- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Gary Sinise’s greatest role is working on behalf of America’s veterans. Through his self-named foundation and with his Lt. Dan Band — named for his “Forrest Gump” character, a soldier who loses both legs in Vietnam — Mr. Sinise has largely turned his back on Hollywood to focus on lobbying for and entertaining American heroes.

“I pay the band members and pay the costs [of touring], but I didn’t start the band to make a living,” Mr. Sinise told The Washington Times. “I make my living as an actor. This band is for giving back to the men and women who serve our country and trying to support military charities and [events] that highlight military service.”

In keeping with that mission, Mr. Sinise and his cover band will play the District’s Howard Theatre Saturday evening, an event to kick off the annual GI Film Festival, now in its 10th year and running Saturday through May 29 around the capital region.

Mr. Sinise has been a part of the film festival almost since the beginning, working with husband-and-wife co-founders Brandon Millett and Laura Law-Millett to screen films that don’t follow the “typical” narrative that Mr. Millett and Ms. Law-Millett found of movies about vets in the mid-aughts.

“Our films don’t end with a gunshot to the head [and] fade to black,” Ms. Law-Millett, an Army veteran, said at a recent press event. “Our films don’t shy away from the horror of wars or issues facing veterans, but they all end with hope and inspiration.”

Mr. Sinise praises the festival for its work in the past decade; it has become the premier event for military-themed films.

“Ten years ago, there were Hollywood-themed films that were not shining a very good light on our military, and they wanted to kind of counter that by starting a festival that would pay tribute to the men and women who have served,” he said. “The first year that I was there, it was small compared to what they have now.”

On Friday evening, Mr. Sinise will host an Invincible Spirit Festivals at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.

“I thought, ‘Hey, we’re gonna be [in the District] anyway,’ so I offered to bring the band,” he said of the veterans hospital event, which will be closed to the public.

“When I walk into these hospitals and see some of these folks, they recognize me from the movie,” he said, noting the “bittersweet” smiles of veterans. “Here they are, laying in hospital beds missing arms and legs, but I think that [the Lt. Dan] character gives them a little bit of hope, because he’s OK in the end, and that’s what we want for all of them.”

Misconceptions

Mr. Sinise believes it is often difficult for the general public to appreciate the sacrifices — mental and physical — undertaken by military veterans until they are personally connected to one. This is especially true, he believes, of conflicts from Vietnam to the present campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have often divided the public.

“If you don’t have any connection to the military, you don’t feel that it’s affecting you in any way,” he said, “but it actually is. These are our defenders; they go out there no matter who the president is, and no matter whether they want this war or not, they’re gonna go. That’s their job.”

Long before his on-screen turn as Lt. Dan Taylor in 1994, Mr. Sinise was supporting Vietnam veterans while an up-and-coming actor on the Chicago stages during the 1970s and ‘80s. Two of Mr. Sinise’s brothers-in-law served in Vietnam.

“I had a very personal connection to Vietnam veterans,” Mr. Sinise said. “So when the opportunity came up to play one in ‘Forrest Gump,’ I very much wanted to do it because of the Vietnam veterans that I had met, because of the way I felt about what happened to them when they came home from war,” which included often-harsh treatment by a public that had turned against the conflict in Southeast Asia.

Mr. Sinise’s Lt. Dan was a new type of Vietnam veteran, he believes, in that, unlike in such films as “Coming Home,” “First Blood” and countless others before and since, the ultimate fate of his character was hopeful despite losing his legs, his optimism and falling deep into alcoholism and despair before coming out the other side by closing credits.

“Prior to that, you didn’t know if [movie Vietnam vets] were going to be all right at the end of the film,” he said. “Maybe they were gonna go off and disappear, as so many of our Vietnam veterans did.

“But in ‘Forrest Gump,’ at the end of that story, he is standing up again. He’s a wounded veteran, but he’s got new legs, he’s married, and he’s a successful businessman. And that was a story that we hadn’t seen before. That is a resilient storyline that we want for all service members returning from war. So I think that’s one of the reasons that Lt. Dan kind of connects to our military so much, because they all want that positive story — especially if you’ve been wounded. “

Little wonder that Mr. Sinise has remained such a friend to the GI Film Festival, whose founders aimed to alter moviegoers’ perceptions of military veterans while not shying away from the issues that bedevil them in combat and at home.

“Laura knew that these character portrayals bore no resemblance to anyone that she ever knew in the military,” Mr. Millett said of his spouse, a West Point graduate who specialized in Army intelligence. “And I had spent my career as a media strategist helping companies large and small to overcome negative publicity and to take control of their narrative in the press. So we both felt that this was an image problem that needed to be addressed, because the consequences of not addressing it were so significant.”

Songs of freedom

Mr. Sinise says that too many people take for granted the sacrifices made by the U.S. military, particularly when conflicts take place half a world away.

“But to our service members, it is very real and very personal and it’s day by day,” he said. “So I feel that as long as we have people who are willing to sign on the dotted line, put on a uniform, and go out and fight for us, we should make sure at the very least that they know they are appreciated for what they are doing,” Mr. Sinise said. “That’s why I go out there all the time.”

Following his Saturday concert, Mr. Sinise will head back to his Los Angeles home for other engagements, then return to Washington to co-host the National Memorial Day Concert on May 29 with fellow actor Joe Mantegna, broadcast from the National Mall. He also will stick around for the National Memorial Day Parade on May 30.

All of it, he said, is for the heroes.

“That’s why I created the Gary Sinise Foundation. And I just don’t want what happened to our Vietnam veterans when they came home from war to happen ever again to somebody who is willing to sign up and serve our country,” he said.

For the Howard Theatre concert, which will be open to the public, Mr. Sinise said that military and civilian attendees alike can look forward to a rockin’ evening as he and his band cover a breadth of tunes from classic rock to contemporary.

“This is gonna be a great year [for the GI Film Festival], and we’re gonna kick it off with a big rock concert,” the performer said.


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