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Sinise giving back to veterans, first responders

October 24, 2011 -- Updated 1504 GMT (2304 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Acclaimed actor Gary Sinise: I'm grateful for the freedom that our troops provide
  • His Gary Sinise Foundation provides support for veterans and civilian first responders
  • One of Sinise's iconic roles was a disabled veteran in "Forrest Gump"
  • He says he also has many veterans in his family

Editor's note: Voting is under way for the 2011 CNN Hero of the Year. The winner will be announced at "CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute," which airs live December 11. See the top 10 CNN Heroes of 2011 and cast your vote at CNNHeroes.com.

(CNN) -- Actor-director Gary Sinise has touched the lives of thousands of U.S. service members.

Sinise often travels overseas to honor and entertain the troops with his Lt. Dan Band, and his Gary Sinise Foundation helps support them when they return home.

CNN's Denise Quan recently spoke with Sinise about CNN Heroes and his philanthropy, which also assists civilian first responders. Below are excerpts from that interview.

Denise Quan: What is the Gary Sinise Foundation?

Gary Sinise: Over the past 10 or so years, I have been very active with a lot of military charities, a lot of first-responder charities. ...

It became clear that, in order for me to continue at the pace that I'm at without having to travel all the time, I needed an entity that I could use to draw in funds and point people in the right direction with regard to military and first-responder support.

Quan: Why is this cause important to you?

Sinise: I have veterans in my family.

On my wife's side, I have Vietnam veterans. I remember all too well what happened to them when they came home from war. On my side, I have veterans. My dad was in the Navy, my uncles were in World War II, and my grandfather served in World War I. I have great respect for our veterans.

And then I played one in "Forrest Gump" and I got involved with the Disabled American Veterans organization, and I became keenly aware of what people who lose their limbs and parts of their body have sacrificed in service of their country.

So I feel it's important to keep them strong and do what I can to let them know that I'm a grateful American for what they provide, which is freedom for me and my children.

Quan: How did the Lt. Dan Band get started?

Sinise: I started taking a group of musicians with me to visit our troops in 2004. Prior to that, I would just go out and shake hands and take pictures and sign autographs and just pat them on the back and say "thank you" and sit down to have dinner with them -- just let them know they were appreciated. And eventually I asked the USO if they would let me take a group of musicians so I could entertain the troops at the same time, and they said "sure."

I happened to have these guys that I played with out of Chicago. And my buddy Kimo Williams and I put some more guys and gals together, and we have a band of 13 people now. It's a big, big show. We've been all over the world several times. We probably will do 14, 15 USO shows this year alone.

It's a good feeling to see the smiles on these people's faces. When I go over to Afghanistan, for example, and you're out there in the war zone and you bring those people together and you play for them, it's a great feeling to see them having a great time.

Quan: What was it about CNN Heroes that made you want to be a part of it?

Sinise: It's highlighting average Americans and what they do on a daily basis to serve and to give back. I'm glad CNN has created the Heroes project, because it's something that makes you feel good when you see what can be done and what people are doing out there in the shadows.

A lot of people don't know the extraordinary sacrifice and service of certain people. And when these kinds of things are highlighted through a campaign like this, I think it gives incentive to other people: "Hey, wait a minute. There are things I can do in my community, even if it's small."

Sinise and his band's efforts to support the troops are chronicled in the documentary "Lt. Dan Band: For the Common Good."

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