America Supports You: Sinise Helps Iraqi Children, U.S. Troops
By Steven Donald Smith
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, July 4, 2005 Actor Gary Sinise has been a busy man over the past few years, and not just with acting gigs. Sinise has set a blistering pace in another venture: supporting American servicemembers.
One way he has contributed to this effort is through his nonprofit organization "Operation Iraqi Children," which he co-founded with "Seabiscuit" author Laura Hillenbrand in March 2004.
The organization collects and ships school supplies and toys to Iraq, which are then distributed to the children by American servicemembers. Sinise said this project not only helps the Iraqi children with needed materials, it boosts the morale of the troops who pass out the items.
"It's a great way to support the troops," he said. "Every time they see a smiling face of a child who gets their first Beanie Baby or never had school supplies before, it's a very good day for everyone," he said.
The organization receives the supplies through donations, and Federal Express ships them free of charge. "Fedex has been incredible," Sinise said. Donors can make financial contributions via the Operation Iraqi Children Web site, he added.
The genesis for Operation Iraqi Children came from a visit Sinise made to Iraq with the United Service Organizations in November 2003. He witnessed how poorly the Iraqi schools were equipped when he visited an elementary school where three children were sharing one pencil, he said.
The visit to the school also made him realize the tremendous morale boost the troops received from helping the kids, he said. "I saw a wonderful camaraderie between the Iraqis and Americans that day, and I wanted to support our troops in their effort to continue to build these relationships," he said. "It's all real stuff. And I saw it first-hand and wanted to support that feeling. I saw what it did to the troops, the smiles on their faces, and how it made them feel to be at that school that day."
Shortly after returning home, he visited his own children's school and talked to their principal about putting together a drive to ship school supplies to Iraq. Soon thereafter, he met Hillenbrand through a mutual contact in Iraq and they quickly joined forces to launch Operation Iraqi Children, he said.
Hillenbrand already had been engaged in Iraq with an effort to get "Seabiscuit" translated into Arabic to distribute free copies throughout the country, he said.
Sinise also has used his rock group, "The Lt. Dan Band" as a tool to support the troops. The band's name comes from the character he portrayed in the movie "Forrest Gump."
The band has played for U.S. servicemembers around the world. Two months ago, the band went on a USO tour to Germany, Britain and the Netherlands. The group has played in New York City and at a Memorial Day concert in front of the Capitol building in Washington, he said.
Lt. Dan Band concerts also have raised money for the Wounded Warrior Project, he said. The Wounded Warrior Project provides free services and counseling for severely wounded troops from the time they arrive at the hospital through their recovery and rehabilitation stages.
Sinise said that wherever he goes, people call him Lt. Dan, especially the troops. Vietnam and disabled veterans heavily relate to the character, he said.
The band plans on holding a fundraising concert Oct. 1 at Fran O'Brien's Steak House here. Fran O'Brien's has a tradition of serving free meals to wounded servicemembers every Friday.
"I went to this dinner one time, and there were something like 50 or 60 people. That's not inexpensive," he said. "We can't wait to play for all those great Americans who have made extraordinary sacrifices for us," he said.
Sinise also has spent time promoting the Defense Department's "America Supports You" program, which highlights how Americans are supporting the troops. The "How You Can Help" page of the AmericaSupportsYou.mil Web site is a great place for Americans to find ways to support the troops, he said.
"Whether you support the war or not, we have a volunteer military service that is doing battle on two fronts," Sinise said. "We have to be successful, and a good way for them to succeed is to know that the American public supports them.
"We're in the first fight of the 21st century," he continued, "and the situation is very serious. We need to keep our troops strong so that their morale remains high, so that they can get their job done and come home."