Gary Sinise’s journey to The Villages Thursday was like an adventure straight out of “Forrest Gump.”
It started Wednesday night in Nashville when Sinise’s plane to Florida slipped off the runway.
“It wasn’t anything dangerous, we just got stuck in the mud,” Sinise told Villages-News.com after his appearance in the Savannah Center.
Sinise flew to Leesburg early Thursday to make the scheduled 10 a.m. starting time. He was an hour late after getting tangled in a Central Florida traffic jam.
“What a trip,” Sinise said, sounding as cool as Lieutenant Dan, the character he played in “Forrest Gump.”
Around 11 a.m. he stepped on stage with co-host John Woodall before a sold-out crowd. It was worth the wait, as this was an emotional, patriotic, funny and poignant talk before adoring fans – mostly veterans.
Sinise talked about his new, best-selling book, “Grateful American: A Journey From Self to Service.” Each member of the audience received a copy, which details Sinise’s life story, from troubled kid to Hollywood star to activist for veterans.
The book tells how Sinise was profoundly affected by the terrorist attacks of 9/11; how he handled his crisis of faith, and his wife’s triumphant battle with alcoholism. Most of all, it describes his dedication to veterans through the Gary Sinise Foundation, which last year raised more than $30 million for veterans’ causes.
“I wanted to show parts of my life – the difficulties and successes – and how I got to where I am today,” Sinise told Villages-News.com in a crowded backstage room after the presentation. Dozens of veterans – many in wheelchairs – came to the room.
Sinise, 63, played a Vietnam veteran with both legs amputated in “Forrest Gump.”
“That role made him a symbol and put him in the forefront of making people understand what veterans are going through,” said Sgt. Pam Kelly, an Army medic who became a quadriplegic in 2002 while on active duty. “He has shown millions of people that you can live an independent life as a wounded warrior.
“To me, Gary is a heroic symbol who paved the way for civilians to support veterans,” added Kelly, who, with the help of Villagers For Veterans, is having a special “smart” home built here. She met Sinise after the presentation, as did retired Marine Sgt. Kevin St. Amant, who was severely injured in a non-combat mission.
Sinise now dedicates much of his life to serving others.
“I want people to understand how I got to this life of service,” Sinise said, while munching on a chocolate chip cookie. He was cool, accommodating and composed – wearing a black shirt and jeans. He was patient and friendly with the many admirers who just wanted to touch him and thank him. Some were in tears.
It is for those people Sinise wrote the book.
“One reason I wrote the book was so people can have a better idea of who I am,” he said. “I hope they will understand.”
To understand Gary Sinise is to understand sacrifice.
“Gary Sinise is more than a symbol to veterans; he is an inspiration,” said Villager Gary Pells, a Marine veteran.
“I read his book and it made me laugh and cry,” added Villager Pat Patrick, a Navy vet. “It tells the story of his life in a very personal way.”
The most touching moment of Sinise’s talk came when Gold Star Mother and Villager Kim Greenberg went up to the stage to personally thank Sinise during a question-and-answer session.
“It means so much,” she said. Sinise – whose foundation just sponsored a Disney World vacation for 1,722 Gold Star families – also was moved. He came to the front of the stage, knelt down and embraced Greenberg. Her son, U.S. Army Spc. Nick Idalski, 23, of Crown Point, Ind., was killed in combat in Iraq on June 21, 2005.
Kim and Rick Greenberg live in The Villages.
“This whole thing is just so emotional and we’re so thankful for Gary Sinise,” Rick Greenberg said.
So much of what Sinise is today comes from playing that role of Lieutenant Dan Taylor in “Forrest Gump.”
“I look how God has molded Gary since that role and it’s amazing,” Woodall said on stage.
“After 9/11,” Sinise said, “I feel that God called me to service. So many people were hurt and are hurting because of that day. I had to do something.”
He does more than raise money. Sinise attends meetings, travels the country, meets with veterans and uses his celebrity “to make people aware of what veterans need and how we can help them.
“The point is, each and every one of us can all do something to empower veterans and makes their lives better,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be a big thing. You just have to take the time to care.”
Marie Bogdonoff, president of Villagers for Veterans, has been doing that in this community.
“I met Gary four years ago and we’ve been trying to get him to come to The Villages ever since,” she said. “He’s done so much for veterans. Most of all, he shows veterans love and they feel the same way about him.”
Villager Carolyn Kleinsmith raised money for Sinise’s foundation by giving local lectures on the history of first ladies. Her son, Jeffrey Kleinsmith, served in the Army and Secret Service. He has raised $1,218 this year for the foundation.
“It’s just a way of saying thank you,” she said.
The Color Guard for the program was from Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 1036 in The Villages. It included Ron Irwin, David Kraemer, Lawrence Johnson and Bob Van Nuise.
“We’re proud to be here for Lieutenant Dan,” Van Nuise said. “Gary means a lot to all Vietnam veterans.”
Including Bob Vanderburg.
“I remember how hard it was for Vietnam vets when they first came home,” he said. “People like Gary Sinise changed that attitude because he stood up for Vietnam vets. We will never forget him.”
The feeling is mutual.
“I’m grateful to grow up in this country and live in this country,” Sinise said, noting the title of his book, “The Grateful American…” Then, he added: “And I’ll always be grateful to the men and women who serve this country.”
Tony Violanti is an award-winning journalist and writes for Villages-News.com.