowing” a friend’s father’s car at age 14 (heck, it was the ’60s). His motto: “If you can think it up, if you can dream it up, then get off your butt and make it happen.”

A turning point in his junior year that shaped the rest of his life was thanks to teacher Barbara Greener Patterson.

Dressed in scruffy clothes and wild curly hair, Sinise was hanging out in the hallway with a friend when Greener Patterson said, “You guys look like you could play gang members.” She then invited them to try out for the school play, West Side Story.

The high school play opened Sinise’s eyes to the idea that acting was more than sitting in class. He learned “it was about relying on instincts, going with your gut… even though I was a lousy reader, I’d found I could memorize lines easily. Onstage, I acted intuitively…I felt free. Confident. At home.”

The small role of Pepe, a Shark in West Side Story, ignited his passion.

(Left to right) Taken by Gary’s mom in 1976 outside the Catholic School basement theater. The first Steppenwolf sign, ever; photo from the author’s personal collection; Steppenwolf Ensemble 1980 Chicago. Photo: Lisa Howe-Ebright. Used with permission by Thomas Nelson Books/Harper Collins

The Beginning of Steppenwolf Theatre

Plays became “it” for Sinise. Rather than going off to college, he and two pals, Terry Kinney and Jeff Perry, along with a few other friends created what would become a world-class theatre company, The Steppenwolf Theatre Company of Chicago. They called it Steppenwolf after the Herman Hesse novel that one of the guys had been reading. The name stuck.

Steppenwolf Theatre provided Sinise with the opportunity to sharpen his acting skills. A turning point was in 1982 when he won an Obie Award for directing the theater’s production of True West. He went on to direct Miles from Home and appeared in numerous films in addition to Forrest Gump.

(Left to right) Gary’s 6th grade band playing at a party in his backyard in Highland Park, 1966. Photo: author’s personal collection); Lieutenant Dan Band playing for Marines at Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan 2009. Photo: Tomas R. DelValle. Used with permission by Thomas Nelson Books/Harper Collins

The Lt. Dan Band

What started out as a fourth grader plucking on a guitar ultimately turned into the Lt. Dan Band, a cover band that tours and plays concerts to honor members of the military.

By the time he was (age), and without any formal training, Sinise decided to create a band with some friends. They called themselves the Beach Dwellers, paying somewhat of a tribute to the Beach Boys. Sinise said no one really knew how to play. His first concert was in his living room, lip-syncing to the Beach Boys’ “Little Deuce Coupe” with an audience of six dancing kids.

From a dream, the Beach Dwellers, and his role in Forrest Gump as a foundation, Sinise and Kimo Williams founded the Lt. Dan Band. After several USO handshake tours in 2003, they began entertaining troops serving at home and abroad. The band now performs close to 30 shows a year for military bases, charities, and fundraisers supporting wounded heroes, Gold Star families, veterans, and troops around the world.

(Left to right) Dec. 2017 in Ninawa, Iraq visiting soldiers. Visiting USMC Lt. Colnel Bryan Forney in the intensive care burn unit at Brooke Army Medical Center 2013. Photo: Jennie Forney. Gary Sinise at Abu Hassan school with Wayne Newton and Chris Isaak in Balad, Iraq Nov. 2003. Photo: Les Martines. Used with permission by Thomas Nelson Books/Harper Collins

Road to the Gary Sinise Foundation

Sinise’s service to veterans began long before his role as Lt. Dan. In the early ’80s, he first supported Vietnam veterans’ groups through the creation of Vets Night, a program offering free dinners and performances at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago to veterans.

His commitment working on behalf of the Disabled American Veterans organization continued into the ’90s, spring boarding off his Lt. Dan fame.

Since the attacks of 9/11, his dedication to active duty defenders, veterans, and first responders has become a tireless crusade of support, service, and gratitude to all who protect our freedom and serve our country.

In recognition of his humanitarian work on behalf of our nation’s defenders, Sinise has earned many distinguished awards ,including 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.

In 2008, he received the Presidential Citizens Medal, the second-highest civilian honor awarded to citizens for exemplary deeds performed in service of the nation. In 2012, Sinise was presented with the Spirit of Hope Award by the Department of Defense, was named an honorary chief petty officer by the U.S. Navy, and in 2013, was pinned as an honorary Marine by General James Amos, commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps.

In 2011, to expand upon his individual efforts, Sinise established the Gary Sinise Foundation. Its mission is to serve and honor our nation’s defenders, veterans, first responders, their families, and those in need by creating and supporting unique programs that entertain, educate, inspire, strengthen, and build communities.

Of its many outreach efforts, the Gary Sinise Foundation is building custom smart homes for severely wounded veterans, serving hearty meals to deploying troops, and hosting spirit-boosting festivals for patients, families, and medical staff members at military hospitals.

Giving back to those who make sacrifices for our nation and encouraging others to do the same has become Sinise’s personal quest and what he hopes will endure as a legacy of service to others.

Perhaps Sinise, consciously or not, is living one of his memorable lines from Forrest Gump. As Lt. Dan says to Forrest, “Now, you listen to me. We all have a destiny. Nothing just happens. It’s all part of a plan!”

Gary Sinise feature image provided by  and used with permission from Thomas Nelson Books/Harper Collins

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