"Service is a great healer," says Gary Sinise of his four decades of service work for military veterans and first responders

By Kara Warner
February 13, 2019 03:00 PM
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Tim Lundin/Gary Sinise Foundation

Although Gary Sinise didn’t initially set out for a career in service, after four decades of making a difference for military veterans and first responders, he’s exactly where he’s supposed to be.

Sinise, 63, who reflects on his journey from “self to service” in his new book Grateful American, details the major turning points in his life, which include learning the details of his family connections to the military, playing Lieutenant Dan in Forrest Gump and feeling “broken” after the terrorist attacks on 9/11.

“I’ve found that service is the best way to heal,” he tells PEOPLE in the latest issue. Sinise’s foundation The Gary Sinise Foundation now raises now raises $30 million annually – 90% of which goes toward the organization’s programs, like building specially adapted smart homes for severely disabled vets and bringing military families to Disney World.

“If every person in every neighborhood around the country took a little bit of responsibility for patting these folks on the back, all the problems that we hear about with regards to veterans not getting services or falling through the cracks would disappear,” he says. “If citizens would look at their freedom providers in a little bit different way.”

Gary Sinise with specially-adapted smart home recipient and veteran Christian Brown in 2017
Julia Robinson/Gary Sinise foundation

Sinise’s military connections run deep. His grandfather served in WWI, two uncles fought in WWII and his father in the Korean War. He says he learned a lot about the Vietnam War from his brothers-in-law.

For much more on Gary Sinise and what inspired his decades of service work, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE on newsstands Friday.

“All during the Vietnam War, I was just a high school kid playing in bands and getting in trouble,” says Sinise. “I felt guilty that, when they were off at war, I was oblivious to what they were going through. I’ve just tried to give them something back.”

Landing the role of Lt. Dan in 1994’s Oscar winner Forrest Gump helped open up that opportunity for Sinise to give back in a major way, beginning with appearances at military conventions and later full USO tours.

Sinise visiting a veteran at San Diego’s Naval Medical Center in 2018
Julia Robinson/Gary Sinise foundation

“He’s more than a character in a movie,” Sinise writes in Grateful American. “To these veterans, he has become a symbol of awareness for our country’s collective awareness of all our injured veterans, especially the Vietnam veteran.”’

The love for the caustic, paraplegic character “has grown beyond anything I could ever imagine,” he says.

The September 11th terrorist attacks further cemented Sinise’s service-leaning interests. “Because everything changed,” he says. “I started pushing myself into service work.”

In 2011 the actor founded The Gary Sinise Foundation, at which Sinise currently spends the majority of his time, supported by wife Moira, 64, and their children Sophie, 31, Mac, 29 and Ella, 27, who frequently participate in the organization’s events. Sinise’s Lt. Dan Band has performed more than 400 free concerts around the world, a few for which son Mac has played drums.

“I admire how genuine Gary is considering how many lives he’s reached, how much he has helped veterans,” says Ret. Army Sgt. Caleb Brewer, who lost both his legs in Afghanistan and recently moved into a new smart home — the Sinise Foundation’s 59th — in Tuscon, AZ on Feb. 6. “Gary is a beacon of light in our world.”