Gary Sinise, the actor who portrayed a disabled soldier in the drama comedy movie "Forrest Gump," said Saturday that Fort Benning has been at the center of fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and he's inspired by those serving the country.
"Fort Benning has been in the thick of it from the beginning of the wars," he said. "The 75th Rangers have been deployed countless times over and over from the very beginning."
Five years after visiting Columbus for the premiere of the "Brothers at War" documentary at Carmike 15, Sinise made his first visit to Fort Benning with his Lt. Dan Band for a free USO concert at Weatherby Field. The actor talked about his connection to the military and why he's performed in 130 concerts and made nearly 70 appearances across the United States and around the world since the band formed in early 2004.
"The catalyst for the band was always military and to show my appreciation to our service members," he said during an interview under a tent near the stage. "I volunteered for the USO years ago and that morphed itself into my own foundation, the Gary Sinise Foundation, and multiple concerts throughout the year to make sure that they know they are appreciated, they know we are standing behind them through these tough times they are in."
Sinise said military members served in his family and his wife's two brothers also served.
"On my wife's side of the family, her brother served in Vietnam and one of the older brothers spent a lot of time here at Fort Benning," he said.
A second brother-in-law, who is married to his wife's sister, also spent time at Fort Benning.
"I have a military family even though I did not serve myself," he said. "I have great respect for those families and what those families go through. It's been a long haul."
The U.S. military has been in Afghanistan since 2001 and the war ended in Iraq in 2011. Sinise said the nation hasn't been at war this long in past conflicts.
"It takes such a toll on military families," he said. "We really ask a lot of them. That's one of the motivators for me. Just knowing what they are going through and trying to give them a little break to make sure they know even though you're here on this post, you got a loved one deployed somewhere. There are people out there like me, citizens who aren't serving who recognize what you are going through and want to help. We are all in it together."
Sinise said he has been playing the guitar since he was in fourth grade. He played in bands in high school and ended up acting in a high school play because he was in a rock band.
"The teacher saw my rock ban standing in the hall way," he recalled. "We all looked pretty scrappy and she was doing 'West Side Story' so she asked us to come and audition because we looked like gang members. She told us to come and audition. I went and auditioned and one of the other guys in the band got in the show. I got in the show and that started me into acting."
Much of his time in high school was spent playing in his band and acting in plays. After high school, he was busy acting and didn't play music for a long time until the late 1990s.
The Lt. Dan Band was formed in early 2004, a few years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. "After Sept. 11, I volunteered to take my music on a USO tour," he said. "That's how we ended up playing so many shows."
The Saturday show was expected to feature a mix of music for everyone, with classics, contemporary, pop, rock, country and Motown.
"It's a variety show," he said. "It is a high energy, two-hour performance. I want people to leave feeling great at the end of the show. I think they will. I have seen it too many times."