Thursday, May 28, 2009

The 290th newsmaker interview at The Washington Times was unique. Actor Gary Sinise, star of CBS’s “CSI: NY” series, was grilled by editors and reporters for more than an hour on Memorial Day about his work on behalf of the troops. In the end, the normally hard-nosed crowd gave a unanimous round of applause to a man whose commitment to America’s service members clearly is authentic. The endorsement was more heartfelt than any I have seen extended to leading U.S. politicians and distinguished foreign leaders who have graced our Green Room in the past.

As he was being introduced in the foyer before the interview, Mr. Sinise welcomed the adolescents present, brought by their parents, and invited them to come forward and receive autographs. The actor and film director, perhaps best-known for playing Lt. Dan in the movie “Forrest Gump” - a Vietnam veteran who had lost both his legs - subsequently was seated, and the questions began. His message was simple: Americans are doing a fine job in providing support, but we “can always try to do more.”

The Emmy and Golden Globe Award winner said his interest in the military began in the 1980s in Chicago when he was moved by a play to have greater regard for Vietnam veterans. Coming from a family with a military tradition - a brother and two of his wife’s brothers served in Vietnam - he also said he felt “tremendous guilt” as a young man when he discovered the suffering of some U.S. troops, and he has remained active in the military community ever since.

Mr. Sinise applauded the progress the nation has made in caring for members of the armed forces. Veterans are treated far better today then they were in the Vietnam era and its immediate aftermath, he said. “Excellent care” is provided in our hospitals and on the battlefield. Yet it is precisely because we are able to save many more lives than before that we have a shortage of resources, he said. There are more than 35,000 wounded Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in need of care, he said. While government help is important, it also can lead to more “bureaucracy” and “red tape.” Private Americans also need to rally to find solutions, he said.

For his part, Mr. Sinise helps in many ways. He frequently goes overseas on United Service Organizations (USO) tours with his rock band. In 2004, he founded - along with author Laura Hillenbrand - Operation Iraqi Children, a program that sends school supplies to the troops so they can hand the supplies out to children in Iraq and Afghanistan. This strengthens the bonds between U.S. service members and the community as well as improving the quality of local education. Mr. Sinise also is providing assistance to build the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial.

The actor lamented what he called the frequent “negative” stories in the press about U.S. troops rather than stories that highlight their positive contributions. One way in which he sought to correct such imbalances was by promoting the recent documentary “Brothers at War,” which highlights the issues affecting military families. He participated in this project, he said, because “I related to it.”

He expressed great admiration for those who have a calling to risk their lives for others, including firefighters and police officers, and said his commitment to the troops transcends administrations and political parties. “I love this country, I think it is a great country, and I believe in those who want to defend it,” he said.

Mr. Sinise was at a loss for words when asked why there are not more celebrities who are equally involved with the military community. “I don’t know; I wish I knew,” he said, especially because “it’s a dangerous world” and the work of the troops is indispensable. Yet he was circumspect in assessing his own role and motivations. “It’s not a responsibility, it’s a personal decision,” he said.

“The soldiers are the soldiers, the troops are the troops, the veterans are the veterans,” Mr. Sinise said. For him, the call is simple, transcends politics and partisanship and comes straight from the heart. No wonder we couldn’t help but cheer.

• Grace Vuoto is the editor of Base News, a citizen-journalism project of The Washington Times for America’s military community.

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