Gary Sinise, Lt. Dan Band hit GI Film Fest, Memorial Day events

May 20, 2024 | (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — He’s found purpose turning “magic legs” into veteran hope.

Gary Sinise not only earned an Academy Award nomination as Lt. Dan Taylor in “Forrest Gump” (1994), it provided the namesake for his music group, the Lt. Dan Band, a favorite at USO events.

Now, over the next couple weeks, Sinise brings his band to a series of patriotic events across the D.C. area in what has become an annual salute to our nation’s troops in the run-up to Memorial Day.

“We wanted to create something where we could go into the hospitals where people can be going through rehabilitation for several years, and their family members are there and the staff members are dealing with one wounded service member after another. It can be kind of a long haul,” Sinise told WTOP. “So somebody like me coming in with a band … it might help them through the daily grind.”

This Friday, Sinise brings the band to the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for a private performance for wounded veterans, including food prepared by celebrity chef Robert Irvine and moon bounces for the kids. The event is sponsored by the Gary Sinise Foundation, which launched in 2011 and will receive a $250,000 Bradley Prize in a private June 15 ceremony at Kennedy Center.

After the Walter Reed visit, the Lt. Dan Band will kick off the 10th annual G.I. Film Festival with a Saturday performance at Howard Theatre. The May 21-29 festival will screen military films at the Angelika at Mosaic, Embassy of Canada, U.S. Navy Memorial and Cannon House Office Building.

“We’re going to have a great launch to this 10th anniversary season for this great festival,” Sinise said. “I remember the first one. It was hard to tell [if it’d last], but Brandon [Millett] and Laura [Law-Millet] are very dedicated and they’ve built it. Over the years, a lot of great sponsors have jumped on board, and now if you have a military-themed film, that is a go-to place for your film to be launched.”

In fact, during the festival’s second year, Sinise served as executive producer for the documentary “Brothers at War,” which won Best Feature Documentary for director Jake Rademacher.

“That helped launch his film around the country, so it’s a very good festival and it celebrates the service of the men and women who defend us,” Sinise said. “I said this is the 10th anniversary, let me donate the band and let’s launch the festival with a big concert … at the Howard Theatre.”

Expect the concert to cover popular hits from a range of genres and generations, including classics by Stevie Wonder, Journey, Bruce Springsteen and The Police, as well as contemporary hits by Bruno Mars, The Band Perry, Sara Bareilles, Dave Matthews Band, Beyoncé and The Zac Brown Band.

“It’s a pretty wide variety of tunes,” Sinise said. “I wasn’t a songwriter or anything like that, I just wanted to play music and entertain our troops, so we just started putting set lists together where [it’s] a little something for everybody. So there’s classic, contemporary, pop, rock, blues, country, Motown, swing music. It’s kind of all over the map and everybody has a good time at these concerts.”

On Sunday May 29, Sinise will co-host the National Memorial Day Concert, at which he first performed in 2005. The following year, Sinise was asked to co-host alongside Emmy-nominated actor Joe Mantegna (“The Starter Wife”), and the two have been hosting the annual event ever since.

“We just wouldn’t miss it,” Sinise said. “It’s one of my favorite things to do each year. It’s a great way to pay tribute to those who have sacrificed for our country … We have great performers every year.”

This year’s performers include The Beach Boys, Katharine McPhee, Trace Adkins, Alfie Boe, National Symphony Orchestra and the final “American Idol” winner Trent Harmon, who will open the show by performing the National Anthem. Retired General Colin Powell will also make his annual appearance.

The following day, Sinise will close the festivities by co-hosting the National Memorial Day Parade, including performances by the likes of Phil Vassar, John Michael Montgomery and Tony Orlando.

“It’s always a very moving and uplifting way to honor those who have paid a price for our freedom.”

Every stop along the way, the Lt. Dan Band evokes the memory of Sinise’s Oscar-nominated role as Tom Hanks’ Vietnam commanding officer turned friend and business partner at Bubba Gump Shrimp.

The role became such a fan favorite that it undoubtedly remains his career role, no matter how many other acclaimed roles he’s played since, from his Golden Globe win for “Truman” (1995) to his Emmy win for “George Wallace” (1997); from his savior astronaut in “Apollo 13” (1995) to his determined detective in “CSI: NY” (2004-2013). After such a stellar run, why does Lt. Dan continue to resonate?

“It’s a hopeful story. It’s an understandable story where you see the ugliness of war and you get your legs blown off,” Sinise said. “Lt. Dan feels very guilty for walking his platoon into an ambush and losing his men and that sort of thing, so he’s carrying a lot of anguish, a lot of anger, a lot of sadness.”

Not only is it an inspiring tale of a wounded military veteran, it’s a universal tale of redemption. After shouting into the eye of a hurricane and flipping the bird at the heavens, Lt. Dan thanks Forrest for saving his life with a backstroke into the sunset. As Gump says, “I think he found his peace with God.”

“Ultimately at the end of that story, he’s standing up again, he’s a successful businessmen, he’s married, he’s moving on with his life,” Sinise said. “That’s a story we want for all our service members coming back from war, and I think that’s why that particular character resonates with them so much.”

Rare are the movies that have such long legs, decades after their release.

Or in this case, “magic legs.”

Listen to the full conversation with Gary Sinise below:

May 20, 2024 | (Jason Fraley)
May 20, 2024 | (Jason Fraley)
Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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