“A thief and a liar and a near-failing student.” That’s how Gary Sinise describes himself at age 14 in his new memoir “Grateful American.”
Nowadays, however, he is better known as an actor, humanitarian, and man of faith who works tirelessly to improve the lives of injured veterans and first responders.
So how did Gary make this journey from self to service? He joined me recently on “Christopher Closeup” to share parts of his story.
Sinise grew up in Chicago and, during his teenage years, made some bad choices having to do with getting high, partying, and even stealing cars (or at least “borrowing” them without permission). He credits his high school theater program with pointing him “toward redemption” and giving him the background and inspiration to found the acclaimed Steppenwolf Theater Company with several of his friends.
Sinise went on to find work in Hollywood, both in front of and behind the camera. One of his earliest gigs was dancing in the background of a Luke and Laura scene on “General Hospital.” By 1992, he had directed, produced, and starred in a film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men,” with his old buddy John Malkovich.
But it was 1994, that really changed Sinise’s life because that’s when he portrayed Lt. Dan Taylor in the Tom Hanks hit “Forrest Gump.” In the movie, Lt. Dan inadvertently leads his platoon in Vietnam into an ambush in which some of them are killed. And Lt. Dan loses his own legs in the process.
After the war, observed Sinise, Lt. Dan tries “to drown himself in alcohol because he’s dealing with terrible guilt and post-traumatic stress. He says at one point to Forrest Gump, ‘You should have left me out there to die.’ He’s carrying terrible anguish and despair. But ultimately at the end of that story, he’s standing up again on prosthetic legs. He’s successful in business and moving on with his life. He’s able to make peace. That’s a story I found that so many troubled, injured, or wounded veterans that I met in hospitals – that’s the story they want. They want that story of being able to move forward, put their war experiences behind them, be okay, and be successful…It was a hopeful story, and I found that our veterans related to it and wanted to talk about it.”
That role led Gary to get more involved in veterans causes. At the same time, he was facing his own battles on the homefront. His wife, Moira, was struggling with alcoholism and was unwilling to admit her problem. Faced with the loss of her family, she finally pursued the help she needed and moved toward recovery.
While attending an AA meeting at St. Michael’s Church on the North Side of Chicago, a woman walked up to Moira one day and told her, “My dear, you need to become a Catholic. You need to convert.” Moira’s mother had been Catholic, but they didn’t practice the religion when she was growing up. As Moira explored the Catholic faith, she decided this was a step she wanted to take.
Moira converted, and she and Gary began sending their kids to Catholic school and attending Mass together as a family. Gary himself had not yet joined the Church, but he had become more open to God and the spiritual part of life due to various experiences in recent years.
Then came 9/11.
Gary recalled the devastation he felt at the loss of life that occurred that day. He and his family went to their church for a memorial Mass that Friday. He said, “I remember feeling with this broken heart that I had – crying through the Mass – that service would heal that broken heart, service to others was a great healer…I wanted to do everything I could for the Afghanistan and Iraq veterans who were deploying in reaction to that terrible event…I started going to the war zones, to hospitals, entertaining on military bases across the country and around the world. I started raising money for multiple military charities, all as a volunteer. All while I was shooting a television show (CSI:NY) and trying to be a dad. And I found that the more I gave, the more relief I received – the relief of this broken heart because I could see that I was doing some good. Was it God calling me to service? It very well could be….This is a life mission.”
During a 2003 flight to Iraq for the USO, Gary found himself seated next to a man he didn’t recognize. The man didn’t know who Gary was either, so the two started talking. The stranger introduced himself as retired fireman John Vigiano Sr. His two sons, Joe and John Jr. – one with the NYPD, one with the FDNY – were both killed on 9/11 in the World Trade Center’s collapse.
Vigiano Sr. went down to Ground Zero to dig through the rubble looking for his sons. Gary recalled, “[He told me that] he looks around and sees people from all over the world who came to Ground Zero to help pass out food and water and help in any way they can…He saw all these people lined up for days, and the spirit of America coming together to help everybody at Ground Zero. He said to me, ‘You know, I think more good came out of that terrible day than evil.’ He said that because he saw the good down there. He saw the good pour into that terrible area filled with dust and smoke and debris. I get kind of choked up about it, but I’ll never forget it.”
Gary credits his friendship with Vigiano (who passed away in 2018 at age 79), along with many of the firefighters he met, with helping him to decide to become Catholic himself in 2010.
Gary said, “[Our] little church became such a positive force in our lives and it grew into a moment in time where I secretly went through a confirmation process and surprised my family by taking them to the church on Christmas Eve. Our priests brought me into the church, confirmed me into the church. And that was a big surprise to my family.”
Gary continues to live his faith and his mission of service to others through the Gary Sinise Foundation, which includes many outreach efforts, including the building of specially-adapted houses for disabled veterans. He hopes that by sharing his story in “Grateful American,” he can encourage readers to practice gratitude in their own lives as well.
Gary concludes, “I didn’t know what the book was going to be called when I first started writing it. As it started to unfold, the journey became clear to me. It was a journey from self to service…I’ve played hundreds of concerts for our troops and I’ll stand up there in front of 10,000 people and talk to them at the end. And it’s always about gratitude and appreciation for what they do in service to our country. If the book can inspire others to look at what they’re grateful for and to think about our country not as a place where people are divided all the time…But look at the blessings that we’ve had because of the freedoms we have in this great country. If I can inspire people to go out there and serve others, maybe the book is going to be worth the year it took to put it all down.”
(To listen to my full interview with Gary Sinise, click on the podcast link):
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