You know him as Lieutenant Dan, the surly commanding officer and later shrimp boat partner of Forrest Gump. No matter what role he plays, award-winning actor Gary Sinise conveys a powerful, searing presence on screen, TV, and the stage. An Illinois-native, he’s the co-founder of the famed Steppenwolf Theater Company and has starred in numerous films, including Truman, Apollo 13, Of Mice and Men, George Wallace, and The Green Mile, to name a few. He’s also had a successful run on television with CSI:NY (2004-13) and Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders. Acting aside, he’s been just as dynamic and productive off-screen, as a tireless supporter of American veterans. After 9/11, he stepped up his involvement with veterans and first responders, eventually forming the Gary Sinise Foundation that provides an impressive array of outreach programs, from live concerts featuring the Lt. Dan Band (Sinise plays bass) to building Smart homes with a team of experts for veterans and their families. And, for the record, the foundation carries a top four-point star rating on Charity Navigator.
Chet Cooper and Lia Martirosyan joined the actor at his Woodland Hills, CA-based office where they discussed his mission to inspire and his book, Grateful American: A Journey from Self to Service.
Lia Martirosyan: How long have you been in this office?
Gary Sinise: That’s a good question. At least five years. When I was shooting CSI: NY, we were in Studio City and shot at CBS Bradford. On the corner there’s a big glass building, and we took some offices in there and then we just started growing a little bit. We moved farther out this way and got more for our money out here.
Martirosyan: Good! Grew just a little bit?
Sinise: Well, yeah, and the money stretches more in Woodland Hills. Not a lot, but a little bit more.
Martirosyan: Looking around, I can imagine every piece in here has an amazing and cool story about all these people you’ve encountered throughout the world.
Sinise: Yeah, there’s a ton of history. I’ve spent a lot of years of doing this work. Within the military community and the first responder community, they’ve given me a lot over the years. For a long time, I would just collect all these amazing things and have them in the garage, with no place to put any of it. When I started the foundation, we said, “Let’s put it all up. Let’s let people see it and enjoy it.” There are a bunch of quilts around here that were all made out of various T-shirts that were given to me over the years from different places that I’ve been and different units that I’ve worked with and supported.
Cooper: Somebody on your team made this quilt from all the T-shirts?
Sinise: We actually have a quilter from Oklahoma. I told my assistant Cristin Bartter, whom you met, “Hey, I feel bad that all these T-shirts are just sitting in a box. I can’t wear them. Let’s do something with them.”
Cooper: So you wear this now?
Sinise: (laughs) Well, at least I display it, for warmth. We found a great gal, and she made a bunch of them for us out of these different T-shirts.
Martirosyan: It’s a beautiful idea.
Sinise: This is a first responder one. There’s a bunch of them from USO tours. I’ve got all these shirts from different places that I went, because every time you go on a tour with the USO, they will make a T-shirt for that tour. It’ll say where you’ve been, for example, Kuwait. So we made quilts out of them. Pretty cool stuff.
Cooper: Suitcases next.
Martirosyan: I want to jump into the Lt. Dan Band. I was out of town, but Chet was able to make it to one of your gigs.
Cooper: It was the Los Angeles VA outdoor theater—
Sinise: Yeah, it was our first responder concert.
Cooper: I was with James McEachin.
Sinise: Oh, James McEachin, my buddy! You came to the concert with James?
Sinise: He’s a good pal. What a man. Just a good man—that’s terrific.
Martirosyan: The music, has it always been with you?
Sinise: Yeah, I started playing when I was in fourth grade when I got my first guitar. I played through school. Started playing in bands when I was a kid and played all the way into my early twenties. Got bit by the theater bug when I was in high school, where I did my first play. I was playing in bands, doing plays, and started a theater company after high school, but I kept playing as a way to make a living while doing the theater until I was 22. Then, the theater just took over everything, and all I did was focus on building our theater company. I didn’t play music for a long time, maybe 15 years. In the late ‘90s, I picked it up again, after September 11, I started doing USO tours. I would go out and shake hands, sign autographs, take pictures and visit with the troops.
I had some musicians I played with for fun, so talked the USO into letting me take them on a tour to play for the troops. It’s now been over 400-some concerts. We’ve been all over the world.
Martirosyan: Do you have a favorite genre, or go-to songs?
Sinise: There are some songs we’ve played for 10 years or more, and they’re just part of our show. We’re always mixing it up. We’ve got a rehearsal coming up in a couple weeks where we’re going to learn some new tunes, and then we start playing again. We played our last concert of 2018 in mid-December, picked up again in February.
Martirosyan: Very cool.
Sinise: I was trying to cut them down a little bit this year, but they told me we’ve got 30 on the calendar already. That’s a lot of concerts for me. A lot of time.
Cooper: In your book, it says that you’re playing for free, but the band gets paid. Is that still the case?
Martirosyan Great setup.
Sinise: The only reason I do it is for this cause, this mission. I don’t play in between shows for the troops. My band members play for a living, and they have since I hired them years ago. I’ve had to pay them from the beginning. This was my crazy free mission, and part of that mission was to entertain the service members. So I had to finance that myself early on. I couldn’t ask the musicians to play for free like I was.
And then when I started my own foundation and made the band a program of the foundation. Much like the USO provides entertainment for the troops, the Gary Sinise Foundation does a lot of different things for our military and our first responders. One of those things is morale-boosting and spirit-raising. We do that in various ways. One of those ways is through entertainment, when I show up with the band. Once I started doing that with the foundation, and prior to the foundation, I would do tons of USO shows. I’ve probably done over 200 that are just USO. So once I started the foundation, I no longer had to ask some friend to give me $10,000 so I could play for the troops or finance it myself. We now had a foundation, and one of the things we provide is inspiration and spirit-raising through entertainment. So now, through the foundation, I can call up a base and offer to come and play for everybody. We provide the entertainment and we pay for it.
The concert you saw—
Cooper: It was free. The audience didn’t pay.
Sinise: Yeah, it’s all free. We wanted to provide an opportunity for local people to come together and celebrate our first responders and our veterans over there, our defenders. We provided an opportunity for them to do that. People brought food trucks and provided the food, and we provided the entertainment.
Cooper: I read that you were thinking the same thing when you were part of the USO, “Oh, here’s another band with a celebrity,” but you are good, and entertaining. I was pleasantly surprised.
Sinise: (laughs) Yeah, it’s always a shock.
I remember early on, there was a documentary made back in 2008 and 2009 by a buddy of mine who asked if he could follow us around. He interviewed me, and I said exactly that: “Nobody expects an actor with a band to be any good.” But I wanted to provide a really high-quality show for everybody. It’s not my vanity project where I need to play cover tunes over and over. It’s a show for them. It’s about them. It’s about the children of the service members. It’s about the older veterans. It’s about the soldiers and sailors. All for them. I didn’t want them to have to watch me play cover tunes badly.
I have really good musicians in the band. They’re all professional folks. My drummer has played with everybody, and my trombone player was in David Letterman’s band for 25 years. He’s played with everybody you can think of. And you know what? They get paid, but it’s different for them to play for this cause and this crowd than the normal gig. It’s part of a mission. It’s a service mission. There’s a spirit about it that’s fun, and they’re there to play that music for a reason. It’s something really special for this particular crowd that can really use some entertainment.
Cooper: You say they’ve played with some big-name people, but you have too. I heard, or read, that you got to play with some interesting folks.
Sinise: I have. I’ve played the “Devil Went Down to Georgia” with Charlie Daniels. In fact, he gave me a violin. It’s in this room down the hall. We have an exhibit space down there. And there’s the violin that Charlie gave me and a picture of him and me playing “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.”
Martirosyan: You play the violin as well?
Sinise: No, no. I was playing the bass. I’ve played with Christopher Cross, some neat folks.
Cooper: One day, hopefully soon, you should see if you can figure out how to play a gig with Lia Martirosyan.
Sinise: Oh, that’s your last name?
Martirosyan: (laughs) Yes
Cooper: She’s a singer.
Sinise: Oh, OK! What do you like to play?
Martirosyan: I sing classical music.
Sinise: Oh, beautiful.
Martirosyan: You never pick up the mic?
Sinise: (laughs) I will bellow into the microphone occasionally in some sort of backup vocal. On a couple of songs I will step up to the mic and sing along with the band. But, basically, I’m the bass player. The bass player usually hangs back. I take the microphone and talk to the crowd when I need to. A big part of what I love about going to the military bases with the band is that we generally have very large audiences, and I get to talk to them and tell them how I feel about them, why I support what they do in defense of our country and that I want them to feel better. There are key moments in our show where I do that, and the band takes a break while I talk.
Martirosyan: Lovely. I’m curious about your writing process. Does something spark a memory, a story? How do you tap into what you want to put out there?
Sinise: Well, I knew that with my schedule it would be very difficult to take the time necessary to sit down, start and keep going until I was done. That’s why I have Marcus Brotherton, who helped me organize my thoughts and is a writer himself. He worked with me on the book. We had a great process where we decided where we were going to go. I said, “Here are the key things we’re going to do in our chapters.” And then we started at the beginning. I started talking, and I would tell stories and talk through and analyze things, then review and search my memory on uncertain key things. Marcus would then lay it out for me, and then I could see it and go back in and start messing with it. We did that with all 17 chapters in the book. We did it on Facetime. He lives up north.
So I was able to kind of write the book, then go off and do all my other stuff, and come back and see what we had. He had all the recordings and would lay it out, and I would go in and change it. Toward the end of the process, I went through everything myself and rewrote. Then the editor was very good in working with me, offering very good suggestions, which made me think about other things that weren’t fleshed out as well as they should be, so I would make those changes, too. It was an interesting, year-long process.
Cooper: Lots of memories. I was like, “Wow, how does he remember so much?” It’s a lot of your full lifespan.
Sinise: Yeah, there’s a lot of detail in there. I figured I’d better get at it while I could still lay it out there. I didn’t know what the book would be called in the beginning, but it started to shape itself. I realized that I was telling a journey from self to service, and how all these things that happened to me in the beginning set the stage for where I am today.
Cooper: Have you talked to Carlos?
Sinise: (laughs) Maybe Carlos will read the book and he’ll contact me. I don’t know what happened to Carlos.
Isn’t that ridiculous?
Cooper: It’s so funny! There are a few really funny moments in the book. There’s a lot in your history which is unique, and I think people will be surprised at all the things you’ve done. But every so often there’s this nice, “What?!”
Sinise: (laughs) “What the heck?” Well, there’s some crazy stuff in there. I laughed when I was telling that story, because I started acting it out.
Cooper: So now that we’re saying this, why not share it during this interview.
Sinise: The Carlos story is—I was such a juvenile. This friend of mine said his dad would drive his car to the train station every day, park it in the parking lot and take the train downtown. He’d leave his car in the parking lot all day long. And this kid told me that there was a key inside the engine. So I said, “Well, I’m going to take that car and drive it around.”
I was, like, 12 or something. I shouldn’t have been driving; I didn’t know how to drive. I was so stupid. And yet, I got the key, turned on the car and started driving around. You can see this little kid just driving around, you know? I take a wrong left turn or something, no turn on left, and, of course, that’s what I do, there’s a cop right behind me. He pulls me over and I’m like, “Hello, sir!” And I found this license that said “Carlos Huizinga.” Carried it in my little wallet. He said, in a deep voice, “Can I see your driver’s license?” “Yes, sure, I’ll give you my license. Here you go.” Looks at me and says, “Carlos?”
I’m a little kid. I don’t look like Carlos Huizinga. I don’t look 21, which is what it says on the license. I looked about 10. “Carlos, you know this license is expired?”
“Geez, I didn’t know that. OK.” And he’s got me pegged. I mean, he knows I’m a little kid who’s driving this car around. “Well, Carlos, we’re gonna have to take you in.” “Oh, really? Geez!”
Cooper: “I’ll follow you!”
Sinise: “Let’s pull this car over right now. You get in my car and we’ll take you.” So he takes me down. I pretend I’m Carlos as long as I can and then I finally break down and just start screaming. “No, my name is Gary!”
“I’m not Carlos!” “OK, Carlos, what’s your dad’s number?” He called my dad and my dad was not happy. My dad had to come and get me and he was mad. I was grounded for weeks. (laughs)
Cooper: It sounded in the book like you were a bit of a rebel, or rebellious, I should say.
Sinise: Well, my dad was working all the time. My mom had her hands full. I was kind of free to do what I wanted. And I wasn’t good in school.
Cooper: Did you ever get tested for dyslexia or ADHD?
Sinise: No, but probably today I would be tested, and they’d say, “Oh, you’ve got some serious problems!”
I’d say, “How about I just didn’t learn to read and write? How about that?” I don’t know if I had a learning disability or anything, but I just never paid attention.
Cooper: That’s part of ADHD, and a lot of people—I’m included in this group—figure out things. The normal process of the learning modality they give you is, “OK, that’s theirs. I’m going to figure out how to get around the system.” And when you look at what you’ve done in your life, that’s definitely the case. You’ve created your own path, and this is evident from the book. All these stories of figuring out ways to solve problems—whether it was your Steppenwolf Theater Company, or whatever you were doing. You’re a problem-solver.
Sinise: Kind of just making it up. It’s that thing, you know, that’s really true: you don’t know what you don’t know, so you just do stuff. I didn’t know.
While there are certainly pinnacle moments in my acting career, I always place that first experience of being in a play right at the top of the list. When nobody knew who I was. I wasn’t famous or anything, I was just a kid in a play. But it was all new, and it was life-changing and different. I was a struggling kid, and then all of a sudden I was in a play. I was happy, I was doing well. The kids thought I was good. I wanted to do more of them. And it was really a galvanizing moment. And when you look at it, I went on to make my living doing that. So I was one of those fortunate kids. It’s a minority of children, youngsters, who find their life’s calling at an early age and end up doing that for their life’s work. But I found it at 16 years old and kept doing it and never stopped.
There’s a story I get very emotional about that I tell. I don’t know if you remember, but it’s West Side Story. I’m one of the kids in the chorus, and I had a small part, but I was so emotionally involved in the whole experience that at the end of the last performance of the play, I just burst into tears. The audience is applauding and we’re supposed to go out for our curtain call, and I’m backstage sobbing. Everybody’s hugging me, and now we’ve got to go out and take our bows. So I go out and the tears are running down my face. It was such a life-changing experience, the emotion just poured out of me. And I was one of the guys in the back, part of the chorus, while the stars of the show were in the front, taking their bows. One of the lead guys, who was a senior, and I was a sophomore, comes back, grabs me and brings me up front. I take a bow with all the stars of the show. He wanted me to do that.
Cooper: Did you ever talk to him again?
Sinise: I haven’t seen him in a long time, but he went on to become a Hollywood producer and writer. His name’s Jeff Melvoin. Gosh, he did Remington Steele and Army Wives. I’ll send him a copy of the book.
Sinise: I don’t think he even probably remembers that. But it was so significant. Then he went off to Harvard, where he was a big Harvard man. And he liked me because I was so different. He came from an academic family, where everybody went to Harvard. And I was this kid who couldn’t even spell. He was amused by me.
So we became pals. And then one of the other guys who was in that show became one of my best friends, Jeff Perry, and he and I started the Steppenwolf Theater Company. That’s Jeff right there. [points to picture]
Martirosyan: That’s pretty funny.
Sinise: Yeah. We’re in a big pair of overalls.
Cooper: There was a movie that the Farrelly brothers did where they were conjoined twins.
Sinise: Yeah, it kind of looks like that. We got the biggest pair of overalls we could find, and we played a two-headed character. (laughs) We went to high school together.
Cooper: Like that? (laughs)
Sinise: (laughs) No, he is one of my best friends. He is like my brother. He was on that TV show called Scandal.
Cooper: Did you happen to see Colbert last night? Ethan Hawke is doing a play. He mentioned you, I think, twice, giving you credit and saying that you came to see him.
Sinise: Ethan? Aw!
Cooper: Yeah, it was pretty cool.
Sinise: Ethan and I did a movie together. There’s a poster with his picture out here. We did the movie in 1991, and then became pals. I directed a play in 1995, I asked Ethan to come and be in that play.
Cooper: He’s doing something now, and apparently you must have done that play at some point or directed a play?
Sinise: I wonder what—
Cooper: It’s something West.
Sinise: True West? He’s doing True West? That’s the play that sent our theater company into kind of a national thing. You know who John Malkovich is?
Cooper: Inside the brain of John Malkovich?
Martirosyan: Being John Malkovich.
Sinise: John was part of our theater group. We did this play together called True West. I wrote about it in the book. It was the first play that we took to New York, and a lot of these young actors, like Ethan and a bunch of these other guys, all came to see that play. It made a big impression on them.
Cooper: He seems to be doing it now. He was talking about his beard, saying how uncomfortable it was, because he had to keep it on for the play.
Sinise: Oh, he’s got to be playing the older brother, then, the one Malkovich played.
Cooper: He’s in the Billboard playbook poster. There are two people on the cover..
Sinise: Yeah, two brothers.
Cooper: OK. He’s the one with the beard.
Sinise: It’s about two brothers. There’s a younger brother and an older brother. So if he’s got a beard, he’s playing the older brother, because he’s scruffy. The younger brother’s kind of nerdy. That’s the one I played.
Martirosyan: How involved are you in theater now?
Sinise: Not at all, except for a little bit for my theater company. But I’ll tell you, the last play I did was One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest on Broadway. We started it at Steppenwolf, and it’s a long time ago now—2000 when I did it at Steppenwolf and 2001 when I did it on Broadway. It closed about five weeks before the September 11th attacks. It was supposed to close on September 16th, and it closed the end of July. So if it had closed when it was supposed to, I would have been there at that time. So I went back to Los Angeles, and then September 11th happened, and somethin’ changed. We started deploying our troops to Afghanistan, they started getting hurt and killed. And a short while later, we deployed to Iraq. They started getting hurt and killed. I have so many veterans in my family, and I’d worked with veterans in the ’80s, the ’90s, after I played the Vietnam veteran in Forrest Gump. I got very involved with our wounded, and after that happened I just—I don’t know. (pause) I started volunteering all over the place to support our folks who were getting hurt and who were out there. One thing led to another, and I got more and more involved with lots of different organizations that were trying to help the troops. I was a television star at that point and had a platform, so I could show up at an event and it would be special. People would come, and they would be able to raise more money for their cause. I saw that as a way to serve, by helping these organizations, taking my band overseas and playing for the troops, going to the hospitals—all that kind of stuff.
It eventually galvanized in my brain and came together that the next logical step for me would be to create my own organization, because I wanted the means to do more, to help more people. I’d seen too many kids without mothers or fathers who were killed in the war. I’d seen too many of our wounded missing limbs, burned up. I’d seen too much of that. I knew that also when I would show up at these different events at hospitals or holding concerts, spirits would be raised. It would be a better day. I could see I was making an impact. I was able to make a difference.
Having seen that over and over, at a certain point I said, “I’m not going to pull back on this stuff, but I think I need a better way to do it, a more focused channel for my energies.” And that would be to start my own organization. By the time I started my own foundation, the Gary Sinise Foundation, I’d been at this for a full 10 years, and I had developed a fairly strong reputation as being somebody reliable with regard to helping our military and our veterans out. So people were always asking me, “Where should I donate my money? Which organization should I help?” I’d say, “Do you want to help Gold Star families? Do you want to help our wounded? Do you want to help raise spirits? Do you want to help older veterans? What do you want to do?” I’d point them to different organizations.
And then when I started my own, I just said, “Give it to me.”
“We’ll take good care of it.” And we do. We work with a lot of different people on a lot of different fronts, because that’s what I was doing before I had my own foundation. We’re building homes for our wounded, providing opportunities for our World War II veterans, we’re taking care of Gold Star children, we’re working with our first responders, we’re providing resiliency and appreciation events, so the people who are serving our country know that whether they’re on the front pages or not, we don’t forget what they do in defense of our nation and that we support them. So I’m a grateful American in that way, for sure. I know where my freedom comes from. It has to be fought for and protected. I’ve been to too many places around the world that don’t understand what that is.
I tell a story in the book about going to Korea. I’ve been there three or four times. When you go up to the DMZ (Korean Demilitarized Zone), you can stand on the borderline. Here’s North Korea, right there where your feet are, and here’s South Korea, right here. There’s a little concrete thing on the ground about this high, and that’s the border. You can be a North Korean guard standing two feet away from me, and I can be looking at you right in the eye, and you’re a slave and I’m free. I’m on the free side and you’re on the slave side. You’re oppressed by your military. You’re a part of the military that oppresses the people and strikes fear in their hearts that if they don’t toe the line for the Supreme Leader, they might end up in some concentration camp or dead. That’s not being free. The military over here is providing the freedom for everybody in South Korea, supported by the United States of America. I don’t think there’s any place on earth where you can be this close to the difference between freedom and slavery than standing on the DMZ to North Korea.
Cooper: Have you been to New Jersey, though?
Sinise: (laughs) That’s a whole different story! That’s a slavery of another kind. It really is powerful, though. Freedom has to be fought for, protected and defended. We don’t just get to have it. There are too many places on earth that don’t understand what it is. In the history of the world, the way the world has worked, conquest has always been about who had the bigger army, who had more swords, who had the bigger guys.
There are still places on earth that go through that. I really value my freedom. I know where it comes from. I’m grateful for the people who provide it. I know we have to have a strong defense. And I was really rocked by those airplanes going into those buildings and what happened that day, the response and the aftermath, which was a bunch of people raising their hands. I met countless service members where I said, “Why are you in the service?” and they said, “Well, September 11th. I joined after that.” Some of them are missing their arms and legs now. So if they’re going to go do that for me, it’s just part of my life now to try to show my appreciation for them, because so many of them don’t ask for anything.
Cooper: It was so surreal in the book when you talk about how it came full circle, at least for the 9/11 part, on CSI. You had that part at Ground Zero, and from the work you’re doing, all of a sudden you’re an actor and you’re able to pull your pieces together and have that theme there.
Sinise: That was powerful.
Cooper: I didn’t see it on air, but reading about what you said and how it moved you, even now, when you talk about it, to be able to turn around and be there in real life and yet act at the same time.
Sinise: (laughs) It was art imitating life and life becoming art. It was interesting in that way. And it’s even hard now. My show, Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders, went off the air two years ago. I went to a premier for a movie that I have a five-minute part in that a buddy of mine directed about a returning veteran from the Iraq wars, struggling with post-traumatic stress. It’s the only thing I’ve done since my television show went off the air, because I’m so focused on this cause. There’s one chapter in my book called “Perfect Timing.” It’s all about the timing of CSI:NY coming into my life and what that gave me at the time that I was focusing so much of my energy on military support.
And all of a sudden I have a television show, a piece of the action, I’m making more money than I thought I’d ever have. If an organization came in that was supporting Gold Star kids and they needed help, I was able to donate to them, because I had this extra means financially, and I could put that into this organization and build it. The timing of that particular TV show was perfect. God just said, “Here’s a TV show. Do some good with it.” I really felt, in some ways, called right after September 11th to this new thing. I haven’t done a play since. The last play I did was in 2001. Life just took a turn and went somewhere else.
Not that I won’t do something, but it’s rewarding to have an organization that is all about making people feel better. That’s what we do here. We just try to help folks, honor their service, step in when needed, and make them feel better. And there are a lot of causes, a lot of things we can do, to apply ourselves to a service mission, but this is the one that I was called to at that time.
Cooper: How many houses have you built so far?
Sinise: The total number, with where I started before the foundation, because I was raising money to build houses before I had a foundation, all the way up to where we are now with projects that are in the pipeline and projects completed, I think it’s 70-something.
Martirosyan: Oh, wow, that’s great.
Sinise: We have 12 in the pipeline for this year.
Cooper: In Hawaii? That’s a pipeline joke.
Sinise: There are 12 in the queue.
Cooper: Scattered across the country?
Sinise: Yeah, all over. We have projects that are being built right now and new projects that are just getting started where our guys are looking for the land, sitting down with the architects, and designing the houses. To do it properly, we had to have the means to hire professionals. We have a great team of builders who have done a lot of these homes for us now. Their job, with the foundation, is to build houses for our guys, and that requires money, so that’s part of our fundraising, to help provide those experts get the job done. But we also have a lot of in-kind support. The National Wood Flooring Association provides all the flooring. Benjamin Moore Paints provides all the paint. We have a lot of different organizations that step up and provide not only funding but materials for us on our projects.
Cooper: Do all of the houses have visitability built in? Visitability means that residential homes, have one zero-step entrance—it doesn’t have to be the front door—have a hallway that’s wide enough, and a downstairs bathroom that’s accessible.
Sinise: All of our houses are built that way.
Cooper: Great. I’ve seen organizations who have done things similar; they’re helping to build a house for someone who has PTSD, and they forget about the accommodation for others who may have a mobility issue, they only build to that family and they forget about the visitability concept. If your friend wants to visit you, but can’t get up the entrance stairs, then they won’t visit. Georgia was the first state to make it a law. It doesn’t cost much, if you plan ahead. That’s why it’s eventually going to be a federal law.
Sinise: You can see a wide variety of our homes if you go to our website. On our YouTube channel, you’ll see a ton of different videos that show multiple gadgets and gizmos.
Cooper: I think I saw something about a smart home, too.
Sinise: Yeah, they’re all controlled by iPads and your phone. If you’re missing your limbs and forget to lock the door, you’ve already removed your prosthetics, which is a big deal, or get into bed, and say, “I forgot to turn the lights off downstairs.” Just get on the iPad, push a button, and it locks the door so you’re secure. We think about all that stuff and put it into the houses.
They’re really, really neat. Our guys have done enough of them now, and we’ve been through enough scenarios with different wounded folks that we’ve covered a lot of ground.
Cooper: The term “universal design” is the direction where everything will eventually go. It takes into account the height of a person and the location of a switch on the wall. Or the door handle with a lever. Simple things that are universal.
Sinise: I didn’t know the term, but that’s exactly what our guys do. They think of everything, stuff I wouldn’t have thought of they think of because somebody will say, “Where I’m living now, I’ve got a real problem with this switch, this door knob.”
Cooper: Or, “I can’t get the wheelchair under the sink.”
Sinise: Yeah. All that stuff. It’s all perfect in there. The program’s called R.I.S.E—Restoring Independence, Supporting Empowerment. We restore that independence to the wounded service member and to the family members who are caring for them. Everything is made easier. We want them to be comfortable in their home. They have to go out and face the world and it’s challenging out there, because not everything is designed for them, but in their houses we want them to be able to relax.
Cooper: The houses I saw look beautiful.
Martirosyan: I was just thinking about never leaving the house.
Sinise: (laughs) I know. They’re nice. We call them “forever homes.” You’ve got somebody who has a serious injury. We hope that that home provides them, their children, and their grandchildren a really solid place to be for their life.
Cooper: The other term going around in design is “aging in place.” You create a facility, a place, that accommodates as we all get older and our mobility starts to wane.
Sinise: That’s it. We try to think ahead of what’s going to happen when this person might be getting around really well right now, bouncing around with no legs, but what happens when he puts on 25 pounds?
And doesn’t want to do that anymore? We try to think ahead and give them the opportunity to be really secure and independent in their home. Because they’ve done a lot. They’ve given a lot. We’re giving back to them.