SAN DIEGO — Under a gray sky, not far from San Diego’s Balboa Park, actor Gary Sinise is getting ready to strap on his bass guitar and play before a crowd of more than 2,000 people.
It’s the last day of a recent weeklong celebration for the fifth anniversary of the Comprehensive Combat and Complex Casualty Care (C-5) program at the Naval Medical Center San Diego for the war wounded. Members of the Cirque du Soleil Street Team are performing. There are balloons, face painting and rock climbing for kids, plus barbecue from Food Network star Robert Irvine.
Before he takes the stage, Sinise — better known as Det. Mac Taylor on CBS’ long-running “CSI: NY,” but best known in this crowd as Lt. Dan from his 1994 role in “Forrest Gump” — bats away a recent suggestion by Newt Gingrich that he would make a good secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs if Mitt Romney were elected president.
“Government — that’s not my thing,” Sinise tells a reporter. “I get more done doing what I’m doing.”
What he’s been doing is playing 40 to 50 concerts a year as leader of the Lt. Dan Band at military bases and other sites in the U.S. and abroad, sometimes as part of a USO tour, sometimes teamed with the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation to raise funds to build “smart homes” for the most severely wounded, and sometimes as part of his own Gary Sinise Foundation’s efforts to raise public awareness about the accomplishments and needs of American military personnel and their families.
He’s also the spokesman for the Disabled American Veterans organization, has done recruiting commercials for the Army and Army Reserve as well as a public service announcement for the Marine Corps, and is a leader in the drive to build a monument in Washington, D.C., to America’s war wounded. The monument is set to be dedicated next year.
“I want it so our congresspeople can look out the window and be reminded of the cost of war,” Sinise says.
For his efforts, Sinise has been awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal by President George W. Bush and been declared an honorary Navy chief petty officer and a USO Goodwill Ambassador for his native state of Illinois.
“Gary is the Bob Hope for this generation of combat warriors,” says Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.), a retired Army lieutenant colonel.
“I play bass guitar,” Sinise says with a laugh that betrays his discomfort with praise when West’s comment is mentioned. “I didn’t know that Bob Hope played bass, did he?”
Sinise’s concern for veterans predates “Forrest Gump” by more than a decade, back to his days with the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, which he founded with two friends. He was so moved by a play about the plight of Vietnam veterans and their anger at being discarded by an uncaring public that he looked for ways to become involved.
That experience led to his continuing involvement with the Disabled American Veterans organization.
Still, it was Lt. Dan that propelled Sinise into greater activism. He jumped at the role, in part because “Forrest Gump” provided a positive portrayal of Vietnam veterans; Lt. Dan lost both legs in combat and journeys from despair and anger to optimism and hope.
Although he did not serve in the military, he came of age during the Vietnam War, which continues to be a touchstone for how Sinise, 57, views veterans and a nation’s responsibility to them.
“To send young people to war and then turn our back on them when they return, that’s a shameful period in our history,” he says. “We should never do that again; I want to play a part in preventing it from happening again.”
After 9/11, he increased his visits with troops, especially wounded troops who lost limbs in Iraq or Afghanistan, and quickly found that to them he was not just an actor. He was Lt. Dan.
“I couldn’t escape that,” Sinise says. “But it opens doors. It gets the conversation going.”
When he decided to form a band to play for the troops, there was only one name he considered: the Lt. Dan Band.
“I wanted to entertain [the troops],” Sinise says, “not just shake hands or sign autographs.”
Marine Staff Sgt. Thomas Linville, who suffered a crushed foot, traumatic brain injury, a lower back injury and the loss of parts of two fingers in Afghanistan, says Lt. Dan “is a hint of what it’s like for a lot of guys, definitely for the Vietnam guys.”
“Gary gave me back my life,” says Marine Cpl. Juan Dominguez, who lost both legs and his right arm in Afghanistan, and last month took possession with his wife, Alexis, of a Temecula home specially equipped for troops who have suffered traumatic amputations. It was built with funds Sinise helped raise. “Gary was Lt. Dan — he understands.”
Since 2004, Sinise and the Lt. Dan Band have participated in 57 USO tours with 127 concerts at military installations in Europe, Afghanistan, South Korea, Japan and the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia, as well as U.S. bases from Camp Pendleton to Camp Lejeune, N.C.
Retired Gunnery Sgt. Nick Popaditch, who lost an eye during the 2004 battle in Fallouja, remembers Sinise and the band coming to the Marines’ remote base at 29 Palms later that year.
“A lot of people say they care about the troops,” says Popaditch. “But with Gary, you know he means it. He backs it up with action.”
Band members come from other groups and other careers. In choosing them, Sinise looks for both musical talent and a commitment to something more significant than just hitting the right notes.
“It’s not just a gig, it’s a calling,” says Beth Gottlieb, the band’s percussionist. “You’re helping people smile, sometimes people who’ve been through hell, if we can help a little bit … .”
While Sinise’s costars from “CSI: NY” are on hand at this day’s event to autograph pictures, his views have put him at odds with Hollywood. He’s endorsed Romney, as he did John McCain four years ago. And he criticized director Brian De Palma’s 2007 movie “Redacted” for focusing on the brutality of a handful of U.S. soldiers in Iraq rather than the bravery and commitment to duty of the many.
“I know a lot of great people who have served in the military,” Sinise says. “I would never want to be involved in anything that portrays them in a bad light.”
In addition to the performance at the Naval Medical Center, Sinise has made numerous unpublicized visits here to meet with the C-5 patients.
“He represents that top tier of American celebrities who ask nothing for themselves, they’re not just there for the photo-op,” says Vice Adm. Matthew Nathan, the Navy’s surgeon general.
The center’s C-5 patients and their families have reserved spots with a good line of sight to the stage. Some of the patients get their pictures taken with Sinise before the performance.
“My buddy used to wear leg braces so I called him Forrest Gump,” Marine Cpl. Christopher Van Etten, who lost both legs in Afghanistan, says after small talk with Sinise. “After my incident, he called me Lt. Dan.”
The concert is bouncy and uplifting, mixing “Sweet Home Alabama,” “Superstition,” “Hey Jude,” some Lionel Richie, some Carole King, even a modern version of the World War II classic “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.” When the band hits a Latin sound, a conga line forms in the crowd.
And when vocalist Mari Anne Jayme takes the lead on “Hero,” popularized by Mariah Carey, couples in the audience embrace and tears flow.
Near the end of the two-hour concert of upbeat rock ‘n’ roll, country-western and blues, Sinise steps to the front of the stage and addresses the crowd of military personnel and their families.
Don’t think that the nation does not recognize or care about your service and sacrifice during more than a decade of war, he tells them.
“There are people who care,” he insists. “I care. I try to help people understand why you are so important and so unique. We’re going to sing this last song so loud that they can hear it down-range where you have loved ones serving.”
And with that, Sinise leads the band and the crowd in a rendition of Lee Greenwood’s classic “Proud to Be an American.”
“God bless you, God bless America,” Sinise shouts as the band exits and the crowd applauds, cheers and waves.
As patients return to their beds and barracks, the consensus is positive.
“I hear words like patriotic American and I don’t know what that means,” says Army Staff Sgt. Vance Adams, who suffered a gunshot wound to his leg and also post-traumatic stress disorder in Afghanistan.
“But this much I do know: Gary Sinise is a damn good man for what he does.”