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May 24th, 2013
06:59 PM ET

Actor Gary Sinise making veterans' issues a priority

Memorial Day is when America recognizes service members who gave their lives for her as well as their families, who gave their sons and daughters to the nation.

This Memorial Day weekend, the nation is also mindful of those in uniform who are struggling today.

One person who understands this better than most is actor Gary Sinise.

Of all the characters Sinise has played on film and in television, he is probably best known as "Lieutenant Dan" from the movie "Forrest Gump."

That defining role, as a Vietnam vet that loses his legs, is not one that Sinise forgot when the cameras stopped rolling. In August 2003, Sinise visited a military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany.

"The first time I walked in, there was a roomful of 30 wounded Marines and soldiers in there with burns, and all kinds of things going on," said Sinise. "They were not in good shape, these guys. And I walked in and they started lighting up and calling me Lieutenant Dan just immediately."

"Dan was this icebreaker for our wounded. And that just kept happening," said Sinise. "I realized that Lieutenant Dan was going to be more than a character in my life."

Even before playing a vet, the Emmy-winning actor had been making it his mission to help returning soldiers.

Sinise is the grandson of veterans, his wife comes from a military family, and his nephew is currently in Afghanistan.

But it was the role alongside Tom Hanks that launched Sinise into the public eye as a fierce ally of veterans. And 9/11 made that his mission.

He started The Gary Sinise Foundation in 2010, dedicated to supporting vets, first responders, and their families.

Sinise also plays bass in the aptly named "Lt. Dan Band," and has toured military bases to raise funds for veterans groups.

Now he wants to help veterans transition into the workforce.

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs there are approximately 783,000 veterans that are out of work in an economy that has struggled to create jobs in a slow recovery from recession.

According to the advocacy group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, the unemployment rate new veterans 18-24 averaged 20.4% in 2012. That’s more than 5 percentage points higher than the average for non-veterans in the same age group.

The U.S. unemployment rate overall was 7.5 percent in April.

"If you look at the character of Lt. Dan, for example, in ‘Forrest Gump,’ he was somebody driven from a military history family, history of serving in the military, wanted a long military career. That gets taken away from him. And then he's kind of lost. He doesn't really know where he's going to go," said Sinise.

"We've got those stories out there, people that wanted a career in the military, a long career in the military; never thought about doing anything else and all of a sudden that, for whatever reason, is taken away, whether they medically retired or decided to get out because, you know, they've been deployed way too many times. Then thinking about what they're going to do transitionally is somewhat difficult sometimes. So they might not know where to go and what to do," said Sinise.

There are also other more complicated reasons of course, including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other injuries, businesses not understanding how military skills translate to their needs, and competition with non-veteran job seekers who have been in the workforce longer.

So Sinise and his foundation are working with General Electric's veterans network, to get the word out about their "Get Skills to Work" program.

"It's a coalition of partners, educators, businesses, military leaders coming together to provide training, to retool the skills that military members, veterans learn in the service, kind of retool those skills, take advantage of what they learn in the service and reapply that to the private sector," said Sinise.

The goal is to get 100,000 veterans into new manufacturing jobs by 2015.

"I know there's a lot of people in my industry that support our men and women, maybe not as excessively as I do," said Sinise. "But I think it's important. And I'll tell you why: over the years, it's just like snowballed."

"I can see that it makes a difference when somebody like me walks in a room, you know, to an amputee's room that - or somebody, some family is standing over somebody who's in a coma or they don't know if he's going to wake up or something like that. And somebody comes in to show that they care, that can mean something. And you know, the more you do that, for me, the more I just want to do it some more," said Sinise.

Veterans looking for work and employers looking to help these heroes can learn more about GE's Get Skills to Work program at www.getskillstowork.org.

And visit www.garysinisefoundation.org to learn more about their good work.

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