GARY SINISE

 

GARY SINISE

by Greg Meakin

photo credit Blake Little

War heroes come in many shapes and sizes. In America’s young history, there is an ages-old tradition of honoring those who served our country, fought for our country, were wounded for our country – or sadly, gave their lives for our country.

Most U.S. citizens have not had to experience war first-hand. Whether we acknowledge it or not, most of us simply go about our daily lives during wartime. Our participation is limited to watching the evening news updates, listening to politicians decry its nobility, or newscasters decrying its folly. Otherwise, it’s business as usual for most of us.

During Viet Nam, for the first time ever, the Usher-of-Technology guided us to our seats – brand new seats of a brand new era. Front-row center, nice and comfy in our living rooms, we were able to actually witness the horror of war. Albeit through a small, sometimes flickering television screen.

The daily carnage we watched in nightly news reports in the 1960s and 70s – and the gruesome photos and film footage in full color display of a deadly truth – shed a new light on war for most of us.

War became real.

Some Americans fought with guns. Some, like Captain Ronald Reagan, fought with movie cameras. Brand icon Rosie the Riveter fought with a wrench.

Gary Sinise fights with a guitar.

A guitar, a big heart, and a packed schedule of devotion to our men and women in uniform.

Sinise, like most of us civilians, did not serve in the military. Even today, according to Gary himself, only one-in-fifty Americans serve. Although my own family has a rich and long history of military service – in the American, Canadian, and British armies, navies and air forces dating back to the 1700s – I have not worn the uniform. The closest I got was Sea Scouts when I was 14. We wore blue uniforms with sailor hats. We were cool.

NOTE:  – In 1974, when I was 15, my Canadian mother in Montreal marched me and my brother down to the Canadian Embassy. Bob and I were born in the U.S. My mom wanted to guard against us ever being drafted, so she insisted on Canadian Citizenship for us – on the spot. We were entitled to immediate citizenship, being Landed Immigrants from the late 1950s. In my 20s, I was drawn to return to the states, to live the American Dream – and was much more interested in business, sports, and women (in that order) than enlisting in any military for any country! In retirement, I have committed to serve the military with pen in hand (aka keyboard) – and fundraising as a personal mission!

Of all the non-veterans out there, Gary Sinise could be easily mistaken for a military man – especially since playing the memorable role of the legless Lieutenant Dan, of Forrest Gump lore.

With a marauding commitment to give back to our beloved soldiers, Gary Sinise is a globetrotting ambassador of love and care. A lifelong musician, he formed a band in 2003 which is an official program of his Gary Sinise Foundation.

Not coincidentally, the band is called the Lt. Dan Band – and the rock group and its Leader trek tirelessly throughout the year – to stateside military bases and hospitals, and frequent overseas voyages to visit and entertain his beloved troops.

And boy, do the troops love Gary. Just peek at YouTube sometime and you’ll see.

Sinise has close ties with the USO, and makes dedicated USO appearances. In this way, Gary Sinise is a Bob Hope of today’s generation of warriors. (This comparison is only for us old folks who remember Bob Hope!).

The USO office in Seattle is a non-descript area at Sea-Tac Airport, on the second floor. It serves as a rest stop, layover haven, travel assistant, and other services of comfort for our traveling military members.

A few years ago, during a business visit, I glanced at the reception area of the USO office. There sat a lone guitar, casually leaning up against one of the couches. It sits there, with a sort of silent dignity. It quietly awaits a weary soldier who wants a normal, peaceful moment, just strumming a guitar.

The guitar belongs to Gary Sinise. He left it at the Seattle USO years ago – for the troops. The Executive Director of this USO branch is Commander Donald Leingang, a retired Navy helicopter pilot, and nice guy. After visiting with the commander years ago, it occurred to me that if I ever directed a movie, I would have Don play himself. That kind of guy.

When asked last week about the guitar by telephone, he said “It’s just there for anyone to use. Gary wanted it that way.”

Without being asked, Don Leingang confirms it’s still there. “I’m looking right at it.” he declared. Having met and spoken with Leingang a number of times over the years, his tone of voice seemed a little more serious than usual. A little more, well, formal.

I wasn’t sure if he was looking at the guitar, or guarding it.

The guitar sits quietly, to this day. It doesn’t expect to be asked for autographs. Doesn’t even make a sound, really. It just patiently waits to serve a traveling soldier. It knows that even a little strumming comfort can go a long way in a weary warrior’s journey to yet another next destination – home, deployment, rehabilitation for emotional or physical injury, or other ports of call.

Sinise Guitar
Photo credit USO NW

That guitar is Gary Sinise. I can just see him sitting there. Maybe reading a military magazine, or maybe Rolling Stone mag. Or just watching the soldiers come and go. The epitome of humility, the man on the couch seeks not fame, or even attention.

Sinise just sits (a bit like Andy Dufresne of Shawshank Redemption) with that little Gary smile of his. It verges on a smirk – but Sinise has always been charming enough to get away with it. He’s one of those guys, like we’ve all known, who’s tough to dislike.

But there he sits, ready and eager to comfort a traveling soldier; to help a wounded soldier; to honor a soldier who has paid the ultimate price for our country – or to recognize our angel First Responders who have saved countless American lives over the years.

I am looking forward to writing more about Sinise. He is far more enriched a character, and accomplished a man, than a mere 1400 words or so can portray. In the near future, I will be writing a full profile, and presenting him with my symbolic Maslow Award.

The more I learn about this actor I’ve only known on a big (and little) screen – the more I feel compelled to recognize his amazing career, his endless awards and accomplishments, and especially his role-model humility and class.

In the meantime, I personally wish to thank not only Gary Sinise, but also Commander Leingang, and all the other wonderful folks who devote so much time and energy to such a priceless cause – and to such a worthy group; our men and women in uniform.

I urge readers to visit Gary’s websites, GarySinise.com, and his wonderful Foundation, GarySiniseFoudation.org.

I encourage everyone to contribute in any way possible – your time, your money, or just a loving heart – to Gary’s foundation, to the USO, and to other organizations who fill key voids in the often fragile world of a soldier.

Thank you, Gary. Thank you for your tireless efforts, your endless commitment to our troops, and your boundless energy delivering the message. The message of love from deep in the hearts of the American People.

Attention all military personnel, and Gary Sinise:  You are truly loved and appreciated.

Salutes. From all Americans.

Copyright © 2018 Greg Meakin

gregmeakin2020@gmail.com

 

February 16, 2018
Exclusive to Secrets from the Inside
_____________________________________________________

Greg Meakin is a retired businessman, author and publisher who grew up in Montreal, and has lived in the Seattle area since 1983. Smartest and funniest guy you’ll ever meet, and is versed in seemingly all subject matters.

He now lives in Castle Rock, WA – a happy Empty Nester, with his wife Deborah, their two dogs, and four cats.

I’ve been best friends with Greg for more than 50 years. He’s an amazing writer– the best I’ve ever known. See his full Bio and Published Works at GregMeakin.com, or check out his new Online eMagazine, SecretsFromTheInside.com.

– Derek Gatehouse, Montreal

ThePerfectSalesForce.com

 

John Thompson

JohnThompson_0005 (1)            047899_scan (1)

Picture of John Thompson, and his grandfather as a 15-year old soldier in November 1916

John Thompson is a Canadian military historian in Toronto. This is an article he wrote about his grandfather in WW1, exclusively for Secrets from the Inside. It is fascinating. John is a virtual encyclopedia of wartime, and will be a regular contributor here
 
John was one of the first people I contacted when selecting contributors to the Military section of Secrets from the Inside. I have followed his military history accounts and reflections for a few years, and I never get tired of hearing the amazing stories he shares. The story here is an exclusive to Secrets from the Inside, and is an amazing account of his then 15-year old grandfather trying to join the military.

Born to an RCAF family (Royal Canadian Air Force), John Thompson served in the Canadian Army (Reserves) for 13 years and spent over 30 years in defence-related think-tanks.  He is also the author of Spirit over Steel:  A Chronology of the Second World War and an enthusiastic “semi-pro” military historian, as he describes himself. And most importantly, John is a nice guy, whose mission is to preserve our priceless military history for our younger generations.

 


What did Grandpa Do in the Great War?

by John Thompson

Veterans are often reluctant to say too much to their own families, or anyone else, and it often takes a skilled interviewer to get past the formulaic responses. If one is looking for candid and explicit memories of combat, you are not likely to get them except, perhaps, when the veteran is well up in years and sees that final muster looming ahead.  

I have been a soldier, but my time spanned the most peaceful 13-year period the Canadian Army had known since between the World Wars. Sure, we thought we might have to perhaps duke it out with the Soviets, but it is just as well that we were never fully initiated into the Mysteries of Soldiering. My own personal joke is that I had to wait until I was a civilian again before anyone ever shot at me.

This isn’t enough to get veterans to really open up about what combat is like, but then I got used to that as a child.

As a six-year old boy, I learned that my grandfather, “Papa” John Conn had served in WW1. So, when I next saw Papa Conn I was bursting with questions about heroic adventures. All I got was an incredulous look; he never said much as a rule and even less about his wartime experiences. Many, even most, other Canadian families got the same response to any questions about the war.

Papa died the next year as quietly and carefully as he did most things. He felt a heart-attack coming on while driving in BC, pulled over to the side of the road, told Nana “I’ll be going now”– and did. My mother and her sisters never heard any tales of his WW1 service, although they knew his older brother George died during the war, and they lost another uncle in the RCAF in August 1943.

Likewise, my father had few tales from his older brothers when they came home in 1945. That same year I attempted to quiz Papa, I heard one of my uncles screaming in his sleep (sharing my bedroom on a family visit) when a thunderstorm took him back to that terrible 1944 summer in Normandy. We never knew what that nightmare was based on. With no family accounts, the wartime experiences of relatives quietly faded.

Pat’s only combat story related to my father was a complex one about a shared moment of understanding with a wounded Fallshirmjäger, but that’s another tale for another day. Whatever else befell him between D-Day and VE-Day is something he always kept to himself. But I learned early that my grandfather’s reticence was by no means unusual.

It was a chance remark from my mother that set us on the trail of Papa Conn a few years ago. A written reference in a family filing cabinet to her uncle, George Conn, prompted the comment “Oh yes, he joined the Army and was killed a few months later.” My siblings and I wanted to know more.

We found the Attestation Papers for the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) online through the Archives of Canada. George joined up at the onset of the war in August 1914 and entered the 13th Battalion of the CEF. I knew enough history to know what happened to them at Ypres in April 1915 and resorted to the website that supports our Book of Remembrance in the Peace Tower.  

Just to be sure, I made an inquiry about great uncle George through the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Sure enough, George fell in 1915 at Second Ypres.  

It was a hard day for the 13th. They held against the German’s first massive attack of their Spring Offensive — supported by gas for the first time in the war — but lost over half of their men. That stretch of the Western Front was fought over continually and George Conn’s remains were churned over and over in the next three and a half years. He has no known grave and his name is engraved on the Menin Gate in Ypres with 55,000 other missing men.

I’ve since been to the Menin Gate, which is what passes for George Conn’s resting place, and walked over the lines they held that day, knowing his bones were probably somewhere nearby in that thick fertile soil, a short walk to the north and east of Saint Julien.  

Now it seemed time to unravel Papa Conn’s mysteries. The first one was a simple question: ‘What the hell was he doing in France in the first place?”  He had been born the very first day of the 20th Century, and in WW-1 (and WW-2), Canadians had to be 18 to enlist and wouldn’t be sent overseas until 19. How did a 15-year old boy get to into the war in late 1916?

Careful reading revealed much. George joined up at the onset of the war in August 1914, and his little brother tried to go with him. He pointed out he was in the band in the local militia regiment, and probably hoped there might be room for a drummer boy. One can imagine the reaction: “No thanks kid, we’re not accepting 13-year old boys, next!”

Two weeks after George was killed Papa tried again. This might have even been his immediate reaction when the ‘Regrets’ Telegram arrived at the family home; by family accounts, the two brothers were close. It didn’t work. In 1916, almost a year to the day, Papa tried again and added three years to his age and got vague about his birth place. Still no luck – for a start, the town they lived in only had one recruiting office.

Papa’s fourth attempt was also phony and it succeeded., it seemed he waited his time until somebody else was running the office and made his attempt. At my elbow, I have a photo of my 15-year old grandfather in uniform on his way to France in 1916. He ended up with the Canadian Forestry Corps – uniformed lumberjacks – and that is all he ever said about his time in WW1.

Still, I ordered a copy of my grandfather’s service record from the Archives of Canada.  These are mostly online now, but only a few years ago, one still had to order a paper copy and pay a modest fee for it.

Papa’s service showed things that he had never told his family. John Conn was in the Forestry Corps, but this was #10 company in the Somme Valley. The Foresters did a lot more than cut down trees, and often hauled ammunition and constructed new defence lines or salvaged equipment from battlefields. The Archives of Canada have online war diaries for many of the units of the CEF.

As the crises of 1918 came up, #10 Company spent an increasing amount of time on infantry training and got combed out for replacements. New men coming in included Russians trapped by the Revolution, Chinese labourers, and even German POWs. After two years of being on the edge of the Front, Private Conn finally went (in the jargon of the US Civil War) “to see the Elephant” up close.

On 1st October 1918, Papa Conn got reassigned to the 4th Battalion of the CEF. The new draft was immediately farmed out to the rifle companies. After weeks of virtually ceaseless offensives since the August 8th battle at Amiens, Canada’s infantry battalions desperately needed reinforcements. Papa got sent to a rifle company and found himself going forward in the last weeks of fighting.

The war diary for the 4th reveals gas attacks, shell-fire, and deadly encounters with German rearguards while trudging in ankle deep mud and near-constant rain. Unusually for Canadians in WW1, they also found themselves as liberators, entering village after village of starving French women, children and elderly men. The Germany of 1918 wasn’t feeding French civilians behind their lines. The War Diary notes that despite acute supply difficulties, the 4th shared their rations with the desperate civilians.

Fatigue, cold, dampness, and hunger apparently exposed Papa to the Spanish ‘flu – then making the rounds for a second time. When the 4th Battalion went into reserve, my grandfather was rushed to the rear on the sick list.

In Papa’s records it was a pleasure to note that there was no stoppage in his pay – which is a sure sign of time either spent in detention or in a VD clinic. That suggests that this young soldier was well-behaved.  He also only got one only long leave in two years, and headed to kinfolk in Scotland.

There was one mystery to unravel. Most of the Canadian Expeditionary Force was still stuck overseas well into 1919. The Halifax Explosion had left the city with the capacity to rail about 30,000 men every month, so homecomings from Europe were still going on in June.  Papa, however, was back home at the end of February 1919. How did that happen?

Two clues emerged from a re-examination of his service records. About a week after the Armistice was signed, John Conn started a rapid repatriation further back from the hospital instead of returning to the 4th Battalion. Within six weeks he was in a transit camp awaiting shipment back across the Atlantic. His release medical contained the necessary clue. It was the only document in his service package with his real birthdate on it.

As far as I can tell, once he was sure that the Germans really had thrown in the towel, he had a conversation with some sergeant somewhere that contained the words “I shouldn’t be here, I’m only 17!”.   

Unravelling this story had another lasting effect. You never know what you might find until you start looking; and there are thousands and thousands of families with stories of their own to unlock. My great uncle and grandfather whetted an appetite for WW1 history. Over the years, I have seen many names on memorial plaques and records — some dating back a century and more — and they all have stories to tell.

I hope everyone, especially young people, learn these priceless stories of relatives who served in the military, decades and centuries past. It is often eye-opening, to say the least.