- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Actor Gary Sinise, an advocate for American troops, urged the government and private sector on Memorial Day to spend more money on disabled veterans and to provide more counseling for those who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or become suicidal.

“The issue is what happens when they leave the hospital. They are still struggling for benefits and still struggling to recover and get things that are owed to them and, quite frankly, we have just fallen down in certain areas where we need to do more,” Mr. Sinise said.

“There are 3 million disabled veterans from World War II until now,” he said. “We can never do enough for them in my opinion, but we can always try to do more.”

In the Iraq and Afghanistan theaters, more than 35,000 American warriors have been wounded, Mr. Sinise said.

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“That’s a lot of wounded. Times have changed and we’re saving lives we never could have saved before; and that means we will have a lot more disabled veterans in this country,” Mr. Sinise said.

“These guys are surviving these IED attacks because we can get to them very quickly and get them off the battlefield and get them into hospitals. But then what?”

In a wide-ranging interview with reporters and editors at The Washington Times, Mr. Sinise touched on the damage caused by the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, his work for veterans organizations and his political aspirations.

He said he doesn’t have any political aspirations.

“I make a good living right now. I am getting a lot done. How much does Congress get done?” Mr. Sinise said.

“I’m not a political activist; that’s not what I do. I try to help people out,” he said.

“I have certain issues I’m very passionate about. I love this country, I think it’s a great country, and I believe in those who are willing to defend it, and I’m trying to help them and their families,” Mr. Sinise said.

In addition to his role in “CSI: NY,” Mr. Sinise also has starred in “Apollo 13,” “Ransom,” “Reindeer Games,” “Snake Eyes” and “Of Mice and Men.” However, it was Mr. Sinise’s role as Lt. Dan Taylor, the disabled Vietnam veteran he played in “Forrest Gump,” that has endeared him to the troops and veterans to whom he has dedicated his life.

“I think one of the hard lessons we learned from Vietnam was how not to treat our servicemen,” Mr. Sinise said.

Mr. Sinise cited his brother-in-law who served in Vietnam as an example of bureaucratic bungling. It took him three years to persuade the government to give him the veterans benefits he earned.

“If you’re going to serve your country, voluntarily serve and sent into harm’s way, get hurt and come back … the country has got to look after you,” Mr. Sinise said.

“We’ve always known that. This country has tried to do that, but it’s a massive bureaucracy with too much red tape and too many ways to find excuses not to give you your benefits, so we have to find a better way to take care of our volunteers,” Mr. Sinise said.

The military also got a bad rap after the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, he said.

“Fifteen dumbbells at this prison decide to get a little dopey, and they become the face of the military for months,” Mr. Sinise said.

“I was in touch with dozens of soldiers and dozens of Marines who are doing great work and doing the right thing over there, yet they weren’t getting any attention. And the little girl with the cigarette hanging out of her mouth and the dog leash, she was getting all the press, and it was negative, negative, negative. And I called up my publicist and said, ‘Get me on television, I’m going to show some other pictures,’ and I went on television … and I showed pictures of the troops handing out stuffed animals to kids and getting them school supplies and doing all kinds of great things for kids,” Mr. Sinise said.

“That was frustrating, but bad news sells,” he said.

Mr. Sinise and Laura Hillenbrand, author of “Seabiscuit: An American Legend,” are the founders of Operation Iraqi Children, which provides school supplies to children in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their interests crossed paths as he was searching for a way to get the needed supplies overseas and she was trying to get her novel translated into Arabic for the children.

He got his idea after watching American soldiers rebuild a school that had dirt floors and no bathroom. After sharing this story with his children’s schoolmates, he persuaded them to conduct a school drive to collect the supplies.

He is also a supporter of the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial and regularly tours his musical group, the Lt. Dan Band, through the United Service Organizations (USO) for the troops.

He was in the nation’s capital this week to serve as honorary marshal in the National Memorial Day Parade and as co-host in the Sunday night concert.

He recalled his first appearance at the concert five years ago.

“I’m an actor, and now all of a sudden I’m rocking out in front of 200,000 people,” Mr. Sinise said. “I fell in love with the concert and what it reminds everyone about.”

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