A Grateful American
“A thief and a liar and a near failing student.” That’s how Gary Sinise describes himself at age 14, in his new memoir Grateful American. Nowadays, however, he is better known as an actor, humanitarian and man of faith, who works tirelessly to improve the lives of injured veterans and first responders. So, how did Sinise make this journey from self to service? He joined me recently on “Christopher Closeup” to share parts of history.
Sinise grew up in Chicago and, during his teenage years, made some bad choices having to do with getting high, partying and even stealing cars (or at least “borrowing” them without permission). He credits his high school theater program with pointing him “toward redemption” and giving him the background and inspiration to found the acclaimed Steppenwolf Theater Company with several of his friends.
Sinise went on to find work in Hollywood, both in front of and behind the camera. By 1992, he had directed, produced, and starred in a film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, with his old buddy John Malkovich.
But it was 1994 that really changed his life, when he portrayed Lt. Dan Taylor in the Tom Hanks hit Forrest Gump. In the movie, Lt. Dan inadvertently leads his platoon in Vietnam into an ambush in which some of them are killed. And Lt. Dan loses his own legs in the process.
After the war, observed Sinise, Lt. Dan tries “to drown himself in alcohol because he’s dealing with terrible guilt and post-traumatic stress. At one point, he says to Forrest Gump, ‘You should have left me out there to die.’ But ultimately, at the end of that story, he’s standing up again on prosthetic legs. He’s successful in business and moving on with his life. He’s able to make peace. That’s a story I found that so many troubled, injured or wounded veterans that I met in hospitals—that’s the story they want—of being able to move forward, put their war experiences behind them, be okay, and be successful. It was a hopeful story, and I found our veterans related to it and wanted to talk about it.”
That role led Sinise to get more involved in veteran’s causes. At the same time, he was facing his own battles on the home front. His wife, Moira, was struggling with alcoholism and was unwilling to admit her problem. She finally pursued the help she needed and moved toward recovery.
While attending an AA meeting at St. Michael’s Church on the North Side of Chicago, a woman walked up to Moira one day and told her, “My dear, you need to become a Catholic. You need to convert.” Moira’s mother had been Catholic, but they didn’t practice the religion when she was growing up. As Moira explored the Catholic faith, she decided this was a step she wanted to take.
Moira converted, and she and Sinise began sending their kids to Catholic school and attending Mass together as a family. Sinise, himself, had not yet joined the Church, but he had become more open to God and the spiritual part of life, due to various experiences in recent years. Then came 9/11.
How 9/11 changed Gary Sinise
Sinise’s role as Lt. Dan Taylor in the movie Forrest Gump led him to charity work for veteran’s causes—and his wife’s conversion to Catholicism introduced him to the Church. But it was on Sept. 11, 2001, that those two forces came together and set Sinise on a course that would change lives—both his own and those of others in need.
During our interview, Sinise recalled the devastation he felt at the loss of life that occurred on 9/11. He and his family went to their church for a memorial Mass, and he said, “I remember…crying through the Mass [and feeling] that service to others was a great healer…I wanted to do everything I could for the [servicemen and women] who were deploying in reaction to that terrible event…I started going to war zones, hospitals, entertaining on military bases across the country and around the world. I started raising money for multiple military charities… I found that the more I gave, the more relief I received… Was it God calling me to service? It very well could be… This is a life mission.”
During a 2003 flight to Iraq for the USO, Sinise found himself seated next to a man he didn’t recognize. The stranger introduced himself as retired fireman John Vigiano, Sr. His two sons, Joe and John Jr.—one with the NYPD, one with the FDNY—were both killed on 9/11 in the World Trade Center’s collapse.
Vigiano, Sr. went down to Ground Zero to dig through the rubble looking for his sons and observed how people from all over the world volunteered to pass out food and water and help in any way possible. The grieving father saw this as the true spirit of America, united in a common cause. Sinise recalled, “[John]said to me, ‘You know, I think more good came out of that terrible day than evil.’ He said that because he saw the good pour into that terrible area filled with dust, smoke and debris. I get choked up about it, but I’ll never forget it.”
Sinise credits his friendship with Vigiano (who passed away in 2018 at age 79), along with many of the firefighters he met, with helping him decide to become Catholic himself in 2010. Sinise said, “[Our] little church became such a positive force in our lives, and it grew into a moment in time where I secretly went through a Confirmation process and surprised my family by taking them to the church on Christmas Eve. Our priests brought me into the Church, confirmed me into the Church. And that was a big surprise to my family.”
Sinise continues to live his faith and his mission of service to others through the Gary Sinise Foundation, which includes many outreach efforts, including the building of specially-adapted houses for disabled veterans. He hopes that by sharing his story in Grateful American, he can encourage readers to practice gratitude in their own lives as well.
Sinise concluded, “If the book can inspire others to look at what they’re grateful for and to think about our country not as a place where people are divided all the time…but look at the blessings we’ve had because of the freedoms we have in this great country… If I can inspire people to go out there and serve others, the book is going to be worth the year it took to put it all down.”
Visit Gary Sinise Foundation atgarysinisefoundation.org
By Tony Rossi, Director of Communications, The Christophers