America Supports You: Actor Gary Sinise Receives 'G.I. Spirit Award'
By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, May 27, 2007 Actor Gary Sinise received the G.I. Spirit Award yesterday during the first G.I. Film Festival, held over the Memorial Day weekend at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center here.
Gary Sinise, who portrayed Lt. Dan Taylor in the film "Forrest Gump," accepts the first American G.I. Spirit Award at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington, D.C., May 26, 2007. The award is meant to honor the entertainer who most embodies the spirit of the American G.I. and his work. Defense Dept. photo by John J. Kruzel
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Retired Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and his wife Mary Jo Myers, presented Sinise with the award, which is meant to honor the entertainer who most embodies the spirit of the American G.I. and his work.
Despite many other film and television roles, Sinise may still be best known as Lt. Dan, a turbulent, resilient character in the 1994 film adaptation of Winston Groom’s novel Forrest Gump. Lt. Dan struggled to find his place in America after being wounded in Vietnam and returning home with two below-knee amputations.
Sinise’s portrayal of the wounded war vet was received with cheers and applause during a screening last night by guests who gathered at the film festival. The three-day event is showing 22 movies, conducting panel discussions and welcoming scores of current and retired servicemembers.
“We watched the screening of Forrest Gump and one thing it reminded me of was coming home from Vietnam in 1970 and being told to take off my uniform before I went through the international airport in San Francisco,” Richard Myers said. “I said, ‘Why would that be?’ They said, ‘They’re going to harass you all the way from the front of the airport as you get to the gate because you have your uniform on.’
“That’s not a very impressive thing to come home to when you’ve seen your friends injured, die and you’ve been doing what you think you’re country has asked you to do, and do it in good faith,” he said. “How different it is today.”
Before presenting Sinise with the award, Myers called Sinise a “one-man effort to make sure people understand that America loves the troops,” and a man who truly represents the Air Force’s core value, “Service Before Self.”
Mary Jo Myers said Sinise’s compassion goes beyond caring for men and women in uniform.
“In 2003, he visited an Iraqi school with some of the members of the military and saw that these children were learning in a building that had a dirt floor; they were sharing pencils,” she said. “(Sinise) came home and through his own children’s school, he helped drive for school supplies to send to children in Iraq.”
Sinise’s efforts led to “Operation Iraqi Children,” a non-profit organization he co-founded with Laura Hillenbrand that has send more than 400,000 school supply kits to children in Iraq. The kits are prepared by American school children then hand-delivered by U.S. military members.
After receiving the award, Sinise told the audience that his two brothers-in-law served in Vietnam -- one as a helicopter pilot and the another who served his first tour as an Army lieutenant and second as a captain. Sinise described the West Point graduate and Vietnam veteran, who died in 1983, as an inspiration.
“I modeled part of Lt. Dan on him,” Sinise said. “When the opportunity to play Lt. Dan came up, I thought of him a lot. He was like Lt. Dan – he was surely destined for four stars; he was that kind of person.
A decade before playing Lt. Dan, Sinise said he got involved with a group of Vietnam vets in the Chicago-area suffering from post-traumatic stress after returning from war.
“I stayed involved with them and really came to empathize and sympathize with what they went through when they came home. As Gen. Myers said, they had to take off their uniform and there was something not right about that,” Sinise said. “When I got the opportunity to play Lt. Dan it was one of those things that felt like it was – as Lt. Dan says – kind of a destiny… to serve that role and to try to enlighten people about what happened to our Vietnam veterans.”
The actor had just flown back from Iraq the night before. He was there visiting servicemembers, and he told the crowd that troops still refer to him as Lt. Dan.
“Some actors might choose to kind of run away, kind of put the roles behind them, get mad about being identified so much with one part. But because that character has so much significance in terms of how it has been received by our Vietnam veterans and our veterans around the world, that’s something I can never run away from,” he said. “I can never say, ‘That was then and don’t talk to me about that part anymore.’”
Sinise visits military hospitals, where he said wounded servicemembers often see themselves through the eyes of Lt. Dan.
“I was just at the hospital yesterday and one guy said, ‘Hey, I’m just like you now,’” Sinise said. “And he laughed, but I knew it wasn’t real funny to him. But I knew that also my presence there at the hospital, and the fact that I showed up and continue to show up and go back and visit our wounded has some meaning to them.”
In addition to his film work, Sinise and his rock band, the Lt. Dan Band, have been very active in showing support for the troops through free concerts on military installations and in deployed locations, in conjunction with the Defense Department’s America Supports You Program. The program recognizes support for the troops from American individuals, non-profit organizations and corporations, and it communicates that support to the men and women serving in uniform.
The G.I. Film Festival was also started as a way of supporting the troops by Brandon Millet and wife, Laura Law-Millet, a major in the Army Reserve. The festival is a not-for-profit organizations, and its founders have planned to make it an annual event.
“We started this film festival because we wanted to do something to foster a positive public image for our soldiers at a very critical time,” Millet said. “We were surprised to find there had never been a film festival dedicated to American men and women in the military, so we decided to launch this festival.”
The festival is sponsored by a number of organizations, including Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States, Disabled American Veterans, The American Legion, Vietnam Veterans of America, The National Memorial Day Parade, and many others.
Celebrity guests were on-hand for the festival, including actors R. Lee Erney and James McEachin, fitness guru Billy Blanks and musicians Pat Boone and Michael Peterson.
“In Vietnam, a lot of our soldiers came home and they were spit on, they had things thrown at them. Did that feel good?” said Peterson, a country music singer has performed for U.S. troops in Korea and Afghanistan.
“We all want to be appreciated, and when you make an extraordinary commitment for a purpose bigger than yourself, you deserve the recognition and appreciation,” he said.
Iraq war veteran Army Capt. Dennis J. Skelton, who brought fellow servicemembers from Walter Reed Army Medical Center National and the Naval Medical Center at Bethesda to the event, recognizes that American support for military personnel has undergone a tremendous change.
“It’s amazing to see the transition that has occurred in this country over the last four decades between the last major conflict, which was Vietnam, and the global war on terror,” Skelton said. “There is definitely no shortage of patriotism in this country, and that’s evident by the number of non-profit, philanthropic organizations, and attention that America has given.
Skelton, a former platoon leader with the 25th Infantry Division in Fallujah, Iraq, lost his left eye and suffered other injuries in a rocket-propelled-grenade attack.
“To me, and to all of my peers that are in hospitals recovering – sailors, soldiers, airmen and Marines – it’s amazing to watch and witness America understanding that there’s a difference between those that make policy and those that enforce policy. And they will continue to support those who enforce, and while in the same breath, debating in a public forum, those who make it,” he said. “It’s just a beautiful thing to finally evolve to an area that we can professionally in the same forum do both simultaneously.
“It’s great to know that even though there are some who may not agree with intentions or involvements and outcomes, they will forever support me as an individual that voluntarily made that choice to serve in a very complex environment,” he said.