LANSING | The man who gained worldwide fame as Forrest Gump’s "Lt. Dan" paid tribute Sunday to the sacrifices of real-life Vietnam veterans.
In front of a packed crowd, actor Gary Sinise presented a $15,000 donation toward Lansing Veterans Memorial renovation costs.
Dozens of veterans stood in front of the memorial's wall as he signed autographs before speaking to the crowd.
Sinise told the crowd that small town memorials were crucial to ensuring young people "understand what service and sacrifice is."
“I think educating our young people — as to the cost of freedom and sacrifices that are made — is critical,” he said.
“And, these local small town memorials that honor their fallen are critical to ensuring that future generations understand what service and sacrifice is and what the cost of our precious freedom really is.”
The memorial’s Salute to Vietnam Veterans program Sunday marked the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War.
Memorial founder Tom Luberda said Sinise’s appearance and celebrity were helpful to draw attention to efforts to fix up the memorial.
Part of the memorial near the Ford Hangar at Lansing Municipal Airport includes a mounted Huey helicopter and a wall with the names of at least 145 servicemen and women, mostly from Chicago and the south suburbs who died in battle from the Civil War through Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Luberda said he eventually hopes to add at least three statutes near its Huey helicopter, another on the hill and cover the costs of adding additional names to the wall.
Sinise’s donation is a product of a decades-long involvement with the memorial and friendship between himself and Luberda.
They met in the early 1980s after Sinise’s Chicago-based theater company Steppenwolf was giving free tickets for a Vietnam War-themed play to veterans.
Both said Sinise was involved in raising money when the memorial was originally built in the 1980s.
"This is a part of the early history of me getting involved with Vietnam veterans here," Sinise said.
Sinise said his education of the struggles of Vietnam veterans coming home from war was courtesy of his wife's brothers and other family.
Their experiences showed “what it was like when they came home to a divided nation that didn’t care for them or appreciate them,” he said.
Sinise has been a longtime supporter of veterans issues. The Gary Sinise Foundation was created in 2011 to support causes aiding veterans, first responders and their families.
He also was in Wheaton on Saturday to perform as part of his annual Lt. Dan Band concert for the "10th Rockin' for the Troops" concert at Cantigny Park.
Sinise presented the check on behalf of himself, his wife and the foundation.
Luberda said he hopes to raise additional funds.
“He’s always had other dreams for you know doing different things with the memorial. Funding just wasn’t available,” Sinise said after his speech.
“I wanted to have a little moment where we could hand off some funding to restore the memorial,” he said, “and then you know where I could say thank you to the Vietnam veterans here.”