Few civilians are as revered by the military community as actor Gary Sinise.
Well known from his portrayal of Lieutenant Dan in the 1994 film “Forrest Gump,” Sinise credits his initial awareness of the psychic and physical trauma experienced in combat to the Vietnam veteran brother of his then-future wife. Though not one himself, Sinise’s efforts on behalf of veterans have earned him plaudits.
In a partnership announced Feb. 16, Sinise is teaming up with Bernie Marcus and Arthur Blank – The Home Depot co-founders who both have made hundreds of millions in philanthropic donations over the years — to care for veterans and first responders suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, and substance abuse.
The billionaires are contributing $20 million each from their personal foundations to support the Gary Sinise Foundation Avalon Network, which will build on work done by the Marcus Institute for Brain Health and the Boulder Crest Foundation’s Warrior PATHH (Progressive and Alternative Training for Healing Heroes) program, to establish 20 sites nationwide to serve veterans, first responders and their families. The name Avalon is a reference to the island where the legendary British King Arthur was taken to heal after his final battle.
Marcus said of Sinise, “He’s been a great and enthusiastic supporter of these people, who put their lives on the line, and he recognizes, along with us, that this invisible demon of post-traumatic stress and brain injury has one in three [veterans] suffering this malady, along with first responders. I can’t think of a better person to have out front” on this issue, Marcus said.
The Veterans Administration reports that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are responsible for increased numbers of traumatic brain injuries. The U.S. Defense Department estimates that 22 percent of all combat wounds from those conflicts are brain injuries, compared with 12 percent of combat wounds from the Vietnam War.
This is first time that Marcus and Blank have partnered since they co-founded The Home Depot. “He’s kind of gone his way. I’ve kind of gone my way,” Marcus said. “On this we are on the same page. We have the same thought, the same desires, the same beliefs. It’s great to be back together. The two of us leverage each other. With Sinise, we can get the best out of this,” he continued.
“Arthur and I, together at Home Depot, we recognized how important the military was to us,” Marcus said. He expressed pride in the company’s efforts, then and now, to employ veterans and aid their transition from military to civilian life.
In the announcement last week about the Avalon project, Blank said, “I couldn’t be more pleased to partner with Bernie Marcus again to support a cause that’s important to both of us, the well-being of the individuals in our armed forces and our first responders. We’ve found the perfect partner in the Gary Sinise Foundation to scale this idea into a national network that will provide cutting-edge care and improve the quality of life for our nation’s heroes in one of the most critical times in our history.”
The 20 centers include the Marcus Institute for Brain Health in Colorado. Its website states that it cares for veterans and retired athletes “struggling with mild to moderate traumatic brain injuries (including concussion) and changes in psychological health.”
Another center is the SHARE Military Initiative at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, a program established in 2008 by a grant through The Marcus Foundation. That program provides a range of therapies and counseling at no cost to the veterans and their families, which Marcus said will be the case at all of the Avalon Network sites.
Marcus added that sites connected to Tulane University in New Orleans, the University of Florida in Jacksonville, and the Jefferson University Hospitals in Philadelphia will open this year, with potentially two more during 2021. The existing programs at the Marcus Institute for Brain Health and at Boulder Crest have proven track records, he said. “We’re hoping that in five years . . . we’ll be able to take care of 10,000 veterans a day.”
Marcus served four years in the Air National Guard in the period of the Korean War in the early 1950s. “I appreciate the military,” he said. “These young people have put their lives on the line and, frankly, when they leave the service, they’re not getting the support they need.” He noted that the estimate of nearly 20 veterans a day committing suicide is a figure that has not changed over the past two decades.
Sinise’s foundation previously joined with the Marcus and Home Depot foundations to build smart homes for catastrophically wounded veterans.
In a 2015 speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Sinise said: “As a young teenager in high school, I was not paying much attention to what our Vietnam veterans, many just slightly older than I, were going through. But listening to them, I felt a sense of guilt at having been so unaware. So, in the mid-80s, I began supporting local Vietnam veterans’ groups in the Chicago area, and, over the years, have tried to do my best to welcome them home as our country had neglected to do that at the conclusion of the war.”
Sinise’s efforts on behalf of first responders stem from his friendships with members of the Fire Department of New York he met after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center towers in New York City.