Paul Andersen: ‘Lt. Dan’ and 23 veteran suicides per day
The man who met me at the door in the sparkling high-rise office building in Woodland Hills, California, last week extended his prosthetic arm for a handshake. He was a burn victim who bore the scars of his traumatic military service.
Seriously injured by an IED blast in southern Iraq while on patrol as a U.S. Army Ranger sergeant, this man is a graphic example of what happens in war. Here are the details from “Grateful American,” a best-selling book by actor Gary Sinise:
“On February 27, 2007, Mike and his crew were conducting road-clearing missions near Baghdad when their vehicle struck a hidden IED and burst into flame. His gunner and medic were killed instantly. His driver passed away shortly after the blast. Mike, engulfed in flames, was thrown from the vehicle. He lost both his hands and the sight in his left eye, and sustained burns over 85 percent of his body.”
“Hello!” he said with a big smile, his eyes bright and lively. “My name is Mike Schlitz. I’m the veteran resource manager. Welcome to the Gary Sinise Foundation.”
I gripped the mechanical arm he put forward and introduced myself as founder and executive director of Huts for Vets, a Colorado nonprofit. But Mike already knew that because the foundation executives were expecting me, thanks to an invitation through a young veteran who recently graduated from Western State Colorado University in Gunnison.
In the conference room, we were joined by foundation CEO Robin Rand, a retired four-star Air Force general, COO Elizabeth Fields, and CSO Dr. Jeff Smith. Their warm welcome came from our common purpose serving U.S. military veterans who, the foundation informed me, currently suffer 23 suicides per day.
By way of introduction, I showed a video about Huts for Vets where we serve men and women veterans in the wilderness near Aspen at the 10th Mountain huts. Then they peppered me with questions in a thorough vetting process to which I believe I had all the right answers.
The Gary Sinise Foundation was founded in 2010 by the actor who played “Lieutenant Dan” in the award-winning film “Forrest Gump.” Gary Sinise and I have similar roots — both growing up in the ’50s and ’60s on the North Shore of Chicago.
Sinise is an actor of note who also has directed. He is a founding member of the Steppenwolf Theater Co. of Chicago, which he and some high school friends started in the basement of a church in Highland Park, Illinois. Today, Steppenwolf is a world stage.
Neither Sinise nor I served in the military, but our lives have found common purpose serving veterans today. His foundation also supports first responders and families that have lost service members. The foundation spends millions building homes specially designed for amputees.
Sinise also plays bass guitar in a popular band named for the fictional character he played in Gump. The Lieutenant Dan Band has performed hundreds of times around the world for servicemen and women, and also for first responders.
Sinise has been living this fictional role since “Forrest Gump” became a smash hit in 1994. He has been incredibly successful parlaying Lieutenant Dan into an inspiring force for good. Sinise is perhaps more known for his fictional role than for his true identity as a hard-working actor and tireless philanthropist.
“How can I make a difference in restoring what’s been lost?” wrote Sinise in his book, reacting to the shameful treatment of Vietnam War veterans. “How can I help make sure our veterans are never treated that way again?”
The Gary Sinise Foundation does just that by supporting organizations like Huts for Vets. At our meeting last week, we struck a harmonic chord that may allow our valley’s own homegrown, grassroots program to scale up and expand our mission for the well-being of the one-percent that serves in the U.S. military. Like Sinise, we serve veterans with unconditional love.
Sinise asks what more he can do in supporting America’s service community. Given the traumas faced by first responders, and with 23 veteran suicides per day, we should all ask the same of ourselves.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at email@example.com.