The Role of My Life

Actor Gary Sinise has portrayed military men on-screen. Here, he shares his inspiring story of how he's helping them off-screen too.

By Gary Sinise, Little River, South Carolina

As appeared in

I've played a lot of characters in my more than 30 years as a professional actor, and I'm proud to say a fair number of them have been members of the military. Not a week goes by that someone doesn't refer to me as "Lieutenant Dan," the Vietnam veteran I portrayed in Forrest Gump. For the past several years, I've been Detective Mac Taylor, an emotionally wounded ex-Marine, on CSI: NY.

Through my work as an actor, tours with the USO and a charity organization I cofounded called Operation Iraqi Children, I've been fortunate to have plenty of firsthand contact with our men and women in uniform. I can't say enough about their commitment and courage. Here are just a few things knowing them has taught me:

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Be grateful.
I was a teen during the Vietnam War. While kids just a few years older than me were off fighting in that brutal conflict, I was growing up in suburban Chicago, playing bass, singing in bands with my buddies and performing in school plays. I saw the news reports about the war on TV and joined an antiwar rally once at my high school—really just to get out of class. I didn't have much of a clue about what was going on over there.

I turned 18 as the war was drawing to a close. I was never into school, so college wasn't for me. I wanted to do theater. I got together with a friend from high school, Jeff Perry, and his friend Terry Kinney, and we started the Steppenwolf Theater Company. Things fell into place, especially after I contacted the local Chamber of Commerce about finding a space for our fledgling group. They told me about a vacant Catholic school basement that used to be a teen center. "I'll lease it to you for a dollar a year," the priest told me. We built an 88-seat theater in that space and slowly built a following.

When I was 25 I saw a play called Tracers in Los Angeles in which real Vietnam vets relived their experiences. I sat in the audience transfixed. It was one of the most powerful things I'd ever seen. Later I thought about what I'd been doing when I was 18 and 19, how oblivious I was to what guys my age were going through. I decided to direct a production of the play at Steppenwolf. I had only two vets in my cast and wanted to get a better understanding of the Vietnam experience, so we visited the VA hospital to talk to vets struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder. The battles they described, the haunted look in their eyes—couldn't get them out of my mind. The worst part was hearing how some people at home had treated them. "I was afraid to wear my uniform in public," one vet said.

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I realized how lucky I'd been to have so many opportunities while guys and gals like them had made huge sacrifices, only to be treated with contempt instead of honor. I got involved with vets groups and causes. My wife, Moira, an actress at Steppenwolf, had brothers who were vets. I talked to them about their experiences. Time and again I thought, We have not been grateful enough for our soldiers.

By the time I read the script of Forrest Gump in 1993, I understood immediately the feelings of bitterness and hurt that Lt. Dan's character wrestled with. Portraying him felt like something I was meant to do, like paying a debt of gratitude.

I'm grateful I had the chance. Grateful I earned a supporting actor Oscar nomination for the role. Grateful to marry Moira and be raising our three teens in this country. And most grateful that there are so many men and women who put their lives on the line to defend it.

For more on Operation Iraqi Children, visit OperationIraqiChildren.org.

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