Actor Gary Sinise puts his music, heart into helping veteran amputees
EASTON, Pa. — On a rainy late summer Friday night on a brightly lit stage in front of friends, family and hundreds of supporters from all over the Lehigh Valley, Sgt. Adam Keys walked in public for the first time since losing two legs and an arm in Afghanistan in 2010.
He walked right into the arms of actor Gary Sinise.
These days, Sinise is immersed in a real-life role that may well be the most significant of his storied career — and on this night, playing bass with his 13-piece Lt. Dan Band, he helped raise plenty of awareness, plus a cool $100,000 toward the more than $500,000 it will take to build Keys a house designed just for him.
The two men embraced.
Then Keys — wearing a white T-shirt with the words “DUES PAID” emblazoned across his chest — returned to his wheelchair and thanked the crowd at Easton’s ornate old Beaux Arts State Theatre.
Even some grizzled war veterans and bikers in the sold-out crowd of 1,500 teared up.
This all followed a breathtaking, deeply emotional, patriotic three-hour rock show by Sinise’s band, which came to town — Sinise plays a solid bass guitar in addition to filling the seats — to raise funds for Keys’ house.
It won’t just be any house, either.
It will be an elaborate “smart home” — controllable with a touch of one digit on an iPad — built specially for severely injured veterans such as Keys.
Sinise is best known as Detective Mac Taylor on “CSI: NY” and for his role for the ages, Lt. Dan Taylor in the 1994 blockbuster film “Forrest Gump.” For the past few months, he and his Gary Sinise Foundation have teamed with the New York-based Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation.
The latter was founded by the family of a New York firefighter who died in the 9/11 attacks after running three miles from Brooklyn, through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, across lower Manhattan and up into the World Trade Center’s South Tower while wearing 60 pounds of gear on his back to try to help.
Together, they build houses like Keys’ as part of a program called Building for America’s Bravest. They aim to provide more than just shelter.
The houses help restore independence and give the injured soldiers a suitable place to land after what in many cases are years-long rehab stints in federal hospitals, Sinise and Tunnel to Towers officials say.
While many people may think Sinise’s interest in veterans grew out of his role as Lt. Dan, it actually predates “Forrest Gump” and is strongly influenced by the veterans in his own family “and the Vietnam veterans that I came to know,” said Sinise.
Growing up in suburban Chicago, he graduated from Highland Park High School in 1974 — near the end of the Vietnam War. He’s old enough to have a draft lottery number but not old enough to have been called up.
“My father was in the Navy and my uncles served in World War II — my father’s brother was a navigator on a B-17 during World War II,” Sinise said in a backstage interview the day of the show. His wife’s two brothers also were Vietnam vets.
Sinise was one of three founders of Chicago’s respected Steppenwolf Theatre Company soon after graduating high school.
Sinise has won deep respect from many U.S. veterans both for his portrayal of Lt. Dan — who loses both his legs, initially hates Pfc. Forrest Gump for saving him, but ultimately learns to accept and move on with his new life — and for his work in years since.
But if you ask him, those vets are the true heroes.
“I meet real Lt. Dans every day of my life” and his life is enriched by them, he said.
“When you spend so much of your time with people who are severely injured … who are going to have to spend the next few years of their lives getting used to having no arms and no legs … it’s humbling and it’s inspiring and it makes you, real quick, forget your crap and get on with your life,” Sinise said.
Sinise — like many people who grew up during the Vietnam War — also has a strong interest in ensuring that the United States learns from the mistakes of that era and does a better job of supporting its veterans.
“I think it’s important to support veterans for our country,” he said. He called what he is doing with Tunnel to Towers an effort to “come together to try to do something positive.”
What began as a request for Sinise and the Lt. Dan Band, which Sinise formed in 2003 with Chicago guitarist friend and Vietnam veteran Kimo Williams, to do one concert to help raise money for a house for U.S. Army Sgt. Brendan Marrocco of Staten Island, N.Y., has grown into a broader association.
One reason for that is Marrocco himself — the first U.S. soldier in Iraq or Afghanistan to survive injuries that made him a quadruple amputee.
Sinise and Tunnel to Towers Foundation Chairman Frank Siller, Stephen’s brother, visited Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., while Marrocco, 26, still was in rehab. Marrocco sort of jokingly said, “That’s great that you’re building a house for me. But what about my two buddies over there?”
The two buddies were Marine Sgt. John Peck and Marine Cpl. Todd Nicely, the second and third American quadruple amputees from the Iraq or Afghanistan wars. They now also are among the soldiers the foundations are building houses for, in Spotsylvania, Va., and Lake of the Ozarks, Mo., respectively.
The foundations are now committed to build 18 houses, three of which are complete. Tunnel to Towers hopes to do 40, although it could end up doing more than 50 because the number of triple and quadruple amputees has grown since it set that goal, said John Hodge, a Siller cousin and former theatrical producer who is Tunnel to Towers’ operation manager.
Marrocco is all moved in in Staten Island. So is Nicely in Missouri.
The latest house was dedicated Tuesday, Sept. 11 — at the exact time Stephen Siller is believed to have died — for Marine Cpl. Juan Dominguez, a triple amputee, in Temecula, Calif.
At this point in his career, with an Emmy, a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination — not to mention three kids who are pretty well grown — Sinise could just kick back on a beach somewhere.
He could travel and take up gardening and spend more time with his wife of 31 years, actress Moira Harris, when he’s not on the “CSI: NY” set.
Yet for years, Sinise, 57, has spent much of his free time visiting Afghanistan, Germany, Kuwait, Easton, Temecula, Staten Island and other far-off corners of the world with the Lt. Dan Band, playing music both for and for the benefit of America’s soldiers.
He’s become, to many, the new Bob Hope; a one-man crusade, revered by soldiers, to make sure that those who sacrifice the most for our country are properly supported and cared for — not to mention entertained — both while they’re serving and after they return home.
As an actor, Sinise was nominated for an Academy Award for “Forrest Gump.” He won an Emmy for his portrayal of the late Alabama Gov. George Wallace and a Golden Globe as the late President Harry Truman.
But in his real-life role, Sinise was awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal by President George W. Bush for his work supporting the troops, as well as for humanitarian work supporting Iraqi children.
And in this latest chapter, he’s doing something no TV or movie role could ever do: He’s helping to rebuild the lives of soldiers who have made huge sacrifices for their country.
The houses “aren’t just homes,” Sinise said. “We’re giving them back their independence.”
For some vets, the houses may even be the homes they live in for the rest of their lives, he said.
“The miracle of having Gary Sinise as our partner in building these smart homes for our most severely wounded is incredible,” Frank Siller told the overflow crowd in Easton’s State Theatre. He said he sought out Sinise because “I knew that Gary Sinise does so much for our military — I mean, this guy goes all around America and all around the world for our military…”
But “he didn’t know he was going to build houses. We didn’t know we were going to build houses,” said Siller, who was introduced to Sinise through New York Fire Commissioner Salvatore Cassano, “and now we have 11 houses that we’re going to build this year.”
Why do they do it?
“I think we want to give them their lives back … We want to give them their lives back to the extent that we can,” said Hodge, also first selectman — equivalent to mayor — of New Fairfield, Conn.
“Gary Sinise is a spectacular human being,” Hodge said. “It’s amazing what he does. This year alone, he is doing more than 50 concerts.
“It doesn’t get out much, but Gary Sinise actually underwrites 100 percent of the production costs of these concerts” so 100 percent of the money raised goes to the purpose it’s raised for, Hodge said.
Adam Keys — who has endured more than 100 surgeries since being injured — appreciates what Sinise, his foundation and the Tunnel to Towers Foundation do.
“I feel extremely flattered and I’m very lucky to be alive — and what everyone here is doing here with Tunnel to Towers and the Gary Sinise Foundation is giving me my independence back, and I’m very thankful for that,” he said.
“It’s nice to know that people out there really do care…” said Keys, of Whitehall Township, Pa., who is nearing the end of his rehab at Walter Reed. “Everyone here tonight is showing that they do, and I’m thankful.”
Keys, 28, a member of the 618th Engineer Support Company out of Fort Bragg, N.C., was nearly killed on July 14, 2010, when a roadside bomb rocked his armored car in Afghanistan.
Four others in his vehicle — including Spc. Jesse Reed, another Whitehall Township native who had been his best friend since age 13 — were killed.
Of Sinise, Keys said, “I’m very thankful that there are people like him and that whole band and both these foundations that take time out of their days … to help guys like myself. Without them, I don’t know what I would do next…”
While it might not have initially occurred to Sinise that the Lt. Dan role would follow him through life, “There was a certain point where I just embraced it because I realized that the character of Lt. Dan and the meaning of Lt. Dan just meant something to the people in the military,” he said.
“Lt. Dan is certainly someone who wrestles with his demons, having his military career wrested from him by his injuries …” Sinise said. But “Lt. Dan … represents resilience. The story of Lt. Dan is one where he goes through the understandable anger … and at the end of it he’s clean cut again and he’s moving on with life.”
Sinise thinks it’s important for people to know that “there were some Vietnam veterans who actually came home from the war and were able to get on with their lives.”
While some people have seen what Sinise does as political — and Republicans have sought to claim him as their own — he said he is not politically-inclined and the reason he does what he does is because “I want to make a difference in people’s lives…
“I benefit from our defenders and what they defend…” Sinise said.
“We don’t just ‘get to have’ freedom…” he said. “There’s always someone who would like to take your freedom.”