Following a meet-and-greet at Lighthouse Point Bar & Grille overlooking Lake Sumter, Gary Sinise made his way back to the Angler’s Club at Lake Sumter Landing, where members of his band were having a meal before the concert. Sinise took a few minutes to talk about his work and the reason for being here. When asked what was the best part about his enduring identification as Lt. Dan Taylor, the Vietnam veteran he portrayed in the film “Forrest Gump,” he took a deep breath and reflected back on the 25 years since that role kicked off his stellar career. Sinise said he didn’t really know at the time that it would play a role in his life beyond his movie career. “After I started visiting hospitals and the wounded in hospital beds and the real-life Lt. Dan’s, they started connecting to the film and identifying with the character,” Sinise said. “I just found the story resonated with the present-day wounded, and especially the Vietnam veterans.”
He explained that Lt. Dan experienced traumatic injuries and psychological challenges but in the end, he came out on top and that’s his ambition for all veterans.
“I want to promote the positive message of serving our country, coming home from combat and moving on with life the way Lt. Dan did in that movie,” Sinise said.
Through the Gary Sinise Foundation, Sinise raises $30 million annually to help build homes for disabled veterans and to support Gold Star families and the children of veterans who have given their lives in defense of the country. He is very excited about his new project, Snowball Express, which will bring 1,000 children to Disney World who have lost a parent to combat.
The free concert on Sunday night at Lake Sumter Landing was sponsored by the Gary Sinise Foundation.
With the help of Marie Bogdonoff and the Villagers for Veterans group and the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 1036, the details and necessary support was mustered to pull together this thank-you to veterans and first responders.
The square started filling up shortly after access was opened at 1:30 p.m., and a steady flow of people began to fill in the available space from near and far. Throughout the afternoon, Paul Dengler, a Forrest Gump impersonator, patiently stood for photos with sweat streaming down his face as a long line of Villagers stood waiting for their turn to pose with him, a box of chocolates and a suitcase.
While Scooter the DJ kept many in the crowd dancing, others milled about the many vendors, food trucks and beverage stations waiting for the arrival of Gary Sinise & the Lt. Dan Band.
Phil and Diane Jelen drove 163 miles from Port Charlotte for the concert. Jelen served in Vietnam with the Army’s 4th Infantry from 1966-67. This concert made it an even dozen times that they’ve seen the Lt. Dan Band and he quickly pulled out his phone to share photos of concerts in Chicago and other locations that dot the map.
“Sinise is a great American and he does great things for veterans,” Jelen said. “So I’d go anywhere to support him.”
Gary Sinise & the Lt. Dan Band took the stage a few minutes before 7 p.m., following the presentation of colors by every color guard in The Villages. After the Pledge of Allegiance and national anthem, a short video explained the purpose of the Gary Sinise Foundation, followed by a series of movie clips from his many high-profile performances in movies and television. The video finished off with segments from his signature role as Lt. Dan Taylor.
An adoring crowd applauded with enthusiasm as Sinise cranked up his high-energy band.
Sinise lived up to his motto, “Honor, gratitude and rock & roll.”
They kicked it off with the Christopher Cross hit, “Ride Like the Wind” and it picked up from there driven by Sinise and his thumping bass. The band has a lot of brass that he introduces as “The infamous horn dudes.” Their sound bodes well with big Chicago sounds that segue into blues then the timely World War II hit “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.”
For as far back as people could see, it was standing-room only in a crowd that was fascinated with his presence on stage, arms raised like teenagers of their past lives totally into every song.
It was truly a night to remember for the thousands that took in every note and sang along with each memorable song.
Staff writer Frank Ross can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5367 or firstname.lastname@example.org.