Gary Sinise on Giving Back to Veterans

Acclaimed actor Gary Sinise, who devotes much of his time and energy to supporting the men and women of the military, explains how you can do the same in your own community.

Posted in , Feb 26, 2016

Guideposts: Actor Gary Sinise says everyone can be a resource for our troops and their families

In 2003, I made my first USO trip to Iraq, never dreaming that 13 years later we’d still have a military presence there and in Afghanistan. The war on terror has proven to be the longest armed conflict in our nation’s history, yet the dangerous work done by our service members can easily be forgotten as they, as well as our veterans and the families who stand by them, fall out of the 24-hour news cycle.

Still, thousands of Gold Star families, whose loved ones died in action, are struggling with their grief, while Blue Star families, those with active-duty members, cope with the stress of deployment and the aftermath of battle.

Service members and veterans are facing serious mental-health challenges. If you’ve seen your buddies killed or injured, you’re going to deal with that long after you’ve returned to civilian life. It’s going to affect your family. You might have to overcome physical injuries.

Maybe you live in a small town where there aren’t many services available. The veterans’ hospital is too far away. You need help.

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The government can’t do everything. I believe we private citizens must step in to take care of our troops, as we all benefit from their service. It’s a very small percentage of our population who defend us all. It’s imperative that we care for them before, during and after the battle. “We want to be with you,” I tell them, “when you’re getting ready to go, when you’re there and when you return.”

As a public figure I have tried to find ways to do some good. I’ve visited hospitals and military bases, performed in war zones; I started the Gary Sinise Foundation to expand my efforts to help. Serving and honoring our defenders has become my calling. But you don’t need to be a Hollywood actor to help. Every citizen can support our heroes and their families.

LISTEN TO THEIR STORIES. I’ve got military veterans in my family going back generations. My uncle Jack was a navigator on a B-17 bomber during World War II. My uncle Jerry was on a ship in the Pacific when the Japanese surrendered. My dad served in the Navy during the Korean conflict. My wife’s two brothers fought in Vietnam. In particular the elder brother, Lt. Col. Boyd McCanna “Mac” Harris, has been an inspiration to me—and to many others.

A West Point graduate, Mac served two tours of duty. Later he taught at West Point and then at Fort Leavenworth. They actually give awards in his name at both places—and they don’t do that for just anybody. Three- and four-star generals tell me what a difference he made to them as a teacher. He was a great leader. He rewrote the leadership manual for the Army in the 1980s.

Tragically, this man who had survived the most terrible fighting was struck down by cancer at age 39. If you ever wondered why my character on CSI: NY was named Mac, you can stop wondering. We named our son Mac too.

All soldiers have a story. So do their families. Those stories need to be told. Listen to them, learn from them. Visit a VA or military hospital. Talk to your family members who served. Become a pen pal to a soldier overseas. Simply showing you care can mean a lot.

LOOK TO THEIR NEEDS. There have been five surviving quadruple amputees from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I have had the privilege of knowing them all. Incredible people. One, Travis Mills, served with the 82nd Airborne in Afghanistan and while on patrol during his third tour of duty, on April 10, 2012, he set his backpack down on an improvised explosive device (IED) buried in the road. The explosion took his arms and portions of his legs.

One would think that that degree of impairment would slow a person down, even drain him of the will to live. But with Travis it’s just the opposite.

I met him shortly after he arrived at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. His positive attitude was awesome, his humor and his sense of gratitude. I’m sure he has his down moments, but in public he never fails to spread light and joy. He became an inspiration to his fellow warriors at the hospital, and every time I’m with him I’m energized by his resilience.

My foundation helped build Travis a house in Maine specially adapted to his needs and those of his family. It has an elevator, accessible bathrooms and all the latest technology to make life as smooth as possible. We’ve managed to play a part in building houses like that for four of the surviving quadruple amputees, with the fifth coming soon.

You could say we did a service for Travis and his family—he’s devoted to his wife and daughter—but I see it the other way around. Knowing Travis and guys like him puts any complaints I might have in perspective, for they have done a greater service than I could ever do. Watching so many of them face their challenges and move ahead in life has motivated me to continue to serve them with everything I have in me.

SPREAD THE WORD. Nobody likes war. But if our troops are called to defend our freedoms, we must support and honor them. If we disagree with the way our military is being used we should hold politicians, not soldiers, accountable.

Vietnam veterans, like the ones in my wife’s family, survived yearlong deployments, getting shot at, watching their buddies die, and then came home and had many of their countrymen turn their backs on them. That was a shame and a tragedy. Many disappeared into the shadows, pretending they hadn’t even served. The homeless-veteran population soared after Vietnam. I didn’t want that to happen to those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

A lot of what I do is just raising awareness. Every year I play a concert for the children of our fallen heroes, an event we call Snowball Express. Do you know that there are thousands of such children, all of them going through the grief of losing a mother or a father?

The music from my Lt. Dan Band gives them a lift. The smiles tell me as much. But more importantly, concerts like that, fund-raising events, even articles like this, are ways to keep our military and their families front and center.

Do you know anyone whose relatives have been deployed? Those families are constantly facing fear, the worry that they’re going to get the call they dread. No one like that should feel alone. And they won’t if you reach out to them. You can run errands for them, babysit their kids or just listen. We are each individually a resource for fighting men and women, veterans and military families.

SERVE. You don’t need to be a Florence Nightingale or a Mother Teresa to serve others. Just be yourself. You have your own gifts. I confess that the first time I visited a military hospital—it was Landstuhl medical center, in Germany—I was apprehensive.

What would I say? How could I comfort people who were grievously wounded, who might have lost a limb, whose lives had been changed forever? What if they were angry or bitter, like the Vietnam vet Lt. Dan Taylor, the character I played in the movie Forrest Gump?

The first ward I walked into was full of banged-up guys. The room was quiet and I was unsure of how to get started. I went up to a soldier and held out my hand. “I’m Gary. How are you?” Another soldier hobbled over. “Hey, Lieutenant Dan, pleased to meet ya.”

Soon there was a group around me, chatting, telling me about themselves. I got so wrapped up in their stories I forgot my own awkwardness. I’d gained fame playing a fictional wounded vet, and that character brought these true stories, from real-life Lieutenant Dans, to life, and opened up the conversation.

Service is a great healer. I remember being fearful after 9/11, worried for my children and their future. But often when I reach out to a service member or a military family, my fears melt away. I’m reminded that goodness is still present in the world; there are many who have chosen service above self.

The people who need help aren’t so far away. Look for a nearby VA, a VFW or American Legion post, your church, the Chamber of Commerce in your community. They will help you find veterans or military families in your area. There are more than 40,000 military-oriented charities in this country, many providing outstanding services. They all need volunteers. Your support, however it manifests itself, will mean a lot to the military community.

PRAY. The Gary Sinise Foundation gets thousands of e-mails a month. We have a staff that responds to every one of them. Though the stories of what people are going through can be heartwrenching, we can’t assist everyone, much as we would like to. Each time I read a letter from a military member or veteran who is going through tough times my heart breaks. I often find myself sending out extra prayers.

After the attacks of 9/11, our president called for a national day of prayer. Places of worship across the country were filled with people who were in pain, grieving, filled with fear, looking for some sense of hope, just like me.

I went to our family’s Catholic church that day. I had done some work with veterans in the 1980s and 1990s, but nothing like what I’m doing now. Our priest talked about service and how if we gave of ourselves at a dark time we could find healing. I soon discovered exactly what he meant.

Pray for all those who serve and their families. Pray that God watches out for them as they go into harm’s way. And remember, while we can all be fearful and unsure at times, serving others in a cause greater than ourselves gives us a strength and a confidence more powerful than any fears we may face.

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Gary Sinise stars in a new show, Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders, playing an agent in the FBI’s international division. The series airs weekly at 10pm EST on CBS. 

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