Before actor Gary Sinise stepped on the stage in a packed auditorium at Temple Bat Yahm in Newport Beach, he was described by Scott Seigal, co-chair of the temple’s Distinguished Speaker Series, as being “in the business of mankind.”
Actually, Sinise’s service to mankind is more of a calling than anything else.
Sitting side by side in the center of the stage in the Sonenshine Family Sanctuary on Aug. 25, Seigal asked Sinise to discuss his enormous contributions to defenders of freedom, military veterans, disabled veterans, law enforcement personnel, and all forms of first responders.
Selfless servants who fit into one or more of those categories made up a huge portion of the crowd who came to hear Sinise talk about the motivations behind his acts of kindness.
All attendees also left with a free copy of Sinise’s book, “Grateful American: A Journey from Self to Service.”
The common assumption is that Sinise derived inspiration to help disabled veterans from his Oscar-nominated portrayal of Lt. Dan in the 1994 film “Forrest Gump.”
In the film, Lt. Dan was an anguished Vietnam veteran who had lost both legs in combat and ultimately reconciles with his struggles.
“This was the first time we’d really seen a story about a Vietnam veteran that was moving on with his life in a positive, successful way,” Sinise said. “Lt. Dan is standing up again at the end of the movie. He’s successful in business. He is married. He makes peace and he pushes forward in life.”
But the actor said his initial passion for the role was born out of the admiration he had for the military veterans in his own family.
Sinise’s grandfather and two uncles served in World War II, his father served in the Navy during the Korean War, and there are many Vietnam veterans from his wife’s side of the family.
Still, Sinise’s portrayal of Lt. Dan earned him the respect of the disabled veterans’ community.
About a month after the movie came out, Sinise was invited to the national convention of the Disabled American Veterans, where he received an award for his performance as Lt. Dan.
“I walked out on stage and there were 2,500 to 3,000 wounded veterans in the audience,” Sinise said. “It stunned me. I was very, very emotional about it. Little did I know that the role would take on a greater significance as time went on, within the veteran and especially within the disabled veteran community,”
Sinise went on to start the Gary Sinise Foundation, which provides a variety of services and funding for first responders and veterans in need.
The foundation’s RISE program – Restoring Independence Supporting Empowerment – builds smart homes customized and modified to assist amputees and handicapped veterans in being more independent.
The foundation also has taken more than 600 veterans to the World War II Museum in New Orleans.
Sinie also formed the Lt. Dan Band, which plays fundraising concerts to raise money for veterans’ and first responders’ organizations.
“Here I am still today,” Sinise said. “I’ve got a band named the Lt. Dan Band and I’m still out there as Lt Dan running around.”
Sinise said he became even more passionate about his work after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, helping to raise money for Sept. 11 memorials and donating to causes supporting law enforcement and firefighters.
“I followed Gary many years ago because I think our military doesn’t get the recognition they deserve nowadays, especially the ones who are injured,” said retired Anaheim Police Officer Sarah Shirvany, whose own career was cut short after being injured on the job.
Shirvany was among several in attendance with careers in public safety.
“I relate in a different way, because of being injured in law enforcement,” Shirvany said. “It’s really nice that people recognize the sacrifices that people make selflessly every day.”
Shirvany attended the event with Tustin Police Department Master Reserve Officer Pam Hardacre, who also was also forced to retire due to an injury.
Hardacre then became a dispatcher for the Orange County Fire Authority.
“People who do this line of work, whether it’s military or law enforcement … we really believe it’s a calling,” Hardacre said. “And we would give our life in a minute to protect people. And we really stand by that.”
Anaheim Police Department Sgt. Brennan Leininger also attended the talk.
Before becoming a police officer, Leininger served in the Air Force from 1994 to 2004.
In 2012, Leininger began volunteering for the nonprofit Honoring Our Fallen, where he then formed the “Flag for Every Hero” program that organizes thousands of volunteers every year who place more than 200,000 flags on gravesites at the Riverside National Cemetery for the Memorial Day and Veterans Day weekends.
Of Sinise, Leininger said, “It’s a great event to hear all the work and support he gives to veterans and law enforcement.”
Towards the end of the on-stage interview, Sinise said that not enough states make it mandatory to teach World War II history in schools.
“So you have kids going to college now that couldn‘t answer a question about the Holocaust or what happened in World War II,” the actor said. “That is unacceptable. We can never let that happen.”