For actor Gary Sinise, the role of a disabled Vietnam War veteran in the 1994 film “Forrest Gump” became far more than just another job. Two decades later, the impact of playing a double amputee had on Sinise still inspires him to devote much of his free time to performing and raising money for injured troops, both through his musical group, Gary Sinise and the Lt. Dan Band, and his nonprofit, the Gary Sinise Foundation.
“That role really connected me with disabled veterans and those that had been wounded at war,” says the actor, whose brother-in-law is a Vietnam vet (Sinise wore his dog tags on screen in “Forrest Gump”). “It was a very personal thing for me to be able to play a Vietnam veteran and depict that particular, positive story of a vet who overcomes his injury and moves on.”
Also known for his roles in “Apollo 13,” “Truman” and a nine-season stretch on “CSI: NY,” Lt. Dan remains the character that Sinise is most often identified with by the public, and that’s a categorization he embraces.
This weekend, he brings his Lt. Dan Band to Charleston for a full weekend of activities in support of The Independence Fund, a nonprofit that provides grants, services and high-mobility wheelchairs to severely injured veterans.
In addition to the concert by Sinise and his band Saturday night at The Citadel’s Johnson Hagood Stadium, 150 disabled veterans will enjoy a four-day retreat at Palm Key in Ridgeland before the weekend, followed by a parade and public meet-and-greet at Brittlebank Park on Friday, complete with free food, kids activities and live music. Saturday morning includes both a 15-mile family bicycle trip, the Lt. Dan Warrior Ride, and a 5K race through The Citadel campus.
The event marks the fourth Lt. Dan Weekend in the Lowcountry but the first since moving to Charleston from Beaufort.
“The Lt. Dan weekend falls right into a mission I was already on,” explains Sinise. “The band is part of an overall passion to support our veterans. We can’t let what happened to our Vietnam veterans when they came home happen to any service member ever again.
“When you go off to war and come home and get spit on, that’s not good for the country, for the military, the individuals or for the American people,” he continues. “If you’re going to sign up to defend your country, it would be nice if you felt that people were appreciative of the freedom you provide, and I think there’s a role for me as a public person in the entertainment business to play by raising awareness.”
Sinise is not the first Hollywood actor to launch a second career as a musician. Kevin Costner has performed in Charleston in recent years, and Jeff Daniels and Johnny Depp are known for their songwriting and guitar playing, respectively.
But for Sinise, the motivation wasn’t about chasing a personal dream. Although he performed in bands beginning in sixth grade and into his 20s, he gave it up without hesitation when his acting career took off.
“I was never in it because I was a frustrated songwriter or anything like that,” he clarifies. “I played bass and guitar as a kid in bands, and I’ve always enjoyed playing music, but I never thought that in my 50s I’d be traveling around the world doing this.”
During the filming of “Forrest Gump,” Sinise was exposed to the Disabled American Veterans group, opening his eyes to the plight of many of our military’s war wounded, long after their physical wounds have healed or scarred over.
Music re-entered Sinise’s life after 9/11, when he went abroad to visit troops on a USO tour. He had friends he’d been playing music with, so he asked the USO if he could bring them along on a tour to Iraq and Afghanistan.
“It felt like a natural way for me to help our men and women in the military,” he recalls.
A decade into their existence, the Lt. Dan Band includes 12 musicians, including five singers and Sinise on bass. They’re a cover band, so listeners needn’t worry about suffering through the ego of an actor-turned-songwriter.
“I don’t do this because I want people to listen to my original songs or because I want to make a lot of money,” says Sinise. “The motivating factor for me is that the music I play can be used to do some good.”
In fact, Sinise claims that he’s never made a nickel off of the “countless hours and thousands of miles” he’s traveled with the group, including to military bases worldwide.
“When I play for veterans and their families and see the smiles on their faces and hear about the money we’ve raised, that’s fuel for the fire, and that’s the reward,” he says. “It’s such a blessing meeting these great human beings who are inspirational because of either what they’ve given or what they continue to give.”
Men like Paul Cornett benefit the most when Sinise picks up his bass and launches into a rendition of “Purple Haze” or “Hey Jude.” Over nearly 19 years of service, Cornett developed degenerative spine disease. Coupled with post-traumatic stress disorder and diabetes, his condition left him unable to function normally or provide for his family.
Cornett, who lives in Dayton, Ohio, recently underwent hyperbaric oxygen therapy in Hilton Head Island, courtesy of The Independence Fund.
“Before I started on the treatments, my wife would be talking to you right now because I didn’t like to talk to people or go out in public,” Cornett says on the phone from his home before heading to Charleston for the Lt. Dan Weekend with his family. “I used to have multiple nightmares every night, so I was afraid to sleep, but now I’m sleeping six to eight hours a night.”
Much like Sinise, Independence Fund founder Steve “Luker” Danyluk witnessed a dire need and decided that he had to do something to help. A former Marine who served in Iraq, Danyluk realized that the government was simply not providing for wounded veterans to the extent that many required.
“A debilitating injury has a huge effect on the entire family, and spinal cord injuries were not getting the same top-level treatment that some amputees were,” he says. “The way that government policies are written, if a veteran has upper mobility or use of their arms, it’s difficult for them to get anything other than a manual wheelchair. But you can’t take a manual wheelchair on the beach or out into the woods, so we’re sentencing paralyzed veterans to their homes.”
Danyluk’s passion was sparked when he met Matt Cole, a Marine who was paralyzed by a piece of shrapnel in Iraq and left unable to return to culinary school in New Orleans, where he’d been a student before being called into service. Danyluk raised the money to buy Cole an iBOT robotic wheelchair, which includes the functionality to climb stairs and elevate six feet off the ground — enough to peer into a pot of gumbo on a stove.
“Danyluk helped provide me the tools to be independent, hence the name Independence Fund,” says Cole. “In a regular wheelchair, I would not have been able to finish culinary school or get a job.”
Next month, Cole will receive a four-wheel drive Action TrackChair, which will allow him mobility on uneven and muddy terrain. He’s been watching videos of the chair’s capabilities online and anticipating getting back out on his land to hunt deer and turkey like he did before going to war.
Danyluk sees giving veterans better chairs as an investment: “The government doesn’t want to spend $30,000 on a wheelchair, but the irony is that a guy like Matt can go back to work once he has one, instead of being dependent on government handouts.”
Cornett, the veteran in Ohio, also received a service monkey through The Independence Fund after he was denied a service dog by the government because of his PTSD and Gulf War syndrome, he claims.
“As I progressively get worse, the monkey can take more of the burden off my family,” says Cornett.
At the same time, the hyperbaric treatment he received is making him more mobile than ever. Before, the damage to his nervous system left him in “isolation” for as long as a month, unable to talk to his family. Caring for the monkey, named Opie, has provided Cornett with new responsibilities and interaction that decreases the chance of him receding into unresponsiveness.
Instead, he’s happily anticipating a joyful trip to Charleston this weekend.
More than 60,000 American troops have been severely injured since 9/11, a statistic that inspires Sinise to continue his work. In addition to playing concerts, his foundation has begun building “smart homes” for disabled veterans that make life easier around the house for amputees and paraplegics.
“If these effective nonprofits did not exist, we would have a catastrophe on our hands,” says Sinise. “There’s a long road to recovery after a soldier leaves the hospital.”
For many, a step in that recovery begins this week at Palm Key, when veterans dealing with life-changing injuries enjoy the chance to kayak, canoe, take art and cooking classes, and relax and enjoy fellowship with other disabled soldiers.
That culminates with the weekend in Charleston, including the chance to be honored for their service at the parade on Friday and the laid back fun of the Lt. Dan Band concert on Saturday.
Disabled veteran Cole says that Sinise has earned his admiration several times over.
“There are a lot of Hollywood types who say ‘Support the troops,’ but Gary is right there in the trenches,” says Cole. “He’s the No. 1 actor in my book, both for his movies and TV shows, but also for what he does in his personal time helping out the troops. That speaks volumes.”