Robin Rand, CEO of the Gary Sinise Foundation, said he wasn’t exactly sure what to expect the first time he met Gary Sinise, the philanthropist and actor best known for playing Lieutenant Dan in “Forrest Gump”. Whatever it was, he definitely wasn’t expecting to become close friends.
The two first met when Rand, now a retired U.S. Air Force general and former commander of Air Force Global Strike Command, was stationed in Korea in the early ‘90s, and Sinise’s The Lieutenant Dan Band came to perform.
“I thought, ‘what a nice man,’” Rand said of his meeting with Sinise. “I go, ‘What a privilege it was to meet Gary Sinise,’ totally thinking he wouldn’t remember me from Adam.”
So imagine Rand’s surprise to receive an email from Sinise hours later, thanking Rand for the opportunity to play for them.
“And he says, ‘Hey, let me know where you go to next, and I’ll come and play for you at your next place,” Rand said.
Rand says Sinise made good on his offer, and came to play when he was in Iraq, at the Pentagon, in Arizona, and San Antonio. “And then my last assignment was to Shreveport, Louisiana. And sure enough, you know, Gary and the band show up.”
In order to understand the foundation, according to Rand, you have to understand Gary.
“9/11 had a profound impact on him,” Rand said, “and how he viewed law enforcement and the firefighters and EMTs. And he volunteered his time. He said, ‘I’m gonna make a difference.’”
A lifetime of service
Rand understands Sinise’s commitment to supporting the military, veterans, and first responders, having been part of the military himself for 40 years.
Rand got his start in the Air Force for a variety of reasons, he explained, including a family legacy, as well as the simple desire to be a part of an athletic program. People decide to join the military for a whole host of reasons, Rand said, but for the people who stay, it’s because they’ve found a vocation.
“In the Air Force in my years of dealing with young young men and women, you can ask them why they joined and you’re gonna get a variety of reasons. And there’s no reason that’s good or bad. They’re just reasons,” he chuckled. “I think the more important question that I ask them is not ‘Why did you join,’ but, ‘Why do you stay in?’”
The general also said he was motivated by an attitude of disrespect for Vietnam war veterans in the 1960s and ‘70s.
“I was too young for Vietnam, but I saw the disdain of how the Vietnam veterans were treated,” Rand said. “I remember being with my father when we were walking around town or something, and just the snide comments and the scorn.”
The Vietnam War was historically unpopular, and soldiers returning from it were sometimes treated with scorn by activists and protesters. These veterans were not afforded much support or credit, Rand noted, which is part of the reason for his current activism.
“Look what these Vietnam vets went on and did in the ‘70s and ‘80s. They became school teachers, doctors, lawyers, business men and women. Our country has had a lot of success, and we’ve had to deal with some pretty rough things in the last 50 years,” he said, adding that after 9/11, a lot of these Vietnam vets showed us, “Get up, get off your keister, and get on with it. So they are resilient people who have taught us to be resilient.”
Cultural attitudes toward servicemen and women have changed in the intervening decades, however, which Rand attributes to a variety of factors, not least of which is individual activism.
“I think that’s because we’ve learned that lesson potentially,” he said. “And there are guys like Mr. Gary Sinise who are public reminders.”
Organizations, advocates, and others have, for example, all contributed to a greater awareness of what Rand calls “invisible wounds,” which include Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injury; wounds that are caused by military service but are not as immediately identifiable as other wounds like, say, an amputation.
The importance of connection
But cultural awareness is only one part of a much greater puzzle when it comes to providing adequate support and respect to veterans and military families. Rand outlined the four pillars of the Gary Sinise Foundation as an example: restoring independence supporting empowerment (R.I.S.E), relief and resiliency, community and education, and first responders.
“Relief and resiliency is where the rubber meets the road for the Gary Sinise Foundation,” Rand said, noting a particular service called Snowball Express. “This service is what we provide to Gold Star families, those who have lost a loved one who was serving an active duty, and particularly in combat.”
The beauty of this program is that it brings families together and forms communities of support.
“We have 2,100 families enrolling in Snowball Express, and it’s about bringing them together, providing them communications and outlets of information,” Rand said. “And it’s one of our really, really successful ways that we’re reaching out to the families who have paid the ultimate sacrifice.”