"Hey! Lieutenant Dan!"
It never fails. Every time actor Gary Sinise visits U.S. troops on a military base–something he does frequently–he gets the same greeting.
Sinise has played Harry Truman, George Wallace, astronauts and an assortment of cops and bad guys in the movies, and today he's a prime-time television star on the hit series CSI: NY. But people continue to recognize him from his Oscar-nominated portrayal of Lt. Dan Taylor, the feisty U.S. Army lieutenant from the 1994 movie Forrest Gump.
When it comes to men and women in uniform, there's just something about Lt. Dan. "A lot of military folks have a connection to Lt. Dan," says Sinise, 53. "Rather than run away from it, I've embraced that fact."
Enter the Lt. Dan Band.
Since late 2003, Sinise, an accomplished bass player, and 11 other talented musicians known collectively as "Gary Sinise and the Lt. Dan Band" have been playing gigs, many of them for military audiences. The band, which plays mostly classic rock cover tunes, recently completed its sixth tour for the United Service Organizations (USO), appearing in San Diego–on the deck of the USS Midway–Singapore and South Korea.
Although the group plays for the general public as well (a crowd of 100,000 attended its 2008 Chicago Air & Water Show performance), band co-founder and Vietnam War veteran Kimo Williams says the USO shows are the most satisfying.
"The USO shows do something for a soldier in combat, or getting ready to go into combat, that almost nothing else can do, other than a letter from home," Williams says. "To see a mass of soldiers in their uniforms dancing in front of us, it's incredible. For them, it's a connection to home."
A fruitful jam session
When Sinise and Williams formed the band, they had no idea it would mushroom into a globe-trotting entity that entertains thousands of military servicemen and servicewomen up to five times a month.
In fact, when they started, they weren't really even a band. Back in 1997, Sinise returned to his hometown of Chicago to work on a production of A Streetcar Named Desire at Steppenwolf, the Chicago theater company he co-founded with several friends in 1974. Williams, the play's musical composer, learned that Sinise played bass guitar during high school. Although Sinise hadn't played in years, Williams asked him to jam.
"When I would visit Chicago, I'd call him up," Sinise recalls. "We'd get some guys together and have a little party."
Over the next few years, they continued to play impromptu shows, recruiting Los Angeles-based musicians to perform for a party after filming concluded on Sinise's 1998 movie Snake Eyes. Encouraged by the response, the group played for some fundraising events benefiting Vietnam veterans groups that Sinise long has supported.
"I have relatives on my wife's side of the family who served in Vietnam, and I'm very close to them," Sinise says. "I wanted to find ways I could support them and let them know what they went through is not unappreciated."
Meeting the troops
Sinise graduated from high school in 1973, just as the Vietnam War draft was ending, and he never served in the military. But showing appreciation to those who served and continue to serve is his ongoing passion. In 2003, he began doing USO handshake tours, traveling to hot spots such as Iraq and Afghanistan, signing autographs and taking pictures with the troops. He also began regular visits to wounded soldiers in military hospitals.
"My first trip was to Landstuhl hospital in Germany," Sinise says. "These are the folks who just got off the battlefield. I was a little apprehensive about that. Some of them had families there waiting to find out what was going to happen to their loved ones. Once I left, I realized I had done some good and made some of these people feel a little bit better."
After several solo tours, Sinise asked the USO if next time he could bring the band. They said yes and immediately set up a tour to Korea. Six years and more than 200 shows later, he believes the band is just now hitting its groove.
"I never thought this would happen," Sinise says. "To get up in front of these crowds and play and support charities and organizations that support our military, it's been like a dream come true."
It's also a lot of work, especially for an award-winning actor with a demanding day job on television.
"That's one of the things I love about Gary," Williams says. "He either does something 100 percent or he turns it down. The guy is superman!"
It helps, too, to have the encouragement of his wife of 27 years, actress Moira Harris, and their three children, Ella, 10, Mac, 18, and Sophie, 20. Mac, who plays drums, even sits in with the band sometimes.
"The family is very supportive of the band," Sinise says.
More than music
As an actor, Sinise always is on the lookout for the next great role. As a grateful American, he's always searching for ways to give back.
"People have paid a price for us to have the life we have here," he says. "You look at people who live in war zones, where their countries are always fighting, and they never seem to get out of it. We're lucky with the number of people who are willing to volunteer for service here. We should be thankful to them. We can never do enough for our veterans."