Nearly 20 years ago when actor Gary Sinise created the role of wounded Vietnam vet and future Tom Hanks Bubba Gump Shrimp Company business partner Lieutenant Dan Taylor in director Robert Zemeckis' 1994 film "Forrest Gump," the actor never anticipated he would be one day be helping real-life injured soldiers who grew up watching him in the movie classic. Over the past decade, the bass player and his Gary Sinise and the Lt. Dan Band have entertained countless troops overseas on USO tours and become a fundraising machine for wounded troops and their families via concerts the 12-member outfit schedules between the actor's busy shooting schedule on the hit CBS drama "CSI: NY."
This Saturday night at 7, the actor and the Lt. Dan Band will hit the stage at the Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre at Encore Park in Alpharetta for their final gig of 2012. Sinise and bandmates will be raising money to assist metro-area vets Todd Love and Mike Schlitz in building custom-designed Smart Homes, much-needed new residences for the wounded soldiers and their families. U.S. Marine Cpl. Love was point man on foot patrol in Afghanistan on Oct. 25, 2010 when he triggered an IED that blew off both his legs. SFC Schlitz was in southern Baghdad performing a road clearing mission in 2007 when an IED blew off his arms and burned him over 85 percent of his body.
"Because of the nature of their injuries and the need to have a manageable living space, building these homes makes their lives more independent and gives them an opportunity to live without worrying about how to turn off a light or reaching a cupboard or how they're going to get up the stairs," Sinise told me this week. "Each of these homes are specially designed for each wounded warrior to make their lives more manageable. After hearing these stories and meeting these soldiers, I offered to raise money, provide my services and my band to help raise funds and awareness in the communities where these men want to live in."
Like most actors learning lines and shooting scenes, Sinise didn't think much about the cultural impact his "Forrest Gump" character would have at the time he and Hanks were shooting their now-iconic scenes in the much-beloved movie 20 years ago. It was only after the film's release that he first got a glimpse into how Lt. Dan was resonating with real-life soldiers.
"Right after the movie opened, I was contacted by the Disabled American Veterans organization and was invited to come to their national convention," Sinise recalls. "They are an organization of 1.5 million members, disabled veterans of many wars, going back to World War II. I was introduced to them and ended up meeting hundreds of veterans, up through Desert Storm. That was my introduction to [the impact] this character was having. I was profoundly changed by the events of September 11 and when we began deploying to Afghanistan and Iraq and our soldiers started getting hurt and killed, it was a call to action for me. I knew, having supported our men and women in uniform over the years, there was a role for me to play in supporting our active duty folks and those who had been injured."
While Sinise and the Lt. Dan Band are here this weekend to raise money for an important cause, that doesn't mean Saturday night's gig won't be a festive evening. The cover act plays crowd favorites with a play list ranging from Jimi Hendrix, Kelly Clarkson, Beyonce to 1940s big band material and even our own Zac Brown Band. Sinise says to expect a party.
"It's a high energy show and it's a lot of fun," he says. "It's a cover band. I'm a musician but I'm not a songwriter or someone who's interested in having a career in music or recording or anything. I don't make my living at this. The band is something that I do to bring joy to people's lives and to help support the men and women who serve our country and to raise money for the organizations that help them. The song list has a little something for everybody. We've done hundreds of concerts at this point. I've met a lot of great people who motivate me to continue to do this."
For more information about the Gary Sinise Foundation, click here. Full bios of Todd Love and Mike Schlitz are posted on the Lt. Dan Band website and here's more info on Saturday night's concert and how to buy tickets.