Academy Award-nominated and Golden Globe Award-winning actor Gary Sinise has played many roles throughout his 30-plus year career: police detective, soldier, astronaut, and even president of the United States; however, as Lieutenant General Robert L. Caslen Jr. ’75, USMA Superintendent, told the Corps of Cadets gathered in the Mess Hall for the 2015 Thayer Award Dinner, “Sinise’s most notable role is the one he plays in real life: supporter and friend of those who serve and defend our nation.” For his decades-long dedication to our nation’s active duty military personnel and returning veterans, the West Point Association of Graduates (WPAOG) presented the 58th Sylvanus Thayer Award to Gary Sinise on October 22, 2015. Since 1958, WPAOG has given the Thayer Award annually to a U.S. citizen whose outstanding character, accomplishments, and stature in the civilian community draw wholesome comparison to the qualities for which West Point strives, in keeping with its motto: Duty, Honor, Country.
Sinise’s concern for active duty military personnel and returning veterans began with a family connection. “I grew up surrounded by veterans,” he stated in his acceptance speech. “World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Cold War, and I even have a nephew currently on active duty with the Army today.” He was especially inspired by his brother-in-law, Boyd McCanna “Mac” Harris, USMA Class of 1966, who served in Vietnam and later conceived of the Army’s “Be, Know, Do” model of leadership when he wrote FM 22-100 as a project officer and head of the Center of Leadership and Ethics at Fort Leavenworth. Sadly, Harris passed away from cancer at age 39, shortly after the manual was printed in 1983. Prior to receiving the Thayer Award, Sinise once wrote that the portrayal of his most recognized character, Lieutenant Dan Taylor in the 1994 film Forrest Gump, “was based on and a tribute to” his brother-in-law. “He attended these ceremonies as a young cadet,” Sinise said, “and I know he is here with me now.” Appropriately, during his West Point visit, Sinise stayed at the suite named for Harris at the Thayer Hotel.
Sinise was also moved to action after the attacks on September 11, 2001. “I wanted to make sure that our service members responding to the 9/11 attacks would never be forgotten or neglected as our Vietnam veterans had been,” he said. This led to one of the most moving parts of Sinise’s acceptance speech as he recognized his “dear pals” from the FDNY who were in attendance. “You who were there on that terrible day, who lost friends and loved ones, inspired me to help those in need, especially those wounded in battle in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Sinise said, pausing for moment and holding back tears, visibly moved by their presence.
After the ceremony, Cadet Alexandra Caudullo ’18 said, “My family was affected by September 11th, so it meant a lot to me that Mr. Sinise recognized the first responders in his speech.”
In 2004, Sinise formed a band to entertain troops during his USO tours, naming it after his famous film character. Over the years, the “Lt. Dan Band” has performed more than 315 concerts worldwide, at an average of 30 shows per year, boosting troop morale and raising money for wounded heroes, Gold Star families, veterans and active duty troops. In 2011, he formed the Gary Sinise Foundation, which offers a variety of programs to give back to those who sacrifice for our nation, hoping that it will encourage others to give back as well. “If you, our honored Corps of Cadets are willing to serve this country, then we, as its citizens, must try to do our very best to serve you back,” Sinise said.
While Sinise used most of his speech to champion the cause of supporting our veterans and troops, he did leave room for a little bit of levity. At one moment, he orchestrated the entire Corps of Cadets to shout, “Lieutenant Dan!” as Forrest Gump (Tom Hanks) does in the film and countless service men and women have done in the actor’s presence since. “I know that MacArthur didn’t do that during his speech,” Sinise quipped after the resounding applause from the enthusiastic cadets settled.
Prior to the Thayer medal award ceremony, Sinise, like all distinguished recipients before him, had the opportunity to review the Corps of Cadets assembled in formation on the Plain in his honor. “I wish every American could see what I got to see today,” he said after trooping the line. “The cadets are the crown jewels of West Point, and seeing them in action gives me great comfort for the future of our nation.”
Lt. General Caslen and Mrs. Caslen, Brigadier General Thomson and Mrs. Thompson, Brigadier General Trainor and Colonel Brazil, Command Sergeant Major Clark, West Point Association of Graduates Board Chairman Lt. General Retired Larry Jordan, Colonel Robert McClure, Distinguished Guests, and the Corps of Cadets of West Point:
It is impossible to adequately put into words what it means to receive this prestigious award from the West Point Association of Graduates, but I will do my best to speak from my heart and share my thoughts and feelings with you for a moment. Reviewing the Corps of Cadets on the Plain earlier today will be a magnificent memory that I will cherish always, and to stand in this sacred hall, and to now be among such a distinguished list of recipients who have stood here in the past, addressing you as I am now, is overwhelming, and I am deeply grateful.
And while I do not seek acknowledgment, and it is hard for me to imagine myself deserving of such a tribute, as there are so many who inspire and motivate me each day by their courage and selflessness, it is my hope that, by shining a light on me tonight, we will help to raise a deeper awareness for the many sacrifices that our military, and our military families, continue to make each day in our nation’s defense.
Wanting to know more about the man this award is named for, Sylvanus Thayer, Class of 1808, I did a bit of research. What an amazing person he was. Dedicated to service, well respected by the Corps of Cadets at that time, during his 16-year tenure as superintendent, he instituted a rigorous four-year regimen of study and instruction in order to instill the very best in every student. He drilled into each cadet the essentials for a military leader: discipline, precision, reliability, and honor.
In one article I read, the writer, while staring up at the serious face of the statue of Sylvanus Thayer, wondered if Thayer had a sense of humor. I’m sure he must have, as I understand Thayer Week is one of the most enjoyable and funniest times of year for the cadets.
And even though West Point began 15 years prior to his becoming superintendent, Sylvanus Thayer is known as “the Father of the Military Academy.” He lived a life of service. To Duty. To Honor. To Country. And I am deeply moved to receive this acknowledgment in his name.
I grew up in the city of Chicago, in a working-class family, surrounded by veterans: WW I, WW II, Korea era, Vietnam, Cold War Europe, and a nephew currently on active duty in the Army today. Go Army! Army Strong!
My wife’s two brothers served in the U.S. Army in Vietnam, as did her sister’s husband as a combat medic. The younger of the two brothers, served there as a helicopter pilot and left the Army shortly after returning home.
The eldest brother, Boyd McCanna “Mac” Harris, a West Point graduate Class of ’66, served two tours in Vietnam, once as a lieutenant, a platoon leader, and then again as a captain, a company commander. During his time in country he was presented the Silver Star for gallantry in action, one of many awards received during his outstanding career. In 1975, back at West Point, he was promoted to major and served here as a tactical officer until 1977. I have met many great leaders currently serving in high command that served under Mac during those years, and they all speak of him with great admiration, appreciation, and respect. He taught behavioral sciences and leadership from ’77 to ’78.
He attended Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas as a student, and, upon graduation in June of 1981, because of his extensive knowledge, experience, and Army-wide reputation as the authority on creative leadership, he was selected to head the Center of Leadership and Ethics at Fort Leavenworth. As a young man in the early 80s, I remember learning that Mac, now a lieutenant colonel, had begun work as the project officer and author of the United States Army Manual on Leadership, FM 22-100. This was an 18-month effort that resulted in a manual that represented a positive philosophy of leadership and became widely used as standard doctrine throughout the entire United States Army. It was published 32 years ago this month, in October 1983, the same month that, sadly, his promising career was cut short, as he would pass away from cancer at age 39. For his exceptional work on FM 22-100, he would receive the Legion of Merit Medal.
I always remember: What does a leader need to “Be, Know, and Do?” This principle was conceived and authored by my brother-in-law, Mac Harris. His dear friend, a lieutenant colonel at the time, Herbert J. Lloyd, gave the eulogy at his funeral. He wrote, “Mac will continue to live in all of us who knew him. As we read his leadership manual, his influence will be felt for decades to come.” And I am proud to say that, at both Fort Leavenworth and here at West Point, excellence in leadership awards are presented in his name annually to an outstanding student leader. It is certainly a tremendous achievement, and our family is so proud that Mac is forever linked to both these esteemed colleges in such a prestigious way.
Last year, the summer of 2014, we had the great pleasure and privilege of dedicating a suite at the Thayer Hotel in Mac’s honor. A true blessing as he loved West Point so dearly. Duty. Honor. Country. Lieutenant Colonel Boyd McCanna Harris lived a life of service to others. I was inspired by him and learned much from him in the short time I knew him. As he attended these ceremonies himself as a young cadet, and now that I am standing here tonight, I know he is here with me. I am grateful that his wife Anne and daughter Katie are here tonight, and I thank them both so much for being here.
It was in the late 1970s, and into the early 80s, that I began to receive an education from the Vietnam veteran side of our family as to how bravely they had fought and how they felt at the way they were treated when they returned home. Our country was divided over the war and had turned its back on the returning warrior. It was a shameful period in our nation’s history, as many Vietnam Veterans would disappear into the shadows.
As a young teenager in high school, I was not paying much attention to what our Vietnam veterans, many just slightly older than I, were going through. But listening to them, I felt a sense of guilt at having been so unaware. So, in the mid-80s, I began supporting local Vietnam veterans’ groups in the Chicago area, and, over the years, have tried to do my best to welcome them home as our country had neglected to do that at the conclusion of the war. I am currently a spokesperson for the effort to build the Education Center at the Vietnam Wall in Washington DC, which will tell the stories of the over 58,000 who gave their lives during that war. The names of the fallen are currently on display here at West Point on the traveling exhibit, the Wall that Heals. I encourage each of you to view it. We must never forget the cost of freedom.
In 1987, wanting to branch out in my acting career, my wife and I moved to Los Angeles and, after many auditions and landing a few small roles, in 1993 I had the opportunity to audition for a little movie called Forrest Gump. Anyone here see Forrest Gump? So, I have to take the opportunity to do this: to have the entire Corps of Cadets at West Point, on my mark, say “Lieutenant Dan.” One, two, three…[Audience responds.] Now, I know that MacArthur never did that during his speech! That’s probably a first.
Well, having spent years supporting Vietnam veterans, I desperately wanted to play the Vietnam veteran Lt. Dan Taylor and was lucky to land the part. Lt. Dan of course is a disabled veteran who faces the challenge of losing both his legs in battle. But it is also a beautiful story of resilience, of moving beyond the war experience, and succeeding in life. And that is the story we want today for all our warriors returning from the battlefield. We must do better to make sure that stories of success for our veterans after they have faithfully served our country are not the exception to the rule, but is the rule itself.
In 1994, a few weeks after the film opened I was invited to receive the Commander’s Award from the Disabled American Veterans organization for playing Lt Dan. It was the beginning of a relationship that has lasted for the past 21 years and during that time, in supporting DAV and other efforts, I have met many “real life” Lt. Dan’s, who have inspired me to service by their example of never giving up, no matter how difficult the challenges of their injuries might be.
Seven years later, on that dark day of September 11, 2001, our nation was attacked. Our way of life was threatened and America was called to arms to defend freedom once again. As our men and women in uniform stood to answer the call of duty to preserve our country and destroy our nation’s enemies, my heart went with them, and I was called to a “new” action, to support them in any way I could. To make sure that our service members responding to the 9/11 attacks would never be forgotten or neglected, as our Vietnam veterans had been. There’s a healing power in service work. And as my heart was broken after that terrible day, as fear crept in as to what the future would hold for our country, for my family, I needed to do something to help assuage that fear, to help heal that broken heart, to stand behind our country. And so I began to take action and employed my efforts towards serving those who would answer our nation’s call.
And what can an actor do? I volunteered for the USO. And on my first trip to Iraq in June of 2003, I met a man named John Vigiano, a former Marine and retired New York City firefighter, who lost both his sons at the World Trade Center. Over the years, he and his wife Jan have become very dear friends. Their strength and resilience have been an inspiration to me. John introduced me to many members of the FDNY who were there on that terrible day, and who lost friends and loved ones, and who have also inspired me with their selfless service to help those in need, especially those wounded in battle in Iraq and Afghanistan. These dear “pals of mine” have honored me by attending tonight, and I’d like to ask them to please stand. My friends, thank you.
Inspiration and mentoring are so important in our life’s journey. We can all point to men and women throughout our lives that we have learned from, and who, by their example, have inspired us to be better people. There are many friends and distinguished graduates here tonight, and I thank you all for being here.
Let me also take this time to acknowledge my family, for all your love and support. And especially, the greatest inspiration for me, for her strength, her courage, her faith in God, and her love. She has selflessly served herself, as I have spent many hours away from home over the years. Without her beside me, I simply would not be the man I am today. She is my best friend, my guardian angel, and the love of my life, my beautiful wife, Moira.
Wanting to do more to entertain in the spirit of the great Bob Hope, the 1968 recipient of the Thayer Award, in 2004 I formed a band, “The Lt. Dan Band.” Everywhere I was going in the military, they were calling me “Lt. Dan,” so I just went with it. Over the years we have performed hundreds of concerts for our troops all around the world. Supporting many military charities became another way to serve and learning much along the way, and with a full acceptance that this service work was a passionate and important part of my life, as the general mentioned, in 2011 I decided to bring all these endeavors to serve our veterans together under one umbrella, launching the Gary Sinise Foundation. Each day we strive to serve and honor the needs of our defenders, our first responders and their families.
It is said that people don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care. And that actions speak louder than words. It is clear that after the attacks of September 11th, there are those who saw the challenge our country faced, and surely wanted to take action, and to show how much they care. I know that was the case for me. I have tried to do everything in my power to pitch in to serve and support those who were answering the call to defend our nation against the evils in the world. In this dangerous 21st century, is there any doubt that the call will come again, and again, and again?
As the many enemies of freedom are getting stronger, America is at risk, and if less than one percent of our citizens, if you, our honored corps of cadets, are willing to serve, then I believe that we, as citizens, must try to do our very best to serve you back. I often cite a powerful quote from the 30th President of the United States, Calvin Coolidge, that speaks volumes, when he said, “The nation which forgets its defenders, will itself be forgotten.”
The cadets here tonight were just 9 years old, or younger, 14 years ago at the time of the attacks. Many of you, I’m sure, too young to even remember anything of that terrible day in 2001. Yet, it was so moving to me to learn of a tradition that began here at West Point that very same year, the “Ring Melt.” [WPAOG’s Ring Memorial Program] Since then, it’s not just any gold that goes into the rings of each of the seniors, or “Firsties,” as you are called. They’re made of gold from class rings that were worn by earlier graduates who have donated them back to West Point, melted, and then mixed with new gold to make rings for the following year’s graduating class. This is a beautiful tradition, among many special traditions here at West Point. Generations of the past locking arms with a new generation of leaders as the gold contained in these donated rings is melted and passed on.
And for the class of 2016, there is additional important and sobering ingredient. For the very first time, steel from the World Trade Center was included in the Ring Melt. Each member of the Class of 2016 wears a ring in honor and remembrance, not only of the graduates who have come before them, but of all those lost on that terrible day, 14 years ago. It is a powerful reminder from this new generation of leaders that we must never forget. One day, your rings may be melted and passed to another “new generation,” and that steel will be carried on into battle, as the leaders who wear those rings go on to achieve great things defending freedom and liberty throughout the world, passing the steel from the World Trade Center on again.
Many years ago, when I began this journey, it became abundantly clear that we can never do enough for those who serve and who sacrifice, defending and providing our precious liberty and freedom. But I also learned that we can always do a little more.
At the powerful conclusion of the film Saving Private Ryan, having fought through and survived the terrible world war of the 1940s, now an old man, the elderly James Ryan stands among the thousands of graves of our buried dead in Normandy. After looking down at the grave of the man who gave his life to save him, his own life now near its natural end, Ryan looks into the eyes of his wife and says to her, “Tell me I’ve led a good life… Tell me I’m a good man.” She answers him with a quiet and passionate, “You are.”
I pray that we always remember the fallen, we never take their sacrifices for granted, that we all learn from the selfless service of the brave heroes who have given their last full measure of devotion, and that we all hear that same response from our peers, and from history, that the elderly James Ryan heard when the question is asked of us.
That we endeavored to be, and were indeed, good people; that we led good lives, not only for ourselves, but also for our fellow man, a life of service; that we did our bit, to make this world a better place.
Duty. Honor. Country.
And this magnificent Corps of Cadets, you will carry that motto with you for the rest of your lives, as you enter a life of service to others, and endeavor to lead good lives, strengthening our nation as the leaders of tomorrow. My family and I thank God for you. You make us all proud to be Americans, and you give us hope for a better future for our country.
Thank you to the West Point Association of Graduates for extending me the privilege of speaking to you tonight and for acknowledging me with the Sylvanus Thayer Award. As long as I live, I will work hard on behalf of our defenders and try to be worthy of this special honor. May God bless you and all those still serving in harm’s way. And may God continue to bless, and watch over, our America.
The West Point Association of Graduates is pleased to announce that actor and humanitarian Gary Sinise will be presented with the Sylvanus Thayer Award for 2015. The award will be presented on October 22 during ceremonies hosted by Lt. Gen. Robert L. Caslen, Class of 1975, Superintendent of the United States Military Academy at West Point.
West Point Association of Graduates Board Chairman Lt. Gen. (USA, Ret) Larry R. Jordan, Class of 1968, said “The West Point Association of Graduates is proud that Gary Sinise will be forever associated with West Point through the Thayer Award. As an actor, his moving portrayals of members of the armed forces and veterans have helped tell the patriotic story of military service to audiences across the U.S. and worldwide. In addition, his outreach work via the Gary Sinise Foundation serves veterans and active service members alike through Resiliency and Empowerment programs. Gary’s impressive achievements in serving our nation and in building the morale of our service members and veterans are an inspiration, and truly exemplify the West Point values of ‘Duty, Honor, Country.’”
“I am humbled to receive the Sylvanus Thayer Award from The West Point Association of Graduates, and want to thank them from the bottom of my heart for recognizing my support of veterans and active duty military,” said Sinise. “To be recognized with such a distinguished honor is truly a privilege and I hope that this recognition only helps to further shine a light on the continuing mission of supporting those who serve and defend our great country.”
During his distinguished career as a film and theater actor and director, Sinise has won many accolades, including an Emmy, an Obie, and a Golden Globe Award, and he has been nominated for both an Academy Award and a Palme d’Or. Sinise co-founded the Tony award-winning Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago in 1974, and his first major critical success as an actor was in 1982 when he directed and starred in Steppenwolf’s production of True West, for which he earned an Obie Award. He later appeared with John Malkovich in the PBS American Playhouse production of the play. Sinise has starred with fellow actor Tom Hanks in three critically-acclaimed films: Forrest Gump, Apollo 13 and The Green Mile. Beginning in 2004, he starred as Detective Mac Taylor in his first regular television series, the crime drama CSI: New York.
It was Sinise’s portrayal of Lieutenant Dan Taylor in the 1994 Academy Award-winning film Forrest Gump that created an enduring connection with U.S. servicemen and women throughout the military community. After participating in several USO tours, Sinise formed the “Lt. Dan Band” in 2004 and began entertaining troops serving at home and abroad. The band now performs almost 50 shows a year for military bases, charities and fundraisers supporting wounded warriors, Gold Star families, veterans and troops around the world.
Sinise has frequently used his artistic abilities to enhance recruiting and educational programs that support the military services. He narrated Army and Army Reserve ‘Army Strong’ recruitment ads in 2008 and was the executive producer—along with David Scantling—of the Iraq War documentary Brothers at War. The film features an American military family and the experiences of three brothers: Jake Rademacher, Isaac Rademacher, Class of 2000, and Joseph Rademacher. He has also loaned his voice talent as narrator to several military history documentaries, including the acclaimed World War II in HD on the History Channel and Missions That Changed The War on the Military Channel.
In addition to using his acting skills to help tell the story of America’s servicemen and women, Sinise has also served as their passionate advocate off screen for over 30 years. His activism began in the early 80’s with his support of Vietnam Veterans and the creation of Vets Night, a program offering free dinners and performances to veterans at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago. His commitment continued into the 1990’s, when he began working on behalf of the Disabled American Veterans organization, which he continues to actively support.
Since the attacks of September 11th, 2001, Sinise’s dedication to our nation’s active duty military, veterans and first responders has intensified into a personal campaign of support, service and gratitude to all those who serve our country. In 2011, Sinise established the Gary Sinise Foundation to honor those who serve the nation and their families by creating and supporting unique programs designed to entertain, educate, inspire, strengthen and build communities. These include its R.I.S.E program (Restoring Independence and Supporting Empowerment), whose flagship initiative is a specially adapted custom Smart Home building project for severely wounded veterans.
Sinise has received numerous honors for his service to the military and veteran communities, including the Presidential Citizens Medal in 2008, the second-highest civilian honor awarded to citizens for exemplary deeds performed in service of the nation, as well as the Outstanding Civilian Service Award, which he received from the current Army Chief of Staff, Gen. Raymond “Ray” Odierno, Class of 1976.