Gary Sinise never expected to become the face of the nation’s Memorial Day celebrations when he started performing for military audiences 20 years ago.
But over the last two decades, the connection between the holiday and the actor’s beloved “Lt. Dan” — the Vietnam War-era character that Mr. Sinse played in “Forrest Gump” — has only deepened.
This weekend, Mr. Sinise again takes a central role as the nation remembers the sacrifices of veterans and their families.
“I found that early on when I was visiting the troops, they didn’t know who Gary Sinise was but they knew who ‘Lt. Dan’ was,” Mr. Sinise told The Washington Times in an interview, laughing. “So when I started taking musicians with me, I just decided to name the band the ‘Lt. Dan Band.’”
Mr. Sinise received an Academy Award nomination for starring alongside Tom Hanks as the cigar-chomping, fatalistic and ultimately crippled squad leader Lt. Dan Taylor in the runaway 1994 hit that garnered six Oscars.
“Gump” led to roles in other 1990s hits — including “Apollo 13” and “The Green Mile,” both starring Mr. Hanks.
Mr. Sinise and his band headline several Memorial Day activities in the nation’s capital this week — including the National Memorial Day Concert on Sunday, which he has co-hosted on PBS with actor Joe Mantegna since 2005, and the National Memorial Day parade on Monday.
On Thursday, Mr. Sinise was scheduled to host the “Invincible Spirit Festival” sponsored by his nonprofit foundation in the military hospital at Fort Belvoir, Virginia.
Mr. Sinise and Mr. Mantegna on Friday will host a free variety show to show appreciation for Vietnam veterans at Constitution Hall.
The show, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War, will feature former prisoners of war, a Medal of Honor winner, musical guests and a candlelight vigil at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which lists the names of more than 58,000 service members killed in the conflagration.
“We want to welcome our Vietnam veterans home and give them a big celebration that night.” Mr. Sinise said, noting that he and his band — he plays bas — will perform 22 early 1970s hits from musicians like Stevie Wonder and the band Chicago. “We want to remind people Memorial Day is about memory and not forgetting what it cost to keep us free.”
He said the indoor show, open to the public with free tickets available online, offers a preview of Sunday’s National Memorial Day Concert.
The Sunday concert, also free and open to the public, airs live on PBS at 8 p.m. from the West Lawn of the Capitol, and will include a group of Vietnam War POWs sharing their stories in addition to World War II and Korean War tributes.
“There are prices that are paid,” the 68-year-old Illinois native said. “It’s important for me to be there each year, to tell these stories, to acknowledge the men and women who serve our country.”
Monday’s parade, the largest in the nation, will proceed along Constitution Ave. next to the National Mall starting at 2 p.m. It will feature former NASA astronauts Russell “Rusty” Schweickart (lunar module pilot on Apollo 9), Charlie Duke (lunar module pilot on Apollo 16), and Harrison “Jack” Schmitt (lunar module pilot on Apollo 17 and former Republican senator from New Mexico) as grand marshals in addition to Mr. Sinise and others.
Mr. Sinise said he has performed at roughly 550 military bases, hospitals and fundraising events over the past 20 years. His nonprofit foundation is sponsoring Friday’s Vietnam veterans concert, plus four others in California and Illinois over the next two months.
Inspired by a desire to support U.S. troops after the 9/11 terror attacks, Mr. Sinise performed his first military concert at Naval Station Great Lakes in North Chicago, Illinois in 2003.
He said the desire to start a nonprofit foundation and tour military installations goes back to his stage role in a play co-written by Vietnam veterans in the 1980s and to the example of members of his family who served in World War II.
“Right now I’m looking at a photograph of my uncle Jack who served on a B-17 as a navigator in World War II, 30 missions. I’m looking at my dad who served in the Navy [and] at my other uncle Jerry who served in the Navy during World War II,” Mr. Sinise said.
Memorial Day has become the most important date on his calendar each year since he decided to prioritize nonprofit work over acting, he said.
“That’s what I do as part of my service mission, it’s not something I do for pay,” Mr. Sinise said. “I have to pay the band and I have to find ways to pay all the production costs. Before we had the foundation, I used to raise additional money to pay the band or I’d pay the band myself.”
Sometime over the next year, the actor and his wife plan to relocate from California to Tennessee to be closer to their three children and four grandchildren — plus a fifth grandchild he said is “on the way.”
Although he does not have plans to celebrate the 30th anniversary of “Forrest Gump” next year, he credits his role as Lt. Dan with giving him the name recognition to honor veterans on Memorial Day each year. The Gary Sinise Foundation has raised “hundreds of millions of dollars” to support men and women in uniform, he claimed.
“I was kinda teed up to play Lt. Dan because of the veterans in my family and the work I did back in the 1980s,” Mr. Sinise said. “I didn’t know at the time how much I was gonna do or how long I was gonna do it, but it’s a full-on mission now.”
Of the movie, he added: “You know, it’s funny, it’s just one of those movies that lives on and on. There’s Forrest Gump jokes all over the Internet and the movie’s on all the time. It’s just one of those classic films. I was really blessed to be a part of it.”
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