MINOT AIR FORCE BASE As he shook the hands of wounded warriors and posed for pictures with active military members, the light in his eyes and the smile on his all-familiar face brought one word to mind: gratitude. The banter was friendly and every "thank-you" was heartfelt. He was in his element.
For actor, musician and philanthropist Gary Sinise, his interest in working with military members began at home.
"It's a combination of a lot of things over a 30-year period, starting with the veterans I have in my family," he said.
Gary Sinise, right, and Jeff Vezain of the Lt. Dan Band perform at Minot Air Force Base, Aug. 16, shown in this photo by Airman 1st Class Apryl Hall. The band plays around 50 shows a year for active-duty military members, veterans and their families on military installations around the world.
His grandfather served in the Army during World War I, his two uncles served during World War II and his father served in the Navy in the 1950s. When Sinise met his wife in the early '70s, her brothers, who both served in the Vietnam War, were also influential in his desire to work with veterans, he said.
In the '80s, Sinise became more involved with veterans by using his theater company in Chicago. He would host Vets' Nights at his theater, allowing veterans to come to a show for free and providing them with a meal. This is something the theater still does today.
By the '90s, Sinise was so involved with his military work that when he heard about the part of Lt. Dan Taylor in the movie "Forrest Gump," he pursued it right away.
"Having been involved with Vietnam veterans in the '80s, I very much wanted to play that part," Sinise said. "I wanted to honor the veterans I had met and the veterans in my family."
Successful in getting the part, the movie came out in theaters and just three weeks after, the Disabled American Veterans organization sparked interest in Sinise's character as well. They invited him to attend their national convention, and his military involvement grew.
"It was through my association with the DAV that I really got involved with our wounded," Sinise said.
Although Sinise had already been working with veterans for more than 20 years, Sept. 11, 2001, was the spark that fueled his desire to do more, he said.
"After September 11th when we were attacked, there was a clear mission for me," Sinise said. "I was going to ensure that our active-duty service members knew they were appreciated. They weren't going to be treated the way our Vietnam veterans were treated when they came home, and there would never be any question in their minds that the American people supported them."
Whenever negative news came out of the war in Iraq, Sinise worked harder to support the troops.
"I ramped up my efforts to just forget about all that and went right to the soldiers, airmen, Marines and sailors, and just made sure they knew we weren't forgetting about them," Sinise said. "That started me on this very committed path to ensure that we take care of our defenders at all times."
Sinise now has his own foundation, focusing on support for the nation's defenders, veterans and their families through creating and supporting programs throughout the year. He also started the Lt. Dan Band, which performs around 50 shows for military members and their families on military installations around the world.
Sinise visited Minot Air Force Base this month. In addition to meeting with veterans and active-duty airmen, the Lt. Dan Band performed a free concert held at Dock 1 on Aug. 16. The purpose of Sinise's visit was to show his gratitude to Team Minot.
"I felt it very important to come up and say 'thank-you,'" Sinise said. "They're doing great work up here taking care of these missiles, B-52s and everything else, and we have to make sure they know we appreciate what they do."
Before the band's performance, 5th Bomb Wing commander Col. Jason Armagost thanked Sinise for coming out and addressed the theme of the actor's life.
"Gratitude is what we have to learn from Gary Sinise," Armagost said. "The man has lived a life of gratitude and because of that, he's teaching us how to have more gratitude toward each other."
Throughout the band's performance, Sinise thanked airmen and their families on numerous occasions. He spoke of their dedication and sacrifice, and his endless appreciation for that. Though his visit to Minot AFB was short-lived, Sinise displayed a lifetime of gratitude.
"This is a liberating military, and it's there to provide freedom and humanitarian efforts all around the world," Sinise said. "I know where my freedom comes from. I have no question about that and who provides it for me. I appreciate that, I benefit from it and I want to do something to support that."