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Looking back on Forrest Gump, did you have any idea that your character, Lt. Dan, would take on mythical proportions?
It was my relationship with various Vietnam veterans going back to the early ’80s that was partially a motivator of me wanting to play that part so badly. I just felt like it was a part I connected to and understood. I wanted to portray that particular veteran because, unlike so many other movies about the Vietnam War where veterans were always portrayed as severely mentally disabled in some way, Lt. Dan goes through all those things, but the conclusion of his story is that he makes it through and moves on in a very positive way. I very much felt that was needed. After I played a disabled Vietnam veteran in the movie and got involved in disabled veterans organizations and started going on USO tours, it became very clear that people have a special feeling toward Lt. Dan, and I happen to be the guy who played him.
In Lt. Dan Band, it touches on the fact that so many people know you as Lt. Dan rather than Gary Sinise. Has that ever bothered you?
No. Now that I’ve been on television for seven years, there are as many people who recognize me from that as the movie.
How many times have you been to Iraq and Afghanistan?
I’ve been to Iraq four times and Afghanistan twice. I’ve been to many other places with the band – Asia, Singapore, Diego Garcia, Okinawa, Korea, Germany and Italy.
Have those experiences changed your perception of your career as an actor?
I’ve spent so much time with wounded service members and Iraqi kids and little Afghanistan kids. You see how people live – these little kids have nothing. All those experiences with people who are going through difficult things really effects me. Not that I’ve ever had the perspective that what I do is all that important. When you go out there and see folks struggling to get by, or you meet a guy who’s lost both arms and legs in a bombing, it can’t help but put everything in perspective.
Do you feel like your viewpoints are at odds with some of your colleagues in Hollywood?
I wouldn’t know. All the movie does is follow me around and introduce you to people who are serving our country. You meet first responders who lost a lot of friends on September 11. I help them build a memorial to honor their friends. What should be at odds with that? I’m just doing what I think is right, and what makes me feel like I can contribute and use my celebrity to help some folks. That shouldn’t make anybody feel strange.
The scene where you walk through one of Saddam Hussein’s residences is chilling. What was going through your mind that day?
When you go in and see what he was building at a time when there were UN sanctions against him, you really wonder about it. We were supposed to be cutting off his money, and there was an oil for food program where he was supposed to be taking care of his people, and yet he’s building palaces everywhere. This particular palace he called the Victory Over America Palace. He wanted it done very quickly. We were told that the first crew was moving too slow, so he lined them all up and shot them all. The second crew wasn’t working fast enough, so he shot all of them. Then he brought in another crew and before they could be shot, the war started and he had to run. The palace was unfinished.
Clearly you’ve had many poignant encounters with troops and their families. Is there one that stands out?
There are so many amazing things – they happen to me every week. I’m on the road on the weekends at least twice a month. Last weekend, I was at a Wounded Warrior concert I was playing in Las Vegas. Unfortunately, we have some very severely wounded veterans. Three or fours guys have had all four limbs blown off. One of them was at this event. He had his prosthetic legs and arms on, and he was with his wife. We played Mariah Carey’s Hero. I see half the audience starts to stand up and look to the right, and they are all applauding. I look over, and there he is standing on his prosthetic legs with his two prosthetic arms wrapped around his wife, and they are dancing in the aisle. It was the first time they had danced together since he had been severely injured. That’s one of a million stories about how courageous our service members are. They give me a lot of inspiration. It’s a re-energizer and a motivator for me to keep doing what I do.