Sunday, May 31, 2009

Gary Sinise, best known as detective Mac Taylor on “CSI: New York” and Lt. Dan in the Academy Award-winning “Forrest Gump,” sat down for lunch Monday with editors and reporters at The Washington Times.

Mr. Sinise, who was in town to co-emcee the previous night’s memorial concert and serve as honorary marshal of the National Memorial Day Parade, makes an effort to speak out for the military and veterans.

A tour with the United Service Organizations (USO) took him to Iraq in 2003, when he met Iraqi children in desperate need of school supplies.

“Five kids would have one pencil, and they’d pass it around,” he said.

So Mr. Sinise took action: He co-founded Operation Iraqi Children with “Seabiscuit” author Laura Hillenbrand in 2004. The organization collects supplies for Iraqi schools and ships them to U.S. soldiers, who deliver them to children. The operation recently added Afghanistan and Djibouti to its delivery stops.

Mr. Sinise said the idea took shape after his second tour in Iraq, where he journeyed with troops to a school they refurbished in the city of Balad. The school originally had a dirt floor, a hole in the ground for a toilet and no windows. The American soldiers spruced it up, installing windows, a toilet and a cement floor.

“At that time … probably for every positive story there was maybe 10 negative stories coming out of what was going on over there,” Mr. Sinise said. “I was seeing the troops interacting with the Iraqis in a very personal way, in a very protective way, in a very supportive way. And I wanted to do something else to support that.”

Mr. Sinise said he knew he couldn’t tour with the USO every month and wanted to do something from home. So when he returned to the U.S., he showed video and pictures from his trip at his children’s school and asked the students to bring in school supplies for Iraqi children.

“The kids really got into bringing all this stuff in for the [Iraqi] kids. … They put pictures of their classes in the boxes,” he said.

The first shipment made its way to Iraq soon afterward.

Through a mutual Army contact, Mr. Sinise then teamed up with Ms. Hillenbrand, who was working to send Arabic translations of her book to Iraqi youths. They launched a Web site for their newly founded Operation Iraqi Children, and after help from the nonprofit People to People International and TV promotions, the operation grew. Mr. Sinise said the organization has shipped about 300,000 school supply kits overseas and also thousands of pairs of shoes.

The organization’s Web site shows letters, pictures and e-mails from grateful U.S. soldiers and Iraqi children. “My name is Hadeel,” wrote one Iraqi teenager. “I am very grateful to your help to Iraqi children. … It’s nice to know there [are] still good people in this world. … You made a lot of kids happy.”

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