Actor Gary Sinise

The Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning CSI: NY star—also of Forrest Gump fame—explains his new documentary, Lt. Dan Band: For the Common Good, and his efforts to bring attention to America’s disabled veterans.

Gary Sinise got hooked on acting in high school and, at age 18, co-founded Chicago's acclaimed Steppenwolf Theater. He's built an impressive résumé on stage and on both sides of the camera, winning numerous awards. In CBS' CSI: New York, he plays the lead and occasionally demonstrates his talent on the bass guitar, which he plays in his Lt. Dan Band, named for his alter ego in the film Forrest Gump. Sinise is also passionate about his humanitarian work with Operation International Children and his newly-formed foundation to benefit military service members.


Tavis: Pleased to welcome Gary Sinise back to this program. Starting July 4th you can catch a new documentary about his efforts on behalf of U.S. soldiers, appropriately named after one of his memorable characters, Lieutenant Dan. Gary, good to see you again, sir.

Gary Sinise: Thank you. Thank you. Good to be here.

Tavis: You were on this program when we first got started, I think, some years ago, so we’re in our eighth season, you’re about to start your eighth season. You’re still on television.

Sinise: Yeah, luckily. (Laughter) Luckily, we’re starting our eighth season.

Tavis: Still having fun?

Sinise: I am. It’s been the perfect thing at the right time, and I have a lot of friends who are wonderful actors. They’d like to be in my shoes. So I’m just going to enjoy it while we got it and it’s been a good ride so far.

Tavis: You can’t talk about Gary Sinise and characters and, hence the name of the band, not talk about Lieutenant Dan. What did that role in “Forrest Gump” do for you, for your career?

Sinise: Oh, gosh. Well, a few things. On the career side, certainly when you’re in a movie that’s seen by just about everybody multiple times like that and gets all the awards and goes through that and you’re playing a prominent role, you can’t help but have it kind of inflate and invigorate your career, which it did.

But it also introduced me to some wonderful organizations. Because I played a disabled veteran, I was approached by the Disabled American Veterans organization about a month after the movie opened. They invited me to their national convention.

I didn’t know anything about the Disabled American Veterans. That was 1994, and ever since I went to that convention I’ve been very, very actively involved with Disabled American Veterans and our wounded service members, and now we certainly have more coming home every day that need our help.

So to be a part of that organization and to support that and to try and draw attention to what’s going on with our disabled veterans is something that’s kind of a privilege and an honor for me to do that.

That was 1994; I’ve been involved ever since. Now we just broke ground, on Veteran’s Day about six months ago on the American Veterans Disabled for Life memorial, which will be opened permanently, a permanent tribute to over three million disabled veterans that we have, to honor their sacrifices.

That will open on Veteran’s Day 2012 . So I’ve been privileged to be national spokesperson for that effort.

Tavis: It’s one thing to play the character, another thing to be invited to the convention. But something must have happened at that convention, obviously, that pulled you into now a lifelong service and commitment to the issue. So what happened that made you stick with it? What did you see, what was the experience, what happened that got you?

Sinise: It was very moving, Tavis just to go there, first of all. I didn’t know anything about the organization. I had been involved with some veterans’ groups, Vietnam veterans’ groups, prior to that in the Chicago area. I have veterans in my family. But I didn’t know anything about DAV, Disabled American Veterans.

So I got this call and they said they wanted to honor me at their national convention in Chicago, which happens to be where I’m from. So I said I would love to come. I flew out there, they had me in a hotel room in the hotel that the event was at, they brought me down through the kitchen and took me around and brought me to this door.

I heard my voice on the speakers out there in the ballroom. I couldn’t really see out there yet and they were about to introduce me, and then they told me, “When you hear your name, go through the doors.” I walked through the door, went up onto the stage, and I looked out in the ballroom.

There were about 3,000, 3,500 people there. Probably 2,500 of them were disabled veterans from World War II to the present day. The ones that could stand on one leg or whatever were standing up, guys in wheelchairs everywhere. Everybody was giving me an ovation for playing a disabled veteran in a way that I guess they thought was honorable.

Looking out there and having been so close to that film and that particular character, I was very, very moved. From that point on, I stayed very active with the DAV.

Tavis: I want to talk more about the documentary in a second here. You’ve been, now, to Afghanistan a couple of times, you’ve been to Iraq four or five times. We saw some scenes in the movie, the documentary, a moment ago, which again, I’ll come back to in just a second.

But I’m curious as to your thoughts about the draw-down that President Obama just announced, these 33,000 troops that really represented the surge that he endorsed some time ago. Those troops are now, the same number, at least, being drawn down.

What do you think about this draw-down in Afghanistan, since you’ve been there a couple times?

Sinise: Well, I don’t – when I go there I’m with the service members. I go to the bases and I try to get around and see as many people as I can. They’re all doing their jobs and trying to get through a tough situation, and they’re serving honorably.

With regards to that, Afghanistan is a very, very difficult environment. From the little I know, and yes, I’ve been there and I’ve flown over it and it’s a very rugged and inhospitable place in many areas, so it’s a difficult fight there, I know.

I don’t know what the end game will be. If the president is listening to his generals and they’re recommending that it’s time to go, who am I to say anything? There are a lot of other people that have been involved in that fight and know that terrain and know that environment and know the enemy there far better than I do.

So my mission is to support our service members. They’re volunteers and if they’re going to go to a hostile place like Afghanistan, I think we owe it to them to back them up and try to help them get through it.

Tavis: To your point of what we owe them, you mentioned Vietnam earlier in this conversation. I wonder whether or not it is your opinion that we are doing better as a nation in how we treat veterans when they come home from Vietnam to Afghanistan to Iraq, et cetera.

Sinise: There’s no question about that. Having veterans, Vietnam veterans in my family, many Vietnam veteran pals, there’s a focus now and some hard lessons learned from Vietnam that I think we’re trying to improve upon with regards to our service members today.

I remember all too well what it was like for Vietnam veterans, and I got very, very involved with Vietnam veterans groups back in the early ’80s, before the wall was built and before it was sort of okay to pat a Vietnam veteran on the back and say, “Thanks for serving.”

They were in hiding at that point, and it was very difficult or them. I know a lot of Vietnam veterans that have applied themselves vigorously to making sure that what happened to them does not happen to our service members today.

That’s what I’ve done, having known so many Vietnam veterans. One of the primary things that has driven me so completely in the last 10 years of this fight is to try to prevent that from happening again. If we’re going to send service members somewhere and they serve at the pleasure of the president and they serve the Congress and they do what they’re told and they can’t really debate that, so every single president, Democrat or Republican or whoever, is going to send these service members somewhere.

We’re lucky to have an all-volunteer service for the past over 35 years. That’s an important thing. I think that’s a good thing for our country. The way to keep that and to keep those service members strong is to make sure that they know they’re appreciated for what they do for us, and that’s where I can help, I think.

Tavis: You’re doing that with this documentary. Tell me about the Lt. Dan Band.

Sinise: I’ve been doing a lot of tours for the USO, going out, visiting our troops around the world. I have a band that I started with a buddy of mine, a Vietnam veteran pal named Kimo Williams from Chicago.

Kimo and I are friends and we were playing music together. When I started going on these USO tours and visiting the troops and shaking hands and taking pictures with them, I kept urging the USO to let me take musicians with me so that I could entertain them at the same time.

And sure enough, eventually after about five or six handshake tours they agreed to let me take a band overseas. So we set up a tour to Korea, Singapore, Diego Garcia. I called Kimo up and I said, “Let’s get the guys together. We’re going on tour.”

That began a very vigorous mission to get out and support them wherever they are – overseas and here at home on bases. I spend a lot of time, a lot of hours, and this buddy of mine heard about that, Jonathan Flora, a filmmaker, and he asked if he could document some of it.

So I let him come with camera crews and follow me around for a year and a half to two years, and he put this beautiful documentary together. What they’re going to do, they’re going to launch it online, where you could go to LtDanBandMovie .com and you can put in $4 and view the movie. It’s like a pay-per-view online.

I think that way, service members all over the world, people all over the world can go online and watch this movie in their bedroom or their living room or have parties or whatever they want, service members on bases across the world can put in their $4 and watch the movie.

Tavis: You’re raising money for your work, as a matter of fact, part of that $4.

Sinise: Yeah, one out of every four dollars will actually go to this newly created Gary Sinise Foundation, which is a military and first responder support foundation that I created. I’ve just done so much of this in the last several years that I wanted to find a way that I could increase that level of activity and starting a foundation is one way to do that.

Tavis: You can support Gary’s work and be entertained starting July the 4th, when “Lt. Dan Band” hits the Internet, and as you heard Gary say, part of the proceeds from that go to support the work that he’s doing with veterans across this country. Gary, always good to have you on the program.

Sinise: Yeah, thank you, it’s good to be back.

Tavis: It’s good to see you. Congrats on your eight season, about to begin.

Sinise: Thank you so much.

Tavis: Time for you to get back to work.

Sinise: Pretty soon, yeah.

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Last modified: July 5, 2011 at 1:53 pm