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Remember the vets: Gary Sinise on why Memorial Day is special

Gary Sinise

Gary Sinise

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Updated: July 3, 2012 10:47AM

At Steppenwolf Theatre in the early ’80s, I began preparations to direct a play written by a group of Vietnam veterans called “Tracers.” I had seen the play in Los Angeles performed by those same veterans and was deeply moved. But I realized that our cast — myself included —would need to learn more about the Vietnam veteran experience. Having Vietnam vets in my family, and a sense of duty to those who had entrusted me with their work, it was critical that we honor them with a production that would make them proud.

My cast was up for the challenge and agreed to five additional weeks of prep before our three-week rehearsal period began. Among the many workshop activities were our trips to the veteran’s hospital in North Chicago. We spent hours with vets who shared stories of what they’d endured — both on the battlefield and upon their return home. These stories left each of us changed and gave me an even deeper commitment to getting it right. “Tracers” opened in February of 1984.

Vietnam veterans came by the hundreds as the experience became more than a play for them. At the end of one of our performances, we were all deeply touched when one of the veterans stepped onto the stage and presented us with a plaque to thank us for our production. I still have it and it proudly hangs in my office.

Years later, I still carry the weight of that experience in the support I try to give to our veterans through the Gary Sinise Foundation. It’s one of the reasons that our foundation is a proud sponsor of Vets’ Night at Steppenwolf Theatre. From those early “Tracers” days, Steppenwolf has continued a tradition of offering local veterans dinner and a dress-rehearsal performance completely free of charge. It’s just one of the many ways that Steppenwolf and the Gary Sinise Foundation are working together to give back to our nation’s defenders. I am thrilled to support this great Vets’ Night program, as it is a special reminder of that important point in my life.

Last night, I was once again honored to co-host the National Memorial Day concert on PBS with my dear friend and fellow Chicagoan Joe Mantegna. I urge you to set aside some time to reflect on the reason we celebrate this holiday — and to honor the sacrifices of the men and women who gave everything in defense of our freedom.

Gary Sinise donated the $1,000 fee for this column to his foundation.

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