By Jessica Battaglia

It’s been 20 years since “Forrest Gump” debuted on the silver screen and nearly a generation later, its characters still resonate with today’s service members.

In the Academy Award-winning film, Lt. Dan Taylor, played by Gary Sinise, loses his legs in an ambush while serving in Vietnam. Convinced he was destined to die in battle like his relatives, Lt. Dan blames title character Forrest Gump for saving his life. Living without legs creates a feeling of uselessness for the character. In a pivotal moment, Lt. Dan refers to himself as a “legless freak,” yelling at Gump that he’ll never achieve his full potential and wonders out loud, “What am I going to do now?”

Photo credit USO photo by Joseph Andrew Lee

Gary Sinise rocks it out with the Lt. Dan Band on Fremont Street in Las Vegas for wounded troops and their families on Nov. 9, 2013, during a free concert for wounded troops. 

Reflecting on his role in the film, Sinise said Lt. Dan’s story offers hope in an otherwise bleak situation.

“That particular story hadn’t really been seen. So when you see the story of Lt. Dan, that’s a hopeful story for our … wounded veterans, because he’s a wounded combat veteran and he is also able to be successful in life,” Sinise said. “He’s married at the end and he’s standing up on new legs. You never thought you’d see him out of the wheelchair.”

At the end of the movie, Gump is elated to see Lt. Dan—walking on his new prosthetic legs—and his fiancé attend his wedding. And Lt. Dan is happy, despite his long journey to recovery.

Sinise pointed out that Lt. Dan’s uplifting story of perseverance wasn’t common in movies before “Forrest Gump.”

“That’s the interesting thing about that particular story. Prior to ‘Gump,’ you always had that question as to whether the Vietnam veteran was going to be able to move beyond his … combat experience,” he said. “I’ve met a lot of Vietnam veterans over the years, and generally, they thought the depiction of the Vietnam War sequences in the movie were well-done, and they appreciated the story of Lt. Dan.”

Sinise, whose brother-in-law served two tours in Vietnam, saw firsthand how troops coming back struggled to adapt to life at home. In many ways, Vietnam veterans and the nation’s newest generation of veterans have similar reintegration experiences, and he wants all veterans to know they are valued.

“I just want them to know that they are appreciated and not forgotten,” Sinise said.

The Vietnam veterans in his family, and what happened to them when they got caught in the political battle, are big motivators for him, Sinise said.

He has made it his life’s work to make sure service members know they are appreciated. This became especially important to him after the September 11 attacks. He’s been on several handshake tours with the USO, where he learned that most members just want someone to listen to them.

Photo credit USO photo by Doug Van Sant

Gary Sinise and the Lt. Dan Band perform a USO concert for the Washington Navy Yard Community in 2013.

“My first military hospital visit was actually at Landstuhl Medical Center in Germany. It was my third overseas USO tour in late August of 2003.”

He said he was a little apprehensive during that first hospital visit, but those concerns quickly faded once he started talking with the troops.

“I could just tell it was nice to have somebody show up. In fact, there was one guy I saw in a hospital bed in Landstuhl and two weeks later I saw him in a wheelchair going down the hallway at Walter Reed (in Washington, D.C.),” he said, adding it was great to see how quickly the injured service members had progressed in their recovery.

“You’ll see somebody in a bed. Then you go back three months later, and they are up on their prosthetic legs. It’s a hopeful thing to see them getting better.”

Finding an enduring connection between those he met on USO tours and his Lt. Dan character—with which he has become synonymous in the military community—he formed the Lt. Dan Band in 2004. The band now performs nearly 50 shows a year for military audiences.

“I could not have foreseen that the Lt. Dan character would be a character that has a life of its own beyond the movie,” he said. “I think part of that is because, when I started working with the USO and visiting our hospitals and meeting this entire new generation of amputees, the character and its relation to me became sort of a conversation piece with our wounded in the hospitals.”

“It’s been a blessing and a benefit to be able to have this association with wounded in our military community.”

He’s also amazed at the resolve of the families of wounded service members and those who have lost loved ones.

“We have 12 years’ worth of a new generation of Lt. Dans out there and thousands of gold star families that are suffering,” he said. “It’s amazing to me … the resiliency that those people display. [They] may be off the front pages, but the military is 24/7, 365 days a year. They’re always out there defending us … and their families are going through difficult times through these deployments.”

He had the opportunity to speak with a military widow who lost her husband on his eighth deployment. “She was just talking about how it almost became eerily commonplace to just say goodbye to him for six months knowing that the worst could happen.”

To broaden his efforts on behalf of the military, the actor created the Gary Sinise Foundation to honor our nation’s defenders, veterans, first responders and their families. Its purpose is to offer supportive programming. One of the foundation’s programs—Building For America’s Bravest—provides custom smart homes for severely wounded veterans.

Sinise has been busy since his role as Lt. Dan, but he’s currently focused on his work with the military community.

“Now I have a mission and it’s felt like it was a calling for me to be able to support our veteran community. That’s why I started my foundation and that’s why I spend full time on it now,” he said. “It requires a lot of attention, and thankfully there are a lot of people that are out there doing it. I’m just one of them.”