When soldiers, veterans and military family members meet Gary Sinise, many tend to address him simply as Lt. Dan.
"I'm pretty sure that a lot of them have no idea what my real name is," the actor says.
But that's OK with Sinise, who will pay a visit to North Texas this weekend.
He figures that if people are going to associate him with a past character, Lt. Dan Taylor of the 1994 movie Forrest Gump is a good one.
Lt. Dan was Gump's hard-nosed commanding officer, a soldier who returned from Vietnam disabled and bitter. But because of Gump (the character played by Tom Hanks), Lt. Dan ultimately found a new purpose in life, became successful in business and became a better man.
His uplifting story arc is why the character means a lot to disabled veterans.
"It seems like everybody in the military has seen that movie," Sinise says. "And once I started visiting our troops in the war zones and visiting our wounded in the hospitals, it became clear to me that they connected with the character in a way that I had never expected."
So when Sinise, who was a closet bass player, and his musician buddy Kimo Williams formed a cover band in 2004 to entertain the troops during a USO tour, coming up with the band's name was easy: They're the Lt. Dan Band.
Since their first overseas tour to Korea, Singapore and Diego Garcia, the 13-member band has played an average of 30 to 40 USO shows and benefit concerts every year.
It has virtually become a second career for Sinise. Now it's common for him to work all week as the leading man on the long-running CSI: NY, then hop a plane to some faraway location for a weekend concert to help raise money and awareness for groups like Disabled American Veterans.
Next weekend brings the Lt. Dan Band to North Texas for an event called Sky Ball X, at DFW Airport.
In addition to performing at the black-tie gala, the band will play a free concert Friday for 3,000 military personnel and their families.
Sinise's commitment to veterans' causes dates to the early 1980s, when he was an up-and-coming actor based in Chicago.
"This was prior to the Vietnam Wall [memorial] being built. It was a time when being a Vietnam veteran was not a very popular thing, but they needed our support," he recalls. "Then I played a veteran in Forrest Gump and got involved with the Disabled American Veterans organization and stayed involved with them.
"So prior to Sept. 11, I was already supporting DAV and some local Vietnam veterans' groups in Chicago. Then, once the attack happened and we started deploying our troops, I felt a need and an ability to do something to help our men and women out there."
At first, Sinise would travel to bases overseas for simple meet-and-greets. He'd shake hands, take pictures and sign autographs.
Then he got the idea to put on a show for the troops, in the entertainment tradition of the USO.
He and Williams, a Chicago-based guitar player, had long been getting together for jam sessions whenever Sinise was in town. From those jam sessions with those musicians, the Lt. Dan Band was born.
The band covers a wide range of musical material, from 1940s big-band music, to Beatles and Stevie Wonder classics, to contemporary Kelly Clarkson and Zac Brown Band tunes.
Making a difference
"The more I've done it, the more I realize that it's making a difference," Sinise says. "I've had people come up to me multiple times saying that they've seen me play at six or seven different bases around the world because they happened to be there when I played a concert for them there.
"I've met guys at shows who, years earlier, were wounded when I came through the hospital to visit them. And they tell me how much my visit meant to them at the time.
"It always makes me feel to good to know I did something to help make their lives a little better."
Mind you, Sinise doesn't make any money from doing this.
"The band is just part of an overall mission to give back to our troops and military families," he says. "I'm just doing what I can to entertain them and to build their strength and to help them get through difficult times."