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Lt. Dan Band's Gary Sinise a musical force for the U.S. military

'CSI: NY' star Gary Sinise has long raised his voice for military veterans, and as leader of the Lt. Dan Band he takes his support directly to the troops.

October 29, 2012|By Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times
  • Gary Sinise with his Lt. Dan Band shows off his bass playing to Andrew James Bretzman, 3, after inviting children onto the stage.
Gary Sinise with his Lt. Dan Band shows off his bass playing to Andrew James… (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles…)

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.

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"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.

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"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.

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"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.

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"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."

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