The Oscar-winning film “Forrest Gump,” above all, is an odyssey of innocence, not just a war movie. But much of its emotional impact resonates from a combat brotherhood between Private Gump, played by Tom Hanks, and his commander in Vietnam.
Gary Sinise played Lt. Dan, who tried to protect his young recruits. “Look, it’s pretty basic here; stick with me and learn from that guys who have been in country for a while and you will be all right,” he said.
But Gump soon learns a battlefield is a box of terrors. Gump’s heroics save most of his platoon, including Lt. Dan, who loses both legs. (“I was supposed to die on the field, with honor. That was my destiny. And you cheated me out of it!”)
Lt. Dan forever changes Gump’s life, and our perception of wounded vets.
Sinise said, “He goes into a deep despair and a darkness, A survivors’ guilt: Why did they survive and their buddies did not? And Lieutenant Dan carries that with him.
“I very much wanted to play that part because of the Vietnam veterans in my family,” said Sinise. “And I wanted to pay tribute to it in some way.”
Correspondent Mark Strassmann asked, “People still come up to you on the street and call you Lt. Dan today?”
“Yeah, I’ve had that happen many, many times,” he laughed.
Sinise, who never served in the military, proudly showed Strassmann photos of family members who have. Now he serves injured vets, first responders and their families through The Gary Sinise Foundation.
Since “Forrest Gump” premiered in 1994, battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan have created too many real-life Lt. Dans.
“Some of them have just, like Lieutenant Dan, just tried to disappear, had very serious post-traumatic stress,” he said. “Could not come back, could not function in society in any way, and so they’ve withdrawn.”
Vets like Michael Conner Humphreys. “I struggled. I didn’t accomplish anything for a long time,” he said.
Humphreys, now 34, struggled with PTSD. In 2005 he served for 18 months in Anbar Province, Iraq. He’s just like countless other combat veterans, except that when he was eight, he played the young Forrest Gump.
As a kid in Mississippi, Humphreys had never acted before, but he won an open casting call. “I knew nothing about it. I didn’t even know who Tom Hanks was!” he laughed. “Actually, for the longest time I thought the only reason I was selected for the film was for the accent. Because the accent I had as a kid was a big part of that character.”
Hanks’ challenge? To make the Gump character’s accent sound consistent, as he explained in a 2013 interview: “What has to happen here, I think, is you cast a kid, and then I follow where that kid goes. I would engage him in conversations with a tape recorder and just get their weird kind of cadence.”
Gump’s voice endures in Hollywood history. What stuck with Humphreys about the movie were the combat scenes, shot in South Carolina. And so, after high school and the attacks on 9/11, he enlisted. “I do feel like there was a duty to go do it,” he said. “It’s just part of being a citizen of a country. That’s what you gotta do.”
“Gump wasn’t on your uniform,” said Strassmann. “How quickly did it take people to figure it out?”
“About three weeks!” Humphreys laughed. “Humphreys rhymes with Gumphrys. I was Gumpy or Gump or Gumhpreys or whatever most of the time.”
But in Iraq, Humphreys learned real combat was nothing like the movies. One-tenth of his brigade was killed. That’s 100 soldiers.
He now lives in Washington State. He teaches, and he’d like to start acting again.
Forrest Gump will always run inside him, but where playing that part led him is, he says, what really matters: “I’m very proud of having been in the military. I actually put that ahead of having been in ‘Forrest Gump’ as far as a significant thing I’ve done in my life.”
As part of his outreach to wounded vets, Sinise formed the Lt Dan Band in 2003. He’s played almost 500 concerts for troops around the world. And he’s proud that Lt. Dan lives on, as a role model of sorts for injured vets. “He’s wealthy at the end of the movie,” Sinise said. “He’s a successful business guy. He’s married again. It’s the story we want for every single combat veteran coming home from the war. We want them to come home and be OK.”
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Story produced by Chris St. Peter.