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Remarks by 2015 Thayer Award Recipient Mr. Gary Sinise

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 acknowledgement, 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 acknowledgement 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 fire fighter, 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 our citizens, if you, our honored corps of cadets, are willing to serve, then I believe that we, as citizens, must I 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.