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Actor, Program 'Helping Soldiers Help Children' in Iraq

By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Dec. 13, 2004 – He may be best known as Forrest Gump's "Lt. Dan" and the name follows him wherever he goes, especially when he's in the company of servicemembers.

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Actor Gary Sinise signs autographs for veterans and their guests following his band's performance at the Orlando (Fla.) House of Blues Dec. 11. Army Staff Sgt. Mike Sutherland, a veteran of the Gulf War and Operation Iraqi Freedom, was among veterans who waited after the concert for Sinise's autograph and the chance to thank the actor for supporting the troops. Sutherland was injured by an improvised explosive device outside of Baghdad. The concert capped off the four-day Coalition to Salute America's Heroes: 1st Annual Road to Recovery Tribute and Conference in Orlando. Photo by Samantha L. Quigley

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Lt. Dan may be one of Sinise's best-known roles, but the one he plays in supporting the troops and the Iraqi children is just as big, if not so well known. He and Laura Hillenbrand, author of the book "Seabiscuit: An American Legend," co-founded Operation Iraqi Children, a grassroots organization to collect and distribute badly needed school supplies to Iraqi children.

OIC came about when Sinise started touring with the United Service Organizations. A longtime supporter of U.S. troops, Sinise's USO affiliation began in June 2003 with his first tour to the Middle East. "I've been involved with veterans groups for many years, but never did the USO until we went to war in Afghanistan," he said. "Then I volunteered."

It was during his second trip to Iraq with the USO in November 2003, Sinise said, that provided the motivation behind OIC. While he was in Iraq, he saw how much the troops appreciated being with the Iraqi school children.

"I went to this school, and I saw what it did for the troops to go out there and visit these kids and to see these smiling kids," Sinise said. "These soldiers had helped to rebuild the school. So when they showed up, the kids just ran out and threw their arms around the soldiers. And the troops are very protective of kids at the school. I just saw a lot of good will there that day, and I wanted to reinforce that in some way."

So he told the troops that he would gather and ship school supplies back to them so they could take them to the children.

In this endeavor to foster good will between U.S. troops and the Iraqi civilians, he and Hillenbrand started an OIC Web site. It was their way of showing people how they could help support the troops and the Iraqi children at the same time. And the response from the military and the public has been terrific.

"I was on the phone just the other day with people that distribute the product, and they're just thrilled with this program. They can't wait to get more stuff," Sinise said. "The troops really value this program."

The American public has also embraced the organization. "We get stuff every week, every day from all over the country," he said. "Now we're asking for blankets, which they need (they) desperately need blankets over there. At night it's very, very cold."

Sinise said donations of blankets, shoes and other winter items are being collected for shipment after the holidays because of the high volume of packages shipped at this time of the year.

The program wouldn't have become as big as it is without some help, Sinise said. That help comes in the forms of People to People International and the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

"They're providing the staff for us in Kansas City (Mo.) and the warehouse where all the stuff goes," Sinise said. "And FedEx, for free, takes the stuff over there."

The program also has a second way for people to help Iraqi children. Donations that will be used to purchase low-cost Arabic translations of Hillenbrand's Seabiscuit book can be made through the Seabiscuit Program, operated by Thoroughbred Charities of America.

When Sinise isn't busy helping soldiers help Iraqi children, he's entertaining them, as he and the Lt. Dan Band did at the Orlando House of Blues Dec. 11. The troops were attending the Coalition to Salute America's Heroes: 1st Annual Road to Recovery Tribute and Conference in Orlando, Fla.

Lt. Dan also has a new moniker that folks may soon recognize as readily as the old one. Sinise plays Detective Mack "Mac" Taylor on CBS's "CSI: New York." He also can be seen starring opposite Joely Richardson in the upcoming Hallmark Hall of Fame movie "Fallen Angel." The movie will air on CBS on Dec. 19.

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Related Sites:
Operation Iraqi Children
Lt. Dan Band

Related Articles:
House Of Blues Concerts Wrap Up Conference Supporting U.S. Troops

Click photo for screen-resolution imageVeterans and their guests dance to the Lt. Dan Band at the Orlando House of Blues Dec. 11. Actor Gary Sinise plays bass guitar for the band named for his character in the movie "Forrest Gump." The concert was the last big event of the Coalition to Salute America's Heroes: 1st Annual Road to Recovery Tribute and Conference held in Orlando, Fla. Photo by Samantha L. Quigley  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageActor Gary Sinise and the Lt. Dan Band, named for his "Forrest Gump" character, rocked the Orlando (Fla.) House of Blues Dec. 11 in honor of wounded and disabled veterans. The Dec. 11 concert capped four days of the Coalition to Salute America's Heroes: 1st Annual Road to Recovery Tribute and Conference in Orlando. Sinise is a long-time supporter of the troops and has toured with the United Service Organizations several times since June 2003. Photo by Samantha L. Quigley  
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