Actor Sinise's best role: Supporting veterans

by: Salena Zito Updated:

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PITTSBURGH - If Gary Sinise had his way, everyone in Pittsburgh would be at Stage AE on Friday night listening to his Lt. Dan Band rock the night away to help a disabled veteran.

"The important thing is to sell this concert out," said Sinise. "This is about Doug Vitale and his wife, Alexis. We are going to show them that we have not forgotten what they are going through."

The band Sinise founded with Kimo Williams - named for a character Sinise played in the film "Forrest Gump" - will perform at the North Shore amphitheater to raise money for Vandergrift native Doug Vitale. The Gary Sinise Foundation and the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation are trying to raise $500,000 to build a "smart home" in Peters to accommodate Vitale's needs.

The Marine Corps sergeant, 26, lost his legs and suffered a brain injury in 2011 when he stepped on a roadside bomb in Sangin, Afghanistan. He retired July 26 and on Saturday returned home from Tampa, where he underwent physical therapy.

Sinise, 58, whose Midwest twang and folksy manner make him seem more like "one of the guys" than an Academy Award-nominated actor, is passionate about America's troops and veterans. A sense of regret and guilt for his unawareness as a teenager drive his quest to help as many disabled veterans as possible.

"I believe that we should all pay attention to what our veterans go through because we all benefit from the freedom they provide," he said.

"As a high schooler during the Vietnam War, I was pretty oblivious to what was going on. I was just not paying much attention, even though I would see the television casualty reports ... and vaguely knew my mother was scared the war would go on and I would get drafted."

When he met the woman who became his wife, then got to know her brothers who served in the war, "I got involved in various Vietnam veterans groups," he said. He is careful to teach his kids "about service and what our military does, and to have respect for those who serve."

Sinise recently finished a nine-year run as Detective Mac Taylor on the CBS crime series "CSI-New York." He starred in "The Green Mile," "Apollo 13" and "Reindeer Games" but is perhaps best known for his Oscar-nominated role of Lt. Dan Taylor in "Forrest Gump."

The Highland Park, Ill., native, who founded Steppenwolf Theater in suburban Chicago in 1974, quickly made a name for himself among military organizations. After 9/11, he said, "I knew there was a role for me to play," so he began coordinating benefits with the New York City Fire Department. Then he pestered the USO to send him overseas to meet troops.

He visited military bases and hospitals to sign autographs in Italy, Germany and Iraq, then pressed for more.

Sinise, who plays bass guitar, persuaded the USO to let him perform. Nine years after his first USO concert, his band continues to perform for troops and typically puts on 50 charitable concerts a year.

Troops called him "Lt. Dan," so he went with it.

His visits to bases are "extremely well-received," said Maj. Gen. Anthony Cucolo, commander of the Army War College in Carlisle, who deployed for several commands in Iraq and Afghanistan but never got the opportunity to attend a Lt. Dan Band performance.

"Soldiers know his care is genuine, and we soldiers and families are in awe of the sustained level of energy and attention he continues to apply to support of the U.S. Armed Forces over these years," Cucolo. said "Bottom line - we all feel like we know Lt. Dan/Gary."

Sinise's foundation, begun in June 2011, has a mission of entertaining, inspiring, educating and strengthening veterans, military members and first responders. Before a Memorial Day concert in Washington in May, Sinise walked along Pennsylvania Avenue, the parade route for the Rolling Thunder motorcycle ride, shaking hands with veterans. He walked alone, minus the entourage that usually accompanies Hollywood actors.

He recalls feeling humbled about meeting so many veterans.

"I want to meet each and every one of them and spend as much time as I can," he said.

That includes Doug Vitale, he said.

"I really want Pittsburgh to show up in Pittsburgh fashion and do what it takes to make sure he and his wife, Alexis, have a wonderful life."

This article was written by Channel 11's news exchange partners at TribLIVE.