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Actor and Humanitarian

Gary Sinise Receives 2015 Thayer Award

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.”

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