National Press Club

Sinise calls helping veterans 'most rewarding mission'

June 17, 2015 | By Yasmine El-Sabawi | yasmine.elsabawi@gmail.com

Melissa Charbonneau, organizer of the  event, joins Gary Sinise at the June 16 breakfast.

Melissa Charbonneau, organizer of the event, joins Gary Sinise at the June 16 breakfast.

Photo/Image: Marshall H. Cohen

Actor Gary Sinise reaffirmed his commitment to military families and veterans at a National Press Club Speakers breakfast event June 16 and called helping them "the most rewarding mission" he's ever had.

Sinise - Oscar-nominated for his role as the Vietnam-era commanding officer, Lt. Dan, in 1995's Forrest Gump - is perhaps most familiar to audiences for his nine-year starring role on CSI: NY. He was in Washington to receive the America Leadership award from the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) Education Foundation.

"We have become aware of the startling shortfalls in the care" afforded to soldiers when they come home, Sinise told a breakfast crowd. "Survey data suggests 71 percent of Americans do not understand what combat veterans endure," which has compelled him to work diligently to raise "public consciousness" of the challenges, both mental and physical, faced by those who serve the country, he said.

"We have been at war for the past 14 years," Sinise said. The "emotional trauma" alone experienced by veterans "is at epidemic proportions," he added.

The actor urged communities to "connect" with military families and reach out to help "however possible," citing government figures that show 22 service members take their own lives every day.

Founded in 2012 as an umbrella organization for his decades of work with veterans, the Gary Sinise Foundation has brought about four "specially-adapted custom Smart Homes" for quadruple amputees from the Iraq war, and participated in the building of 35 other homes for disabled veterans, he said. It has also provided "mobility devices" for the most severely wounded, and supports first responders across the country, he added.

"We are impacting the lives of our active duty and veterans across the nation," Sinise affirmed. "It is truly the most rewarding mission I've had in my life to serve the members of our military."

"We all too often take our freedom for granted," he emphasized, recalling his recent trip to a US military base near the 160 mile-long Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), which was set up after the Korean war as a buffer between the north and south.

Sinise called the area "a very strange and sad place," particularly after his encounter with two North Korean border guards who were "taking pictures of our group," he said.

"I was two feet away and could look directly into the eyes of these guards," the actor recalled. "Haunting and very sad eyes... perhaps there is no place on earth where one can feel the palpable difference between freedom and slavery more than standing at the border between North and South Korea."

"The North Koreans know nothing - nothing - of freedom," he stressed.

Here at home, "education is the key" to helping young people understand the sacrifices of the military, he said.

Part of that effort is through the Medal of Honor Museum, to be built in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, an initiative close to the actor's heart.

As recipients of the nation's highest award for valor in combat, the Medal of Honor recipients have "stories [that] are lessons for us all," Sinise said.