Gary Sinise is recognized everywhere as "Lt. Dan."
But his gritty character in Forrest Gump was more than a movie part for Sinise.
In a heartfelt speech Thursday night to an overflow crowd, Sinise related why his signature role as a Vietnam veteran was a deeply cathartic and personal experience.
Sinise was speaking at a fundraiser for the Wounded Warrior Care Project at the Richmond on Greene hotel in downtown Augusta. The 319th Transportation Company Vietnam Veterans played host to the event, which raised more than $30,000 toward a permanent home for a disabled veteran.
Sinise, who stars in CSI: NY , has spent years supporting troops overseas and stateside through the USO program and his personal projects. He plays bass, for instance, in the traveling Lt. Dan Band as a fundraising project.
In fact, he spent Thursday in Augusta between gigs in Savannah, Ga. Earlier in the day, Sinise toured the Active Duty Rehabilitation Unit at the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center.
Walking alongside Sinise was retired Illinois National Guard Sgt. Tom Morrissey, who spent nearly three years in the rehab unit recovering from eight gunshot wounds to his arms and legs in Afghanistan. Morrissey was initially convinced he would lose at least one arm if not both.
"To keep both of them is really a testament to their abilities and their willingness to work with me," he said. "The great treatment I got here lets me lead a regular life."
Morrissey met Sinise two years ago after a Lt. Dan Band concert in the Chicago area. Morrissey talked up the rehab unit and asked Sinise to visit.
"There's a lot to be learned from veterans who have gone through the same thing and survived" their injuries, Sinise said. "There's a lot of information to be shared between the young soldiers and Marines and the veterans. I think it is a great thing. I'm actually surprised it doesn't happen more often."
There is a camaraderie that develops in the unit that actually helps them heal, said Dr. Dennis Hollins, the unit's medical director.
"It's very therapeutic," he told Sinise.
His deep-rooted support for troops was born partly out of guilt. He escaped the draft because of his age and spent much of the conflict oblivious to the sacrifices men only a few years older than he were making. He participated in a war protest just so he could get out of class, Sinise said during his evening appearance with the Wounded Warrior Care Project.
His brother-in-law was a Vietnam veteran, however, and Sinise learned much about the war through him. Sinise wanted to know why men served, what combat was like and how he could help veterans.
"He made a gigantic impression on me," Sinise said. "The overwhelming emotion I had was guilt."
Sinise mourned along with many other Americans in the late '70s as they realized the shameful way they had treated returning veterans. He resolved to make a difference, beginning with the production of a play he had discovered written by Vietnam veterans.
"It was a cathartic experience for Vietnam veterans and a great learning experience for me," Sinise said.
The Steppenwolf Theatre he co-founded in Chicago continues the tradition of bringing in local veterans for a free performance of the final dress rehearsal.
Sinise capped his story with: "Then I got to play a Vietnam veteran."
He paused for effect. "Anyone know what movie I'm talking about?"
"Forrest Gump !" the audience shouted.
"Shrimp, shrimp and all that," Sinise replied with a grin.
Sinise finished his remarks Thursday night with strong praise for the soldiers abroad and the returning veterans.
"We can never do enough for our veterans, but we can always try to do a little more," Sinise said.