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Maria Shriver

My Project: Gary Sinise Foundation

It’s been two decades since Forrest Gump first met Lieutenant Dan Taylor, sparking a friendship that would win over the world’s moviegoers and introducing a military character whose grit and resilience would become an inspiration. Gary Sinise’s indelible performance as Lt. Dan led to an Oscar nomination, but the legacy of that character went far beyond acting accolades; it created an incredible bond between Sinise and those who have stood in service for their nation.

Sinise’s support of veterans in fact pre-dated the role, beginning in the 80s, but since then his efforts on their behalf have expanded and grown, particularly after the attacks on September 11, 2001. By 2011, he decided to formalize and advance his commitment by beginning the Gary Sinise Foundation.

The foundation’s mission is to support and honor the nation’s defenders, veterans, first responders, and their families, with a group of programs designed to entertain, educate, inspire and strengthen their communities.

The foundation’s R.I.S.E. initiative, for example, provides resources such as adapted vehicles and home modifications to help wounded heroes and their families. And with custom built Smart Homes, R.I.S.E. (Restoring Independence Supporting Empowerment) goes even further, providing the most severely wounded with homes that include features like automated doors, roll-in bathrooms, and intercom systems.

The foundation also has The Relief and Resiliency Outreach program, which provides support to those dealing with trauma and loss, a Serving Heroes initiative, which provides free meals at major travel hubs, and an Arts & Entertainment Outreach program, which reflects Sinise’s theater roots. There’s also Sinise’s Lt. Dan Band, which makes morale-boosting appearances at the foundation’s day-long Invincible Spirit Festivals, and performs at military bases both abroad and at home, as well as at benefit concerts to raise awareness.

Here, Sinise reflects on the extraordinary men and women who have inspired him, and explains the privilege and pleasure that it is to serve those who have served the nation.

What motivated you to get involved in this work?

I have Vietnam veterans in my family, so the initial work began in the 1980s, supporting local veterans who had served in Vietnam. Later, in the 90s, I had the great pleasure of playing Vietnam veteran Lt. Dan Taylor in “Forrest Gump.” As he was a combat wounded soldier, I was introduced to the Disabled American Veterans organization (DAV) and began working with them. It has since grown into a relationship that has lasted over 20 years. After the attacks on our country on September 11, 2001, I was then driven to take action to support our active duty service members deploying to Afghanistan and Iraq. I tried to do what I could to ensure that what happened to our Vietnam veterans -- who returned from war to an environment that was not supportive -- would not be repeated.

What have you been most surprised to learn?

In 2011, retired Admiral and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen voiced his concern of a growing disconnect between the under 1% who serve in the military and the 99% of us who do not. I guess my fear is that he’s right. He said, "The reason I’m so concerned about it is America’s military must stay connected to the American people. And if we wake up one day and find out that we’re disconnected, or almost disconnected, I think that’s a very bad outcome for the country.”

I am involved on a daily basis, and I see the needs every day. While I know that not all of us have military in our family or know someone who serves, I guess I thought that after the 9/11 attacks we would all have an understanding that our military is critical to every American’s safety and security and that we, as a nation, need to always stand behind them.

Perhaps it is a positive thing that many of us go about our business in relative peace, however, that should be credited to our military and first responder communities. I do find that, even after 13 years of war and terrorist attacks continuing to happen all across the globe, it is still a challenge to get the word out and to educate the public about where the needs are and how they can help.

No one likes or wants war, least of all those who have fought and survived in combat. As the world is such an unpredictable and violent place, and each administration deploys our troops to do dangerous jobs, I hope awareness will grow around the importance of standing behind our defenders before, during, and after the battle, no matter what.

I hope awareness will grow around the importance of standing behind our defenders before, during, and after the battle, no matter what.

What do you most want people to know?

One of the biggest challenges we have is keeping up awareness of what the men and women serving our country are going through. It is important to remember that, with recent draw downs and cutbacks, while they may no longer continually be on the front pages of our newspapers, there are many military families who continue to struggle with the residual effects of over 13 years of war. In the dangerous and unpredictable world that we live in, we must not forget our defenders and there are many ways one can support and help them. One way is through the Gary Sinise Foundation.

Image: Gary Sinise meets with a wounded soldier.
Mike Theiler/USO

Who or what has made the greatest impression on you during your involvement?

People always ask me what motivates me to continue this work; it is twofold. Firstly, I understand that our freedoms must be defended and protected. I fear for the world that my kids and grandkids will grow up in. They will continue living in this post 9/11 era in a very dangerous time. Without a strong military, our freedoms will be in jeopardy, so I work around the clock through my foundation to support those who defend our freedom.

Secondly, I have met many extraordinary people in our military, veteran, and first responder communities; these men and women have made the biggest impression on me. From our courageous active duty forces who have endured multiple deployments and press on; to our wounded service members who power through no matter how severe their injuries may be; to the caregivers who support them. From the Gold Star families who have sacrificed sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers in defense of all our freedom, and who have turned their grief into action to help others; to our firefighters and police officers who put their lives on the line each day. It has been a privilege to get to know them and to support so many who inspire me every day.

What has been the hardest part of this work, or how has it most challenged you?

Over the years post 9/11, I began traveling to entertain and support many different military charities that work to give back to our military. Traveling has been a challenge as I tried to do some of it during the nine years of shooting my television series, ‘CSI NY.’ Having been on the road so much over the years, I realized it was important to channel more of my energy into fewer efforts.

Image: Adam Keys and Gary Sinise on stage in Easton, Pa.
Adam Keys and Gary Sinise on stage in Easton, Pa. Courtesy Gary Sinise Foundation

I founded the Gary Sinise Foundation in the hopes of creating a reliable and trusted organization where the American people can support my work on behalf of our defenders, first responders and their families. With our many projects and programs, funding is always one of our biggest challenges. We are grateful to have wonderful partners and supporters throughout the country, and the foundation is now well into its fourth year. Raising funds, awareness and spirits in support of our military community has been a pleasure and a privilege. It is rewarding to know that there is some way that I can contribute and serve, and it is heartening to know that we are gaining support and getting more done for our heroes. But keeping that awareness up and raising funds is definitely a challenge.

It is rewarding to know that there is some way that I can contribute and serve, and it is heartening to know that we are gaining support and getting more done for our heroes.

How has this work changed you?

Prior to September 11, 2001, even though I had done some work supporting military and veterans in the 80s and 90s, I had not been involved in service work to the extent that I am now. After those horrendous attacks, I started traveling to the war zones and military hospitals, and to bases across this country. I began to see the courage and sacrifice of our veterans firsthand in a way that I had not seen before.

I made my first trips to Walter Reed and Bethesda Naval Medical Center on September 11, 2003. While I had met wounded veterans through the DAV, this was a new generation of real life Lt. Dans who were fresh off the battlefield. Working with them, and getting to know many of them and their families over the years, has truly been humbling and motivating for me. At the Gary Sinise Foundation, we have a program called R.I.S.E. (Restoring Independence Supporting Empowerment), and through this program we build and refurbish homes for our wounded. These homes are designed to provide the greatest opportunity for a severely injured warrior to manage his or her life without always relying on family members to care for them. Seeing the smiles of these warriors when the keys are handed over is so gratifying, and it is through the support of the American people that we are able to do this work.

What goal do you have for the next 12 months?

It’s been almost four years since we launched the Gary Sinise Foundation, and we are in a good place for GSF to continue to stand strong and accomplish our goals of honoring and serving those who serve us. It is my hope that with the successes and continued growth that we have had in a relatively short time, that our track record will speak for itself, that our support will grow, and that we will get even more done in the coming years. I have great respect for the men and women who answer the call to serve our country, and while one foundation cannot serve all of their needs, we want them to know that the Gary Sinise Foundation is here when they need us.

For more information and inspiration visit MariaShriver.com