Forrest Gump actor Gary Sinise kicks off 2013 wounded vet project in Tampa

02/13/13 Janelle Irwin
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Actor Gary Sinise – better known as Lieutenant Dan to Forrest Gump fans -- is heading up an effort to build twelve severely wounded soldiers specially-equipped homes. Sinise, along with other charity leaders and Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn announced the 2013 Building for America’s Bravest program during a ceremony in downtown Tampa Wednesday morning. Sinise said he enjoys giving injured soldiers some of their normal life back.

“They’re going to have life challenges for a long time – for the rest of their lives and worrying about a home that isn’t adaptable to the challenges that you’re going to face in life – you know, these injuries aren’t going to change, so having a home that can help make your life more independent, more manageable, give you a sense that you can do things for yourself, that’s going to give them a sense of confidence.”

A Tampa native who lost both of his legs and one arm in Afghanistan will be the first to be honored at a charity concert at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park on May 10. Michael Nicholson, a Sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps is currently living near Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

“They have adapted apartments up there, but there are things – counters are really high, reaching fro stuff in cabinets – all these homes take care of that. They take away all those challenges.”

Nicholson is miles away from his friends and family who still live in the Tampa Bay area. His new home will be on Interbay Boulevard in South Tampa. Most of the soldiers who receive homes are in similar situations. Mayor Buckhorn said that makes this project about more than just giving them a home.

“It means everything for us, but more particularly for them to know that they’re surrounded by their friends and their classmates. It wasn’t that long ago that Mike was in Plant High School.”

Gary Sinise performs concerts with his band, the Lieutenant Dan Band in cities where the new homes will be built. The proceeds go toward the cost of the homes. They don’t look much different from any new home at first glance, but on the inside they are equipped with special showers, easy-to-reach counters and appliances and even automated air conditioning and entertainment systems. Sinise said his status as a celebrity helps with fundraising.

“That’s one benefit of being in the public eye is that you can have all these cameras around you asking you all these questions about what you’re doing.”

And Mayor Buckhorn said the city will make the process – from the benefit concert to groundbreaking and through completion - as easy as possible.

“Both in terms of putting the word out and in terms of permitting, in terms of the regulatory process. We’re going to do everything we can to make it as expeditious as possible as we did at the Nicholson house that they did the addition on the parents house. So, we’ll be there to do whatever we can to help. We’re here, we’re supporting it, we believe in it and most importantly, we want to honor the service of these young men.”

Sinise, whose role in Forrest Gump portrayed him as an emotionally broken wounded veteran who lost both his legs in the Vietnam War, has partnered with numerous agencies to help the real-life victims of war.

“It’s such a big bureaucracy and there’s such a big needs out there for veterans going back to World War II that some people are going to get lost in the cracks and that’s where I think non-government organizations can fill those gaps. There’s some great organizations as Frank Siller said – I’ve been supporting organizations like the Semper Fi Fund, Hope for the Warriors, good organizations like that that are trying to fill those needs and if a lot of these organizations weren’t there right now, there would be a lot of need out there right now that would not be being filled.”

The Gary Sinise Foundation is partnering with the Tunnel to Towers Foundation for this project. Frank Siller, the group’s chair, said he started the charity after his youngest brother was killed in New York City during the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center.

“He was on his way home to play golf with myself and my two other brothers when he heard on the radio that the twin towers [were] hit. He turned his truck around, he drove back to his fire house, he got his fire gear, he drove to the Brooklyn/Battery tunnel which is the tunnel that connects Brooklyn to Manhattan and it was closed for security reasons so he strapped 65 pounds of gear on his back and he ran through the tunnel to the towers where he gave up his life.”

Though Siller’s brother didn’t lose his life fighting in an American war, Siller said first responders and military veterans are both heroes. The first injured soldier to receive a smart home through the Building for America’s Bravest program was Todd Nicely. Nicely is a quadruple amputee from Missouri who lost all of his limbs after stepping on a hidden explosive in Afghanistan.

“I remember waking up in the hospital bed thinking to myself, as most of these guys did, ‘what now, how am I going to move on past this and continue to live my life and be able to continue to take care of my wife and hopefully one day, my family?’”

Others vets who are set to receive new homes through the program have injuries ranging from single amputations and burns to severe brain injuries. More information is on their website.

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