These service members and first responders have already done their part. They have already given of themselves. And it is our great privilege, through the trust of the American people and the support given to us, to do our part to give something back to them.
The experiences of war leave an indelible impact on our defenders. When they return to civilian life, the physical, emotional, and psychological challenges they face are often difficult. As citizens, we benefit from the freedom and security they fight to protect. Supporting these heroes is a responsibility we all must share.
The Gary Sinise Foundation was established under the philanthropic direction of a forty-year advocate for our nation's defenders, actor Gary Sinise. Each of the Foundation's programs originated from Gary's personal relationships with our nation's service community and a wide range of nonprofits he had supported for decades. Ever aware of the gaps of care these deserving heroes often encounter, he was inspired to serve them – always giving a little more. With the creation of the Gary Sinise Foundation, his crusade now supports all those who sacrifice on our behalf: active duty, veterans, first responders, and their loved ones. Each program shows appreciation for America's heroes through entertainment, family support, and acts of gratitude.
In April 2009, while visiting Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Gary met the first post-9/11 quadruple amputee, U.S. Army Specialist Brendan Marrocco. Brendan was severely wounded in Iraq when his vehicle sustained a catastrophic hit from a bomb blast. It was later that year, in September 2009, when the commissioner of the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) approached Gary and asked for help raising money to build Marrocco, a Staten Island native, a specially adapted smart home. Gary donated his band, the Lt Dan Band, for a concert in August 2010 in support and having done so played an integral role in placing this wounded hero in his forever home. With the launch of the Gary Sinise Foundation a year later, his home building efforts were expanded into a national crusade to serve all of America's severely wounded heroes through GSF's R.I.S.E. program – Restoring Independence Supporting Empowerment. Each home is mortgage-free and fully customized to the unique needs of the hero and their loved ones.
Relief & Resiliency
For more than a decade, Gary proudly supported Snowball Express, an organization dedicated to serving the children of our fallen military heroes, surviving spouses and guardians – our nation's Gold Star families. It began in 2006, with Gary joining up and donating the Lt. Dan Band for a concert at the 2nd annual event in 2007. Gary was deeply moved and immediately fell in love with the children and families.
In the years that followed, the band would return to perform for new and familiar faces, and Gary's commitment to the program deepened. "I want them to know that what they've sacrificed has not gone unnoticed or forgotten." He wanted to ensure the annual celebration was as impactful and meaningful as possible. In 2017, Snowball Express became an official program of the Gary Sinise Foundation, with American Airlines continuing as presenting sponsor. Through Gary's longstanding relationship with the Walt Disney Company, he was able to expand the program by gaining Disney's support in relocating the annual five-day experience to WALT DISNEY WORLD® Resort in Florida. Beyond the fun and memories, Snowball Express helps families of the fallen heal, learn, and build lasting relationships. "That's our primary goal," Gary explained, "for our Gold Star families to feel remembered and for them to see that they are not alone. It's something I feel is incredibly important for our nation, letting the children know that we do not forget their sacrifices and we honor them. And it's such a great feeling to see them healing, smiling, and having fun."
Invincible Spirit Festivals
For decades, Gary has been visiting our nation's wounded service members in hospitals at home and overseas, to include remote combat locations. He saw firsthand the difficulties faced by the recovering heroes and the heavy impact on their loved ones. Time after time he has been inspired by their spirit of perseverance as they meet the tremendous challenges they face after their injuries. With a mission to provide hope, comradery and support for our wounded veterans, the Gary Sinise Foundation provides Invincible Spirit Festivals as reminder that we do not forget. These day-long festivals at our nation's military medical centers are a way to celebrate the courage of our injured heroes and their families, as well show gratitude to the dedicated hospital staff.
Lt. Dan Band
While participating in "handshake tours" for the USO in Iraq and Afghanistan, Gary decided to utilize his love of music to entertain the troops. Having a background in bass guitar, in 2003, he gathered his 'jam band' from Chicago and formed the Lt. Dan Band. "Everyone was calling me Lt. Dan all the time, so the band's name was obvious," said Gary. They performed their first USO concert at Great Lakes Naval Base in November of that year, receiving a great response from military service men and women. Now a program of the Gary Sinise Foundation, Gary Sinise & the Lt. Dan Band perform worldwide. With a motto of Honor, Gratitude and Rock & Roll, this programs mission is to lift the spirits and boost morale of our nation's veterans, first responders and the loved ones who sacrifice alongside them, and to help keep them strong by delivering a message of appreciation and support for all who serve.
A healthy mindset is essential to recovery. Through Gary's decades-long relationship with the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) organization he witnessed the power of bringing wounded veterans together as a way of healing. With a passion to extend the Foundation's outreach for our wounded beyond the home building program, Gary came up with the idea of a mentorship retreat. He wanted to introduce current wounded veterans, new to their injuries, with wounded veterans from pervious wars. With the support of the DAV and Boulder Crest Retreat, Gary initiated his idea as part of the Gary Sinise Foundation. "I wanted to help our younger veterans who were fairly early into their injuries, within the first 10 years, trying to cope and live with their new life," said Gary. "Putting them together in the healing and nurturing environment of Boulder Crest, teaming them with older veterans who have been living with their injuries for 30 – 40+ years and had gone onto great success and done well, much in the way that Lt. Dan eventually does, they too could find their way to move beyond their injury into a new life and a new level of success." Together, these heroes can find the strength to transform traumatic experiences into clarity and growth over the course of a 7-day retreat.
The Gary Sinise Foundation's H.O.P.E. was established to provide wide-ranging support to those overcoming trauma, injury, and loss. Throughout Gary's long history of supporting veterans, he realized the needs of our military heroes are complex and ever-changing. "I want us to be able to step up and do the right thing whenever and wherever help is needed," Gary explained. The program also supports military and first responder families dealing with the aftermath of natural disasters.
Community Outreach & Education
WWII. The most devastating war in all of human history. At the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, Gary was asked to voice the role of legendary combat correspondent Ernie Pyle for Beyond All Boundaries, an in-depth film depicting the battles of World War II. After visiting the museum for the first time, he was so impressed, he decided to send his Uncle Jack who served during the war. To preserve the legacy of World War II, a critical component of the museum is recording video oral histories. Gary made sure Jack's video testimony of his experience as a navigator on a B 17 Flying Fortress over Europe was contributed to the museum's national archive. After Jack's passing in 2014, Gary received a copy of the oral history for the first time. Moved by the unique opportunity to hear Jack's testimony, Gary realized the importance of recording oral histories from this fading generation. In an effort to preserve and savor the real stories of the men and women affected by WWII, and to honor the folks who served in the war that changed the course of history, the Soaring Valor program was created.
Today, the Gary Sinise Foundation is sending WWII veterans to visit the museum built in their honor. The Foundation also sponsors a historian who records their stories to preserve the legacy and gain educational insight. In 2017, the program expanded to include students on the Soaring Valor trips. The students learn directly from America's Greatest Generation about the critical importance, to all future generations, of the sacrifices that were made all those year ago.
One day, before picking up his daughter at Los Angeles Airport, Gary stopped into the Bob Hope USO at LAX to personally show his appreciation for the service members passing through. Shaking hands with these heroes traveling on military orders, and to and from deployments, Gary was inspired and offered the USO funds to provide a hearty meal on their busiest day of the month. A reminder of a grateful nation that does not forget their daily sacrifices. After the launch of the Foundation, it became an official program called Serving Heroes. Gary expressed, "it is my hope that Serving Heroes will form new connections, strengthen communities and, most importantly, serve as a message that our defenders are appreciated and remembered each and every day." He wanted to ensure that what happened to our Vietnam veterans during a time when our country was divided, and our returning defenders were forgotten, would not happen to our current military men and women. Now with a worldwide outreach, serving veterans past and present with a meal and a message of gratitude and remembrance, it is one of the Gary Sinise Foundation's fastest growing programs.
Arts & Entertainment Outreach
Soon after high school, Gary and his friends, Jeff Perry and Terry Kinney, founded the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago. The trio assembled a group of talented actors, to include Gary's future wife, Moira Harris. While dating Moira, Gary received a first-hand education on the traumatic experiences of serving in combat from his future brother-in-law, U.S. Army Captain Boyd McCanna "Mac" Harris. In 1981, during a trip to Los Angeles, Gary viewed Tracers, a play written about the Vietnam War by a group of Vietnam Veterans. The play was conceived by John Difusco, also a veteran of Vietnam. Moved by the play, Gary felt compelled to direct it at his own theatre as a way of honoring his brother-in-law, Captain Harris, and all Vietnam Veterans. He eventually received the rights and in 1984 directed Tracers at Steppenwolf Theatre. In an effort to honor local veterans, he invited them to watch each Tuesday night performance free of charge. Gary witnessed how much the play resonated with the veterans and how the story was able to bring healing to their experiences. This experience deeply affected Gary and members of the company and from then on, Steppenwolf began inviting veterans for a free dress rehearsal performance with dinner at the theater and named it "Veterans Night." The tradition continues today and is sponsored by the Arts and Entertainment Outreach program of the Gary Sinise Foundation.
Whether at military medical centers or through his relationships with veterans organizations, Gary has met countless individuals who have inspired him. With a passion to share the mission of the Gary Sinise Foundation by honoring the needs of our veterans, defenders and their families, he enlisted a trusted group of dear friends and American heroes as official ambassadors. These individuals are selected for their exceptional character and patriotism. They motivate and educate new supporters by traveling to communities across the nation, forming meaningful and personal connections, and sharing their stories of service.
First Responders Outreach
September 11, 2001, shook our nation in a way we will never forget. The heroism by our first responders who selflessly ran towards the danger, when everyone else was running away, left a lasting impression on Gary. In response to that heartbreaking day, military men and women were deploying to the frontlines of Iraq and Afghanistan. Inspired by their selfless service, Gary volunteered for his first of many USO tours - his personal mission of thanking the military members answering the call to duty. It was during this first tour that Gary met former Marine and retired FDNY Captain John Vigiano.
Vigiano lost both of his sons, one a police officer, the other a firefighter, in the collapse of the World Trade Center. John's unimaginable story deeply affected Gary. The two soon became close friends and John invited him to tour a New York City firehouse when they returned. Impacted by the visit and his friendship with John, Gary began supporting the FDNY, to include helping build the Brooklyn Wall of Remembrance, a memorial in honor of every first responder who died in NYC on 9/11. With a passion to honor the sacrifices made by our police officers, firefighters, and EMTs, Gary included first responders in the mission statement of the Gary Sinise Foundation. And in 2015, the Foundation established its official First Responders Outreach to serve these heroes and their families every day.
John Vigiano passed away on July 7, 2018 at the age of 79. He will long be remembered as Gary's dear friend and the early inspiration for this important program.