Medal of Honor awards master of ceremonies Gary Sinise tells how Sept. 11 was a call to service

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Actor Gary Sinise has played many roles.

He was astronaut Ken Mattingly in Apollo 13, detective Mac Taylor in CSI: NY and Vietnam War veteran Lt. Dan Taylor in Forrest Gump.

But the role he's most proud of is that of a real-life philanthropist. Sinise has been helping wounded veterans and first responders for decades and created the Gary Sinise Foundation in 2011.

"I've met some inspirational people that have motivated me," Sinise said. "And if I can give back to them by helping them with their efforts, then that's a way that I can continue to serve."

Sinise sat down with Knox News to discuss his upcoming trip to Knoxville for the 2022 Medal of Honor Celebration, his commitment to philanthropy and, of course, his role as Lt. Dan. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Medal of Honor Celebration

Knox News: Have you been to Knoxville before?

Gary Sinise: The last time I was in Knoxville was the last (Medal of Honor) convention that was in Knoxville. I've done many of the conventions over the past several years.

Knox News: What are you looking forward to about coming back for the celebration?

Sinise: Well, it's been a couple of years with the pandemic, since I've been able to really engage with the recipients the way I normally would. I've been involved with them now for I think ... my first engagement with the recipients was back in 2004. So it's nearly 20 years. I really started supporting them in different ways in '07, and every year since then I'll do multiple events with them.

So I'm looking forward to seeing many of my pals. I've got many friends in the recipient community, and they are very personal friends.

Philanthropy and 9/11

Gary Sinise brought his Lt. Dan Band to perform at this year's Fort Campbell Independence Day celebration and concert.
Gary Sinise brought his Lt. Dan Band to perform at this year's Fort Campbell Independence Day celebration and concert.

Knox News: You've played Lt. Dan, but also directed a production of "Tracers," a story about wounded Vietnam vets, in the '80s. You've been very involved with veterans in your show career, how has that influenced your work as a philanthropist?

Sinise: A lot of things were kind of put in place in the '70s, '80s and '90s, that sort of grew into this full-on mission after September 11. I can point to a lot of the veterans in my own family, a lot of the veterans I engaged with back in the '80s in Chicago, to having a significant impact on me, and were very influential on what I would end up doing after September 11, which was to just focus on trying to help them through difficult times. And I think a lot of that is probably based, it's kind of rooted in the Vietnam experience. When having engaged with so many Vietnam veterans and having them in my family, I got to really hear a lot from them about what it was like to serve in that war.

I engaged with the DAV at that time back in 1994 and started supporting the DAV, the Disabled American Veterans, and then along came September 11, and I just felt like everything that preceded it was preparing me to go full force into service work.

I remember after Sept. 11, 2001, I just found this aching, this terrible feeling, this broken heart, this sadness, and I remember going to our little Catholic Church on the Friday after the Tuesday. And the priest, I don't even know if he said this, but I heard it, that service to others can be a great way to heal your broken heart. And I don't know if he said it, but I heard it, and I tried to turn that into action.

Knox News: Some of your efforts include first responders and others who serve in different ways than just the military. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Sinise: That's very much rooted in Sept. 11, no question about that.

I was on my first overseas tour to Iraq in June of 2003, and I was on a C-130, being transported from Kuwait up to Baghdad. I sat down next to a gentleman (John Viggiano) who was wearing a button on his shirt, and it had a picture of firefighter on it (and) a picture of a police officer. And I said, 'What is that button?' And he said, 'Those are my two sons. They were killed on September 11, when the towers came down," and he proceeded to tell me about the story of losing both his sons and how he was on the pile down there at ground zero for months just trying to find them. They found one, but they did not find the other.

Meeting with John Viggiano was what led me to start supporting regularly and very actively first responders all over the country. Because I met all these folks who were down on the pile and lost a lot of friends. They lost loved ones.

The role of Lt. Dan

Knox News: Why do you think Lt. Dan is such an inspiring character for wounded veterans?

Sinise: I remember the first time I walked into the hospital room over 20 years ago and saw a real life Lt. Dan laying there in a hospital bed. He'd been blown up in Iraq or Afghanistan, can't remember which one. Missing leg, missing an arm, blind in one eye, really banged up, and he saw me walk in the room. He didn't even know what my real name was. He just he recognized me right off the bat for Lt. Dan. And they told him Lt. Dan was coming, so he was excited, but he just wanted to talk about the story of Lt. Dan. And I started to tell him the story and talk about how we made the movie and all of that kind of thing. And I realized, you know, well, of course, the Lt. Dan story for a wounded veteran, is the exact story that we want for every wounded veteran. Maybe not so much the post-traumatic stress side of it and the isolation side of it. We don't want that. But quite often because of what they've been through in trauma in getting blown up or getting shot up or something like that, they're going to go through that. That's a natural response to a traumatic event. But what we also want is the ending of that story of Lt. Dan, where they're standing up there making peace with God. They're making peace with themselves for for the guilt that they may may hold.

Prior to "Forrest Gump" in 1994, most of the movies about Vietnam that came out, if not all of them, you just looked at the Vietnam veteran in that movie and you just didn't think he was gonna make it. If you look at "Coming Home" with Jon Voight and Bruce Dern, Bruce Dern swims off in the ocean at the end of the movie, and he's not coming back.

Along comes "Forrest Gump" in 1994, and it was a story of a Vietnam veteran that had never been told before. The story that the Vietnam veteran is not going to just drink himself to death. He can be okay. And that was a story for many of our Vietnam veterans ... Look at the Medal of Honor recipients, they've gone on, they've done great things.

Actor Gary Sinise looks on before an NBA basketball game between the Washington Wizards and the Dallas Mavericks, Saturday, Dec. 12, 2015, in Dallas. (AP Photo/Jim Cowsert) ORG XMIT: TXJC1 [Via MerlinFTP Drop]
Actor Gary Sinise looks on before an NBA basketball game between the Washington Wizards and the Dallas Mavericks, Saturday, Dec. 12, 2015, in Dallas. (AP Photo/Jim Cowsert) ORG XMIT: TXJC1 [Via MerlinFTP Drop]

Our perception of the Vietnam veteran, back then, was always the guy who's drinking himself to death in the corner, and not somebody that moves forward. So I think that story of Lt. Dan really resonates in a very powerful way for for our veterans.

Attending the Celebration

Sinise will be in Knoxville on Sept. 10, serving as the master of ceremonies during the Patriot Award Gala at the end of the celebration. Former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley will receive the Patriot Award.

The celebration will be held from Sept. 6-10.

Silas Sloan: Covering growth and development in East Tennessee
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This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: Gary Sinise tells how Sept. 11 was a call to service