Three days after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, my family and I attended a service at our local church. Later that night, a candlelight vigil on a street corner near our house where I held our American flag high over my head. President Bush had proclaimed Friday, September 14, 2001, as a National Day of Prayer and Remembrance for the victims of the terrorist attacks. Like so many of us during that time, the tragic loss of life and the violence inflicted upon our country left me heartbroken. It was like getting punched in the stomach, the wind knocked out of me. Our church was packed, standing room only and at the end of the service that day, we all joined together in singing “God Bless America.” Standing there, holding our youngest daughter's hand, tears streamed down my cheeks. I hardly kept a tune as my voice cracked, my mind replaying the horrific images of two jetliners slamming into the World Trade Center, the attack on the Pentagon, and the downing of United Flight 93 in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
I remember how fearful I was twenty years ago at what was going on. The attacks were horrifying. How could this have happened? Four planes hijacked that beautiful September morning. Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda terrorists had actually trained here, at U.S. flight schools, learning to fly those airplanes for a suicide mission, never planning to land them but with the evil intent to keep them up in the air long enough to be able to crash them into buildings to kill as many people as they could. One week later, letters containing anthrax began showing up in mailboxes, including to two U.S. senators. Over twenty people developed infections and five people died. What was happening? Fears crept in. I thought how easy it would be for a terrorist to sneak across the southern border with a backpack full of Anthrax, enter a major city and release it into the air or into the water system. Were more attacks on the way? We were now clearly at war. My children were very young. I was afraid for them, and for the country they would grow up in under this new “war on terror” environment. I was broken. It was difficult to sleep.
I had to do something, and in the days and weeks that followed my fear and grief began to mix with a deep sense of patriotism and pooled together to spur an introspection I’d never felt before. I thought to myself, what can I do to help protect my family and what can I do to give back to this country I love? Not solely monetarily, but by taking deliberate action. Opportunities where I could honor those lost on 9/11, by showing my gratitude in support for those serving in our nation’s defense at home and abroad, materialized as quickly as troops deployed en masse to Afghanistan, and then Iraq in the ensuing years. Serving others became the current of healing that gave me strength and has kept me going all these years.
Not long after the attacks, I began traveling in support of our troops worldwide with the USO, on my own and entertaining with my band, visiting U.S. military bases and hospitals to lift spirits and relay a message of thanks from the American people. I poured myself into philanthropic endeavors like raising money to build The National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial and The Brooklyn Wall of Remembrance on Coney Island honoring the 416 first responders and FDNY Chaplain killed in the attacks.
After playing Lt. Dan in Forrest Gump in the 90s, I was introduced to the Disabled American Veterans organization and with so many wounded service members returning home from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, I ramped up my support of the DAV and other organizations focused on helping injured veterans. With so many losses on the battlefield, I began supporting Gold Star families, trying to help the children and surviving spouses of our fallen heroes through their grief. Remembrance, appreciation, gratitude, and support are at the heart of this mission and a decade ago I founded the Gary Sinise Foundation to expand this work.
My decades-long advocacy for veterans and our men and women in uniform takes a solemn lesson from the Vietnam experience at how American service members and veterans were treated when returning from South East Asia. Divided over the war, our nation had turned its back on them. Moved by the stories of the Vietnam veterans in our family and many I have befriended over the years; I didn’t want to see that happen to our current generation of veterans and those actively serving in the armed forces. With the unfortunate events in recent weeks, it is difficult not to see the parallels between the 1975 fall of Saigon in Vietnam and 2021 Afghanistan. It is disheartening and discouraging that twenty years later Afghanistan is once again in the hands of the Taliban. The suicide bombing at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul on August 26th, the terrible killing of 13 American service members, with 22 wounded, and the loss of so many Afghan civilians, was another gut punch leaving me heartbroken and so very sad. So many have sacrificed, and my heart goes out to the families of the fallen 13 American heroes.
Between October 2001 and August 31, 2021, 800,000 Americans served in Afghanistan. More than 2,400 were killed and 20,000 were wounded. We honor and remember them all.
While I am sure many of our Afghanistan veterans are wondering what it was all for, surely anguished to see the Taliban move in so swiftly, they should also feel pride in having served and done their duty. With our service members presence there, and the very difficult sacrifices they have personally made keeping the Taliban in check, Afghans were able to experience a freedom they had never known. Twenty years ago, Afghan girls could not go to school. Slaves to the Taliban. But since 2008, according to their website, USAID helped increase access to education for three million Afghan girls, many for the first time in their lives. Thanks in part to USAID, student enrollment grew from 900,000 male students in 2001 to more than 9.5 million students, 39 percent of whom are girls, in 2020. And so much more. Afghanistan saw its first female air force pilot, women became a part of the government, the media, and there are young Afghans living today that have no recollection of the slavery imposed by the tyrannical Taliban.
Our children, the children I was so afraid for after the attacks twenty years ago, have grown up. During these past two decades, our men and women in uniform have kept them safe, as no terrorist has planned and executed an attack on the United States from the mountains of Afghanistan. Our troops served honorably. I am proud of them and honored to support them. They protected this country, and I will be forever grateful to them for doing so. We pray that freedom will one day shine again for the Afghan people.
In my book Grateful American: A Journey from Self to Service, there is a chapter called "Turning Point" that specifically focuses on the 9/11 attacks and the impact that day made on me personally. I can most certainly say that what happened to our country on September 11, 2001 broke my heart and changed me forever. It forced me to rethink everything. What do I really believe? How do I want to raise my kids? What kind of example do I want to set for them? How can I use my good fortune to help?
During this journey from self to service, along the way I’ve met heroic individuals whose actions left a profound effect on me, like the late John Vigiano, a former Marine and New York firefighter who lost his only two sons on 9/11. Two sons who gave their lives that day trying to rescue people they didn’t know. John and I met in June 2003 while on a C-130 flight from Kuwait to Baghdad, Iraq. We were part of “Project Salute”, the first overseas USO tour of the Persian Gulf region since Operation Iraqi Freedom commenced in March of that year. John spent months at Ground Zero searching the rubble, and after seeing so many people coming from all over the world to help, our country pulling together in our darkest hour, he said, “I think more good came out of September 11 than evil.” And he was right. I have personally been inspired and motivated by so many selfless men and women who have dedicated their lives to ensuring that we never forget. The domino effect of impactful service that sprung from tragedy is evident today. Not just in my actions, but through the thousands of generous Americans who support my foundation and many other nonprofit organizations, and the countless individuals dedicated to serving veterans, service members, first responders and their families.
And so, inspired by so many heroes I have met over the years who were in New York and at the Pentagon on 9/11, the incredible bravery and selflessness of the heroes of United Flight 93 who fought the terrorists that day, and the countless members of our military who have raised their hands to defend our country, I have tried to do as much as possible, traveling around the globe to support our defenders and their families. While we can never do enough for our freedom and security providers, I believe we can always do more to show them we are grateful and that we do not forget. I have tried to do that, whenever and wherever I could, in order to ensure that today’s defenders, unlike what happened to our Vietnam veterans, know they are appreciated. Service is a great healer, and it is a good feeling to know there is something that I can do.
Yet, what sacrifices I’ve made in my career, and as a father and husband, to achieve this service mission pales in comparison to what our men and women in uniform — and by extension, their loved ones — were asked to do when our nation went to war in Afghanistan, and then Iraq. I saw their noble service and sacrifice firsthand while visiting active war zones. I’ve seen it inside hospital rooms and recovery centers. And I see it every day in the lives touched by my foundation.
As in years past, we commemorate the anniversary of Sept. 11 by coming together to pay respect to innocence lost on that horrific day. Flags will be flown at half-staff. We’ll eulogize first responders for their devotion to duty, the 417 losses inflicted on their ranks on that day, and the staggering number of over 500 first responders who have died since due to Ground Zero related illnesses.
We will take a moment of silent prayer in remembrance of the 2,977 people who were killed at the Pentagon, in Shanksville, in lower Manhattan, and their surviving families left behind.
We’ll remind ourselves of the sacrifices and burdens born by a new generation of veterans — the price paid during two decades of war. From coast to coast, “God Bless America” will ring out. Our voices will crack, and tears will fall.
Through our collective mourning, we come together as one nation, a nation that continues to heal. And in honor of the memory of those taken from us twenty years ago, the families who love and miss them, and the military families who struggle with the grief of losing loved ones who sacrificed in response to the September 11 attacks, we continue to serve.