Actor Gary Sinise: Positive Support for Iraq
The following is an exclusive NewsMax interview with actor Gary Sinise. James Hirsen reports from Hollywood.
"Everybody needs a good day in a war zone."- Actor, Gary Sinise
The U.S. media presents a "completely opposite" view of what is really happening with American troops in Iraq, highlighting the negative and ignoring the positive, Emmy Award-winning actor Gary Sinise tells NewsMax.
With so many in Hollywood knocking American efforts in the Middle East, Sinise star of TV's "CSI: NY" openly shows his support through actions as well as words.
Sinise has entertained troops in Iraq and is a co-founder along with "Seabiscuit" author Laura Hillenbrand of Operation Iraqi Children, a program that enables ordinary Americans to provide boys and girls in Iraq with school supply kits distributed by our men and women in uniform.
And he is the co-founder of the Lt. Dan Band, a musical ensemble that entertains troops via USO tours. (Sinise plays a mean bass.) Sinise recently spoke exclusively with NewsMax's James Hirsen, revealing what prompted him to get involved with American troops and veterans, why some in Hollywood have refused to entertain U.S. troops in the Middle East, how Iraqis really feel about the U.S. presence in Iraq … and more.
HIRSEN: Did the events of 9/11 change your view of the world?
SINISE: Yes, I think so. It definitely woke me up. I started doing a lot more looking into what was going on. I wanted to know why this happened. I knew that our military was going to start getting fairly active, and I wanted to do something, I wanted to help out. I felt, like a lot of people, very vulnerable in this country, having felt for so many years so secure. And all of a sudden to be attacked on our shores like that was a real slap in the face and a wake-up. I just felt like, well, we're a country at war now, and I wanted to be able to do something to help.
HIRSEN: You use the term "wake-up" to describe the change in attitude that 9/11 created. Why do you think 9/11 didn't change so many other folks in the media and in Hollywood?
SINISE: Well, I don't know anybody who wasn't affected by it; certainly at the time everyone was affected by it. I think there are some people that got more active in terms of volunteerism and feeling like life is much more precious than they had ever thought before and having a feeling of wanting to make the most out of it. That's what happened to me. I'm sure it happened to other people as well. And I'm sure there are many people who went back to sleep, or "it's business as usual," and that's unfortunate because I think the world changed that day. We've all heard that said. I just really believe it.
HIRSEN: What is your view of the way the media are portraying the military effort in Iraq and Afghanistan?
SINISE: It's interesting. I did an interview recently, and after the interview was over I got into a conversation with the journalist who was interviewing me who had been to Iraq as an embedded reporter; you know, fairly supportive of the media. I got into questioning why there seemed to be such an imbalance of reporting coming out of Iraq, and not just an imbalance but an omission or a confusion as to what is really going on and what is the whole truth of what is happening in Iraq, because I get a lot of other types of reports from Iraq that I never get from the media.
I'm in touch with dozens of military service members over there who are working quite diligently on their mission, accomplishing positive things, making progress, and who have a dedication and belief that what they are doing is helping, and therefore their morale is high. Yet in so many media reports we get a completely opposite view of what's happening with our military service members, that they are demoralized or broken or their morale is low and whatnot.
Granted, there probably are service members over there who don't have as high morale as somebody else might. There are a lot of people over there, and they're not going to all feel the same thing. But there's an overwhelming sense from a lot of the people that I deal with who are working cooperatively with the Iraqis on a day-to-day basis. They are making progress, and they're accomplishing positive things. Therefore they feel good about their mission, and some people who have gone would go back again.
I've talked to several people who were back here, who said, "Well if they want me to go back, I'll go back." That doesn't sound like somebody who's angry about having gone to war, and what they did … A lot of people make general statements, big, sweeping, general statements. "The morale is down." That's a big, sweeping, general statement that lumps 150,000 people all into the same boat. "The army is broken" or "the mission is not going well."
Well, there are day-to-day missions all over that country that are being accomplished by our service members, so it's not one single thing going on. There are people all over the country working with all kinds of things and doing all sorts of projects, combat related and civil affairs related, so there are many stories coming out of Iraq.
HIRSEN: What was it that you told the journalist?
SINISE: My point to this journalist [was] that I was disturbed at the media's willingness … to go after the military regarding the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. It seemed like they could not put enough of those pictures on television enough times. We saw dozens and dozens and dozens of pictures daily, for two, three weeks, [showing] the lack of integrity of our military.
He [the journalist] said to me, "You know what, I don't care. I think we should put those pictures on every day and all the time, and I have no problem with that."
I said, "I can't disagree with you that it was a horrible misstep by a bunch of dufusses in our military, about 15 of them. But on the other hand I would say where is the other side of the story? Why, if you're going to be so aggressive with depicting American troops in a negative manner, why not be just as aggressive to show the heroism of our service members?"
I brought up dozens of examples. There's a woman, a major, who is like a superwoman over there, helping kids and delivering kerosene lamps and pulling Iraqis out from under trucks and saving people and doing all these things. You never hear about that kind of stuff. Yet it seems like they can't wait to put bad news on.
I said, "You tell me. Why do we see one side of the story and not the other if there are two sides?" He paused, and then he said, "Well, bad news sells" and that's all he could say.
I said, "Do you see my point? I'm saying if there's one side of the story and only one side of the story, I understand why the media would show us that side. But if there are two sides, and one of those sides is overwhelmingly more positive in depicting our service members and what they're doing, why don't we see that side equally and just as aggressively portrayed by the media?"
HIRSEN: Much of the discourse on political subjects comes in the form of broad generalizations.
SINISE: I'm not going to do that because that's dumb. To me it's just dumb. And politicians do that constantly on both sides. They'll make big, sweeping statements like it's the be all and end all, and that's the end of the story. But there are always two sides.
HIRSEN: The rationale from journalists is expressed in the old saying "If it bleeds, it leads" that is, bad news sells.
SINISE: Basically, that's all he could say to me, so he couldn't disagree with me, with my point. And I didn't disagree with him on his point when he said we should see those pictures up and down all over. Anytime they want to put those pictures on, the media should do it.
That was one side, that was a big story, and it was an ugly story. But you cannot deny that the media is much more aggressive about portraying the military in a negative way than they are in showing the heroism.
HIRSEN: The media will respond somewhat flippantly that bad news is a hallmark of human nature. Do you find that response surprising considering this is a time of war?
SINISE: It seems like every day you could get a new piece of information that could throw you a curve. Personally, I believe that we are in a war, and I think there may be a fundamental difference with people that have varying degrees of conviction about who the enemy is, what the enemy's intentions are, whether we are actually in a war or not, who brought the war on, us or them. And there are always differing opinions about that.
Some people might not actually view this as a war. It's not like the armada is coming, we can see it on the horizon, let's load the guns and defend the coastline. We can't do that anymore. There is an ideology out there that we have identified, that is threatening and requires response. Certainly we know that. But we're not fighting any particular country. We're fighting, basically, al-Qaida in Iraq now, and former Baathists of the Saddam Hussein regime.
But there are a lot of people who didn't believe we should go to Iraq in the first place, so they're not going to view it as a war. And if they view it as a war, they view it as an illegal war, and they're not going to support it; therefore, they're not going to support the military members who are fighting it.
Personally, I believe that we are in a war. We are a country that's vulnerable. We saw that on Sept. 11.
There's no question in my mind that, given the opportunity to put a nuke in a suitcase, there are millions of people, not thousands but millions, who would dedicate themselves to detonating that nuke in one of our cities. I have no doubt in my mind. I saw it on Sept. 11. If they could have killed 300,000 instead of 3,000, they would have been all the happier about that. There's no question in my mind that that is a reality and that it has to be; that we will need our service members for many years to come and that we want to support them.
We're going to need these volunteers. That's why I get out there and support them. I believe there is an enemy and that the service members that we have are our defenders.
HIRSEN: You talk to servicemen and women regularly. Have they indicated that they're affected by the coverage of the war by the media?
SINISE: I have had some people mention it in terms of why don't they show any of the positive things that we're doing over here. I had one guy who delivered school supplies. That day they had a huge celebration in the village. It was a very cooperative day for everybody, and that to him was a big story. That was his story for the day. Instead he got back to the base and turned on the news and it was more of the same negative stuff.
It is big news every time bombs go off, and it's big news when our guys get hurt or killed. Those stories deserve to be told. But they [soldiers] might have been killed on a day when they had just accomplished some huge things and helped out a lot of people, and they would, I am sure, like that story to be told as well.
HIRSEN: Part of this is your story. You've co-founded Operation Iraqi Children. You're the national spokesman for the U.S. Disabled Veterans Life Memorial Foundation. You've been involved with veterans for a long time, and people associate you with the military, with your role as Lt. Dan in "Forrest Gump." What was it that prompted your involvement and passion for veterans' causes?
SINISE: Years ago I was involved with a group of Vietnam veterans. I had worked on some theater material, a play where I got very involved with the Vietnam veterans that the play was portraying, and that was kind of a wake-up as well.
HIRSEN: That was before "Gump," right?
SINISE: Yeah, this was before "Gump." This was 1980 or so, and I was not long out of high school, five or six years, and not too far removed from the end of the Vietnam War. So when I worked on this material and saw these veterans actually portraying, presenting a play based on their experiences, it really made me think about what I was doing when I was 18, 19 years old, how unaware I was of what was really going on. I was not old enough to go to Vietnam. I was too young. I remember the images on TV and that kind of thing, so it made me think a lot about that.
Then my wife's two brothers are Vietnam veterans. My wife's sister's husband is a Vietnam veteran, so I spent time kind of quizzing them on their experiences. I got very interested in doing a theater presentation that would honor these veterans who had been treated so badly when they came home from war. I got very involved with honoring our Vietnam veterans.
I remember I was working on this play in 1983 when the marine barracks was bombed in Beirut. The destruction of the barracks by terrorists and the killing of 241 marines affected me deeply; that and the death of my wife's older brother who was a two-tour Vietnam veteran. Those two incidents kind of galvanized my mission to portray these Vietnam veterans as honorably as I could as a director working on this theater piece. From that moment on, which was the early ‘80s, I got very involved.
HIRSEN: Your wife's brother was killed?
SINISE: No, he wasn't killed. He died in 1983. He had been in Vietnam twice. He was a career military man. He was a lieutenant colonel when he died. He was in Vietnam as a lieutenant and then went back as a captain and came home. In 1983 he died of cancer, so it's possible that Agent Orange had something to do with his death.
But he died when I was in rehearsal for this play, and when the marine barracks was bombed I was rehearsing this play about Vietnam veterans who were treated badly when they got back. And it just kind of galvanized.
That was a big eye-opener at that time, and I got very involved with Vietnam veterans' groups. I have several friends, relatives, and when we started sending our troops out to Afghanistan and Iraq and everything, and I was now a celebrity, I thought I've got to do something with this celebrity I have, give something back to somebody.
HIRSEN: Do you see a risk that history will repeat itself and the veterans of today could be treated like the Vietnam vets of the past?
SINISE: That should never happen again. The country was conflicted at that time about the Vietnam War, and they took it out on our veterans; the country took it out on the soldiers that were sent to fight.
A lot of them had been drafted. A lot of them volunteered, but a lot of them had been drafted, and they came home and they couldn't wear the uniform. They had to take it off in the bathroom at the airport because somebody would look at them funny or spit on them or call them a name.
They were called baby killers and everything else. That person might have been feeding a bunch of starving kids over there in a village. You know, in every war there are going to be some people who lose control and do some bad things; that's happened in every war. But that wasn't the overwhelming majority of our troops over in Vietnam, doing the Lt. Calley thing over there. There were a lot of people who just went over and served. I have friends and relatives who were some of those people.
HIRSEN: Operation Iraqi Childre (http://www.operationiraqichildren.org) is such a wonderful concept. We have many readers who would like to show their support for the military. Why do you think that this is a good way for people to do that?
SINISE: Well, Jim, I've tried to, I've been very concerned and tried to keep Operation Iraqi Children as neutral a program as possible. I don't really go out and talk about my political views. I don't do a lot of criticizing of things, banging, slamming people, because Operation Iraqi Children, no matter what my political views are or anything like that, that's not what this program is.
This program is a nonpolitical, completely neutral way that you can help the Iraqi children by sending school supplies to our troops [for distribution] over there. I believe that these kids are the future of Iraq, and so many in that part of the world have been raised to think bad things about Americans or bad things about Western culture. And here we are delivering them school supplies.
I'm actually in touch with Iraqis over there who are totally supportive and totally behind the United States being there and the coalition being there, and completely appreciative of the possibilities that they have now because of what has happened in the last two or three years.
We try to get to the children, and we try to help the kids out and provide a way for Americans or anybody anyplace in the world to pitch in and do something positive if you want to, rather than just sitting there watching the news and having it be bad and then feeling depressed and not knowing what to do.
You can actually get up and go to operationiraqichildren.org and sit down and send us some pencils and some erasers and some stuffed animals, or some money and we'll buy the stuff ourselves and box it up and send it over there. It makes a big difference when these convoys pull into these villages and unload this stuff and give it to the kids. It's a good day for everybody, and everybody needs a good day in a war zone.
HIRSEN: It's hard sometimes to keep the focus on the cause itself.
SINISE: Well, you can do it, and I really have tried, Jim. People have tried to pin me down, "Well, do you support the war or are you mad at this or … C'mon, you're a Hollywood guy; tell us how you think."
HIRSEN: You seem to convey values through actions. I'm wondering, do you ever come across a project … that might have a story line that conflicts with your values or your worldview?
SINISE: Well, yeah, [but] now that I'm on the [TV] show I don't get all that much because it's almost pointless for me to read anything because I can't do it. My agents basically know that with the work that I do with the Lt. Dan Band and the USO and the charities and the different things I'm involved in and being a dad and working on a TV show and all that, there's very little time to even consider another story.
HIRSEN: Reports say the USO is having difficulty getting celebrities involved. Is that real or is that overblown?
SINISE: No, I think it's probably real. I think there are some people that would like to go that might be afraid to go. I think there might be some people who … don't believe in our being there, so if they go they may be sending a signal that they support the effort or something like that.
Everybody has to treat it the way they treat it. It's their thing. To me, I know that our troops are going to be deployed by the next president, and the next president after that, and the next president after that.
And as much as I would rather have all our service members be in their backyards right now having a barbecue, the reality is that they're going to be busy, and I think it helps them and it helps their families to know that there are people out there who would take a few days out of their schedule just to go over and entertain them, just to do something positive to help them through their deployment.
That's what I do, and to me the first time I did it I was hooked. I was already very involved with veterans and everything, but once you go out and meet these people and you see who they are and you see how appreciative they are of us being there and see what your presence means to them and what it does for them that particular day, I think you'll never forget it.
HIRSEN: Maybe those who are reluctant ought to talk to Al Franken because he doesn't seem to mind. He's a big critic of the war and he still goes over there.
SINISE: Yeah, he still goes and entertains them and comes back and says whatever he says.
HIRSEN: Gary, you're in an industry where so many people seem to have difficulty with their family lives, and yet you've been able to make family and friends a priority. How have you been able to do that when so many others haven't?
SINISE: Well, I don't know all the answers to that. I know that in some cases it can be difficult when both people are struggling to make a career for themselves in the same business. My wife is an actress, but she's a great mom first, and that's where she has put her priority and decided that I was doing just fine.
We were making a good living, and it was more important and necessary for her to be there for the kids. My kids are growing up with two parents who really smother them with a lot of attention, a lot of love and a lot of guidance. They've got a mom who's there for them every day, and I go out and do my thing.
We've had, certainly in our 30 years of being together, we've had many ups and downs, and it used to be a lot more of a struggle when we were younger trying to figure things out than it is now.
But now we have teenagers, and we've been very, very dedicated to making sure that our kids have a fairly grounded perspective on things in that they don't necessarily view the fact that I work in Hollywood as anything more special than what somebody else does.
That's just kind of what I do, and they may be more used to being around the movie business or celebrity things. They have access to things that other kids don't have, but we've been very, very aggressive about making sure that our kids are growing up with values that they can take out in the world and that will serve them well, and not that they should think that they're anything special.
HIRSEN: Do you get some of that from your Midwestern Chicago values?
SINISE: Probably, you know. We're both from the Chicago area.
HIRSEN: Oh, you are?
SINISE: Yeah, she grew up in Pontiac, Illinois, and joined my theater company in Chicago. That's where we met and we've duked it out over the years and come to a great place.
HIRSEN: You're currently in a television series, "CSI: NY." Considering the huge body of work in feature films you've been in, how does acting in a TV series compare with working in feature films?
SINISE: Well, a buddy of mine had this quote, and I'll steal it from him. He worked on a TV series, and I think he may have stolen it from somebody else, but he said it was like the movie that doesn't end. The story just keeps going; there's another episode and the character just keeps going through these different episodes.
In a movie, you go in there and you work on it for three months, and then you're done and you move on to the next thing, or not, in the case of so many of my fellow actors who struggle job to job, which is difficult on a person.
I got to a point where I was being handed a TV series at a point in my life where I wanted to make sure I was at home because my kids are teenagers, and I don't want to miss these final years.
This is a great show, it's a solid show … There were two other shows in the series that were doing great so I thought, "This is a great gift." I get to go to work on a regular basis throughout the year. I know I've got 11 weeks off at a certain time. I can do USO tours and play with the band and do different things and be with the kids. I'm very fortunate and I'm going to enjoy this for as long as it goes.
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James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.
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