SEPTEMBER 2011: Our Town - Lt. Dan Weekend: Gary Sinise and the Lt. Dan Band
Author: Paul DeVere
LT. DAN: “I thought I’d try out my sea legs.”
FORREST GUMP: “You ain’t got no legs, Lt. Dan.”
LT. DAN: “I know that.”
(Forrest Gump, 1994)
You remember the scene. (If you haven’t seen the movie Forrest Gump, welcome to Earth). There’s Lt. Dan, played by actor Gary Sinise, sitting on the pier in his wheelchair, shoulder-length hair, that Tiparillo stuck in his mouth. And, as Forrest, played by Tom Hanks, observed, no legs. It’s the part of the movie where Lt. Dan is beginning the redemption of himself with the help of his friend.
It is also the part of the movie where an icon was born. For the U.S. military and for people throughout the world, Sinise’s character became the symbol of the Viet Nam war veteran left behind by society, and of a hero because, with Gump’s help, Lt. Dan pulled himself back from the edge and succeeded in life.
That symbol, that icon created by Sinise, is the reason, on September 14, well over 150 disabled veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, their caregivers and families (plus seven assistance dogs), will start arriving for what the promoters call “Lt. Dan Weekend 2” in Beaufort.
“It was in Beaufort that the character took on a life of its own. Actors don’t usually stay associated with a character over a long time, but this one has such a military connection and I’m so involved with military causes and military charities, the symbol he represents, the resiliency, the positive story, positive message, I just decided to embrace this mission to support our warriors,” Sinise explained. “It felt like a no-brainer.”
The Lt. Dan weekend was created by Steve Danyluk, a founder of the Independence Fund, the official host of the event. The Independence Fund, started in 2007, is a non-profit, all-volunteer organization, dedicated to giving injured military members the tools, therapies, and guidance they need to lead independent, productive, and satisfying lives. “Which is what the Lt. Dan Weekend is all about,” Danyluk said.
Trying to figure out more ways to fulfill that mission, Danyluk, a commercial pilot and still a pilot in the Marine Reserves, was sitting in a restaurant in Beaufort having lunch. Danyluk’s wife is on active duty at the Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort where they moved two years ago. “I was sitting there eating my lunch and there was a Forrest Gump poster on the wall. I thought, ‘I should invite Gary to come play here. He might bite on that,’” Danyluk remembered. Sinise and the Lt. Dan Band had helped the Fund a few years before in Texas. “So I got home after lunch and e-mailed him. Literally within a couple of hours he shot back, ‘Lt. Dan Band in Beaufort sounds like a hoot. Make it happen.’ That was that,” Danyluk said. He, his board members and a host of local volunteers made the first Lt. Dan Weekend a success for the veterans and their families through workshops, races, a golf tournament and the highlight of the event, a performance by the Lt. Dan Band.
This is the short version of Sinise’s interest in veterans, the creation of the band and how he ended up for a second special weekend for veterans in Beaufort. While his character, Lt. Dan, and his extraordinary success as Mac Taylor in the hit drama, CSI:NY, has given Sinise a greater presence in his efforts to help veterans, first responders, and children in distressed situations (Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti), his ending up on stage in Beaufort, began in the mid-1970s.
Here’s the stuff you don’t necessarily hear about Sinise. When he was in high school in Highland Park, Illinois, he formed a rock band. Sinise was the bass player, and he got to be “pretty good.” At the ripe old age of 19, in 1974, he co-founded Steppenwolf Theater, now a Chicago mainstay in regional theater. Included in the original founders, all of whom became stars on their own, was actress Moira Harris. Sinise married Harris in 1981. Sinise’s uncles were veterans of World War II. His dad was in the Navy. His new bride’s brothers were both Viet Nam veterans. “I just got fascinated with Viet Nam and what happened to our veterans and spent a lot of time talking to them about it. This was the early ’80s, before the wall was even built, when our Viet Nam veterans were still hiding in the shadows,” Sinise said. He was still playing music.
Because of these relationships, Sinise got involved in some veteran groups in Chicago and visiting vets in hospitals. He invited them to the final dress rehearsals at Steppenwolf, free of charge. They became a kind of test. The tradition continues to this day.
In 1997, after Lt. Dan and Forrest Gump, he met Kimo Williams through Steppenwolf. Williams, a Viet Nam vet, was hired to compose the score for Steppenwolf’s production of Streetcar Named Desire. Sinise was playing the role of Stanley Kowalski. Williams and Sinise got to be musical friends, jamming together with several other professional musicians, when Sinise was in Chicago. “All of a sudden we have September 11, and we have a lot of young people signing up to join the service and go fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We have a lot of wounded coming back. I’m visiting the hospitals all the time. I’m going on handshaking tours for the USO.”
But shaking hands wasn’t enough for Sinise. In 2003, he formed the Lt. Dan Band with his friend Kimo Williams and others from the jam session. “People don’t have high expectations for an actor with a band, let’s face it,” Sinise said. He wanted to prove them wrong. He did. His 40-some appearances with the high-energy band for the USO and other veteran-oriented concerts were the focus of the award-winning documentary, “Lt. Dan Band: For the Common Good,” an exceptionally moving chronicle of a year of Sinise’s performances across the globe.
Now back to the weekend. The Lt. Dan Weekend is more than a celebration to honor those soldiers who gave more than most in service to their country. It is a networking event to help them through the maze of Veteran Affairs bureaucracy, to provide them with a way to get the services they deserve. That’s where Independence Fund board member Dr. Rich Jadick comes in.
Jadick is one of those people, when you learn of his story, you say, “Holy cow,” or something much stronger. He is a naval surgeon who was awarded the Bronze Star with “Combat V” device for heroic valor in January 2006. He was credited with saving the lives of 30 Marines and sailors during the Second Battle of Fallujah. He is also author of On Call in Hell: A Doctor’s Iraq War Story. He’ll be at the Lt. Dan Weekend for the various workshops planned to help soldiers cope with medical problems not solved by the VA and offering a guide to get those same soldiers the help they deserve.
Jadick said, “There are only so many times a guy will go around the corner [to see the right person] before he gives up. I try to make all those phone calls first, so when I finally sit down and say, here’s the plan, I’ve already been around the corner a couple of times so hopefully it’s a few less for everybody else,” Jadick said. “We want to be the action portion of this. As a Marine, I understand how those guys think. When it comes to medicine, I understand how a wounded vet can get frustrated pretty quickly with Navy medicine and VA medicine. I try to help smooth that over. We get to the bottom line.”
On September 16, 2011, The Independence Fund will once again host Gary Sinise as he leads his Lt. Dan Band in a concert honoring our severly injured veterans.
Jadick said the Independence Fund is all about networking, which will be an important part of the Lt. Dan Weekend, maybe the most important part. He’ll be bringing Dr. Tracy Hejmanowski, a post-deployment psychologist with him to take part in the various workshops. Both will be doing “house calls.” Jadick, who, along with Hejmanowski, is stationed at Naval Air Station in Jacksonville, said that Hejmanowski is kind of a “superstar” when it comes to PTSD (posttraumatic distress syndrome). “She’ll be able to help veterans understand stress but also get the veterans to understand the stresses of the spouse. That’s critical,” Jadick said.
With the second Lt. Dan Weekend, volunteers are always a critical component. Maybe the one “volunteer” who has had the greatest significance is Judy Rigg and her fascinating resort retreat, Palm Key, in Jasper County. Thanks to Rigg, Palm Key property owners are donating lodging, meeting space and services to the veterans, a $60,000 donation to the Independence Fund and the weekend. It will be the site of various workshops for the network to help veterans get the services they need and deserve, Danyluk said.
The schedule for the weekend, open to the public, has grown by leaps and bounds over the first event. Starting September 15, there will be an art exhibit at Beaufort City Hall, called Conflict Zone. Conflict Zone was inspired by Joao Silva, the New York Times photographer who lost both legs in a landmine blast in October 2010 in Afghanistan. Brought together by the Independence Fund, Joao’s colleagues from the press corps agreed to pool their work for an art exhibit that features some of the most celebrated combat journalists and photographers of this generation.
On September 16, wounded veterans will be visiting schools in Beaufort County, talking about their experiences. There will also be a golf tournament at the Parris Island Golf Course, The Lt. Dan Classic, and a performance by the Lt. Dan Band that evening. On September 17, there will be a 5K run on Bay and Newcastle streets, a bike ride at the Marine Corps Station, and the Beaufort 300th Anniversary Parade, marshaled by Lt. Dan himself, Gary Sinise.
Sinise, through his new foundation, Gary Sinise Foundation (garysinistefoundation.org), contributed $15,000 to the event to cover the costs of his appearance and band, putting his money where his mouth is. Pretty typical Sinise.
Sinise hopes that the Lt. Dan Weekend becomes “pretty typical.”
As Sinise said, “The idea of coming back to play a concert in support of wounded warriors was right up my alley. It felt like a no brainer.”
For more information, visit ldw2.com. To see the extraordinary documentary, go to ltdanbandmovie.com.