Gary Sinise to perform for Operation Iraqi Children benefit

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Sinise was inspired to start the charity, Operation Iraqi Children, after a USO tour of Iraq, during which he visited with Iraqi school children.

The Lt. Dan Band, named after Sinise’s role in the film “Forrest Gump,” will perform a benefit concert Jan. 30 at The Canyon Club in Agoura Hills to raise money for the organization founded by Sinise.

By Bridget Graham-Gungoren/Special to The Malibu

The role of Lt. Dan in the movie “Forrest Gump” didn’t just earn Gary Sinise an Oscar nomination, it brought him international recognition. Soldiers, citizens and even children all recognize “Lt. Dan,” which inspired him to name the band that he travels with to perform for U.S. troops.

After visiting children in Iraq during his second trip to the Middle East in November 2003, Sinise was also inspired to start Operation Iraqi Children to provide school supply kits assembled by American citizens to Iraqi children, as well as foster goodwill between Iraqi people and American soldiers as they delivered those supplies.

During that trip, Sinise visited a school about 40 miles north of Baghdad that had been rebuilt by the Coalition. “The U. S. troops had built a floor and windows for a school that originally had nothing, and in a school where three or four kids share a pencil,” Sinise said about what he saw that day. “What I saw was wonderful-the interaction between the Iraqi kids and soldiers had a beautiful spirit.”

When he returned to the states, he contacted Our Lady of Malibu School and conducted a school supply drive with the children from the school. The first shipment had 25 boxes of school supplies, and was delivered in March 2004.

Then Sinise partnered with Laura Hillenbrand, author of “Seabiscuit: An American Legend.” “Together we joined forces and started the Web site for people to contribute,” Sinise explained. “We have sent close to 100,000 school supply kits to the children to date.

“The American troops delivering the supplies are building bridges between our forces and future leaders of Iraq, which are the kids,” Sinise said in a phone interview Monday.

The goal of the program is to have groups of people band together and actually put together the school supply kits to be sent to the children of Iraq. The OIC Web site includes specific “ingredients” for what is needed. People can donate money, but the organization prefers the actual kits.

“Our original intention was not to raise money, but to involve the American people and show positive support for American troops,” Sinise explained. “When the kits are sent over to the troops, many have included letters to the troops saying thank you and showing support. It’s important that it comes right from the American people.”

Also included in the kits are pictures that the U.S. children include of themselves. “The Iraqi children see that there are people here that care about them,” Sinise said. “It is a difficult time, and it is important that the people and the soldiers see and hear the positive.”

When the OIC’s first distribution was being prepared, a letter, which is posted on OIC’s Web site, was received from a U.S. soldier in Iraq that shared the excitement of Iraqi citizen and former biology teacher, Ehsan, who wrote, “The country needs education. There are some very smart people in this country, but mostly the population is uneducated and uninformed. The Americans are helping Iraqis change that and that is good.”

Another letter sent by an Iraqi citizen after the children received their kits states, “I want to tell you that all the students today were very happy and you can see the smile on their faces I can’t find the words to explain to you the situation …”

Sinise, who founded Chicago’s famed Steppenwolf Theatre Company and currently stars in CBS’ television drama “CSI: New York,” has always had a passion for music, playing for fun with friends and his own enjoyment over the years. He formed the Lt. Dan Band after his second trip to visit troops in Iraq and he decided to put his name and the band to good use.

“After the second trip to Iraq, I also started traveling with the band to perform for the troops,” Sinise said. “We love playing for the troops.”

The Lt. Dan Band has traveled to Korea, Singapore, Kuwait, Germany and Italy as well as performing for U.S. military bases in Mississippi, North Carolina, Arizona and Orlando. The band will perform Saturday at Port Hueneme, as well, the day before the benefit at The Canyon Club.

“We play everything from Hendrix to Beyonce, and all the stuff in between including Christina Aguillara and Janice Joplin, country, rock, pop and a little bit of blues,” Sinise said. “And the show on the 30th should be a lot of fun.”

The Lt. Dan Band performs at The Canyon Club in Agoura Hills Jan. 30 at 8 p.m. Doors open at 6 p.m. Tickets are a $25 donation. This is an all ages show. All proceeds benefit Operation Iraqi Children. More information and tickets can be obtained by calling 818.879.5016.

More information about sending school supplies and other urgently needed items can be obtained from the Web site, www.operationiraqichildren.org; and to read about Sinise’s band: www.ltdanban.com