Actor Gary Sinise is well-known for playing Detective Mac Taylor on the TV series “CSI: New York” and for his Academy Award-nominated role as Lt. Dan in the movie “Forrest Gump.” But Gary is also devoted to charitable efforts, especially those involving the United States military. He co-founded a humanitarian organization called Operation Iraqi Children, has been on several USO tours, frequently visits military hospitals, helps support military families, and recently served as executive producer of a powerful documentary called "Brothers at War." Here is an excerpt of Gary’s recent interview on “Christopher Closeup" (full podcast here):
TR: Gary, I want to touch on Operation Iraqi Children which you co-founded with “Seabiscuit” author Laura Hillenbrand. How did the two of you get the idea for Operation Iraqi Children and what have the results been so far?
Gary Sinise: I went to Iraq twice in ’03 and on my second trip I visited some schools there and saw what the troops had been doing to help these local areas rebuild these schools. I just saw a lot of good feeling there between the Iraqis and the troops and I wanted to support that. I came home and I started sending school supplies that we collected at my kids’ school. We’d send them over to the troops and they would take them out to give them to the kids. One of the people that I knew at one of the bases in Iraq had been in touch with Laura Hillenbrand who was trying to get “Seabiscuit” translated into Arabic and get it over to some of the soldiers there who wanted to hand it out to the kids. So this person, a Major, she thought that Laura and I should meet. The translation idea of sending her book over there was only going to be a one-time thing but I wanted to continue sending school supplies and encourage people. So Laura and I teamed up and came up with a web site called Operation Iraqi Children…Ever since early 2004…we’ve sent something like 300,000 school supply kits and soccer balls and shoes and blankets and various items over to the troops so that they could go into these villages with these supplies and hand them out to the kids.
TR: This isn’t just a cause you attach your name to. You’ve made numerous trips to Iraq yourself. What kind of difference have you personally seen Operation Iraqi Children make?
Gary Sinise: I know this has been a very beneficial program to our troops because they can go into these villages with these supplies and – maybe they were in this village two days before and it was a little bit hostile. They return to the village and start handing out these school supplies to the kids. They show that they’re there to help. Maybe then a few days after that they’re going down the same road and – we’ve had kids run out and stop the convoy because a bomb had been placed on the road. This was a village that was previously hostile, but then these supplies were handed out and now it’s a friendly village and the kids are trying to help the troops…And of course the supplies help the kids because in many of these areas, they don’t have access to the types of things that we do.
TR: Tell me about your first experience visiting injured soldiers…because it was something you felt awkward about. What happened and how has your view changed since then?
Gary Sinise: I remember as a kid, my grandmother died and it was very difficult for me to be in the hospital so I just never wanted to go to hospitals. But I knew that when I started visiting troops…and got involved with disabled American veterans, I knew I should go out there and do what I could for our wounded. So the first trip I made to a hospital was actually over in Germany after one of my early trips to Iraq. I went to visit Landstuhl Medical Center which is where all our troops go from Afghanistan and Iraq. They first go to Germany and then they get shipped back home. And so I went to Landstuhl and I met a lot of folks who had been blown up and shot up and burned up and – that was a difficult day but, when I left, I knew that my being there had helped some people. So you forget about your own reaction to what you’re seeing and it’s all about them; it’s not about you. From that point on I knew that, even though it’s difficult to see some of these injuries and what some of these guys are going through, my presence there helps them and it helps their families so I’ve continued to go time and time again.
(For more on Gary's work and the new documentary "Brothers at War," listen to the full "Christopher Closeup" interview at www.christophers.org/closeuppodcast.)