Lending a Hand
By Bill Gerdes
In 2010, Juan Dominguez was patrolling in Sangin, Afghanistan when he stepped on a 30-pound underground bomb that sent him hurtling through the air. Other Marines came across him in minutes and kept him alive—barely—but he had lost his left arm and both legs.
After eventually receiving medical attention, Pvt. Dominguez ended up a triple amputee. And eventually he was told he would return home. He has.
Today, a benefit concert will feature actor (and bassist) Gary Sinise—who played Lt. Dan Taylor, an Army officer who loses both his legs in Forrest Gump—and his headlining band in Temecula. The band’s name? The Lt. Dan Band.
The show may not be at Coachella, but it’s for the ultimate worthwhile cause.
And it’s a hero’s welcome home.
Gary Sinise has always cared about veterans and the military, although it was his experience acting in the Oscar-winning Forrest Gump that in many ways crystallized the way he felt about our nation’s returning soldiers. Part of that had to do with the nature of his role, Lt. Dan, whose life is saved by Tom Hank’s Forrest Gump and spends much of the rest of the film wishing that Gump hadn’t. Lt. Dan also becomes a double-amputee in the film and that also got Sinise thinking he could do something for returning soldiers who have quite literally given themselves for their country.
As Sinise puts it, “I got involved with the D.V.A. (Disabled Veterans of America) after I played one in the movie.
Fortunately during the ’90s there were very few new amputee soldiers returning from foreign wars.
And then Sept. 11 happened and suddenly troops began deploying to Afghanistan and then later Iraq. Suddenly there were more and more soldiers returning home missing arms, legs—or both. Sinise and groups dedicated to injured veterans faced a challenge not seen since the Vietnam War. Yet it was also he says, “A natural extension of what I’d been doing.” Much of this work has been done through Sinise’s charitable foundation, the Gary Sinise Foundation, whose mission statement is dedicated to honoring “our defenders, veterans, first responders, their families and those in need.”
Sinise is a patriotic, heartfelt and genuine guy.
He therefore couldn’t help but be moved and impressed when he met Frank Siller while on location for CSI: NY. Siller, who lost his brother in the Sept. 11 attacks, is instrumental in the charity Tunnel to Towers, another group dedicated to helping wounded vets, first responders and others who have put their lives on the line over the last 11 years
Sinise was originally approached by FDNY Commissioner Sal Cassano about doing something to help Brendan Marrocco, the first soldier in U.S. history to survive a quadruple-amputation. As Sinise describes it, “He asked me to get involved in the project for Brendan and that’s how I met Frank Siller.”
It was this collaboration that led to the idea of Sinise and the Lt. Dan Band putting on shows to benefit the severely wounded and to eventually build “smart houses” for them. A “smart house” is basically a home with highly advanced automatic functions that are coordinated by a computer system. They are especially helpful for people with disabilities.
Today’s concert is intended to help raise money to build a “smart house” for Cpl. Juan Dominguez.
Quick aside: On some level this is a political cause for Sinise. He is one of the more prominent conservatives in Hollywood, which has always been labeled fairly or unfairly as a liberal bastion, okay, probably fairly. Quirkily it’s always been Hollywood conservatives who have won elections—think Reagan, think Arnold—and one can’t help but ponder if Sinise has political aspirations. Yet his interest in veterans seems to be that rarest of things in America today, a cause untainted by noxious politicking.
Most of his political fervor seems to come from what he sees as the paradigm shift in the world after Sept. 11. But he’s no firebrand politically and he projects a calm, reflective patriotism when I talk to him.
Perhaps the most political comment he makes is when he tells me that, “We can’t let what happen to the Vietnam veterans ever happen again.”
This is hardly a radical opinion though and it’s one most Americans would support. I came away from talking with Sinise impressed with his zeal to help these men who have given so much.
He surely doesn’t have to give his time this way; many actors don’t after all.
Many of us have a story to tell about where we were on Sept. 11, whether we were in Manhattan itself, watched events unfold on television or were out of the country and experienced the attack from a distance. Few of us can match the gut-wrenching day that Frank Siller and the rest of the Siller family experienced. On the morning of Sept. 11, Stephen Siller, the youngest child in the Siller clan was driving home from his job as a fireman when he heard the news about the attack over the radio. Stephen turned his car around, drove back to his local firehouse, Squad 1 in Brooklyn, and then drove furiously toward Manhattan and the towers. The Brooklyn tunnels were closed for security reasons, full of abandoned cars and people fleeing back to Brooklyn, but Stephen strapped on his gear and ran through the tunnel to the Twin Towers where he eventually died.
He was, as Frank Siller says, “The baby brother,” and his loss devastated the Siller family.
Yet the family was inspired too.
Siller says, “We were so moved and distraught by what happened we wanted to honor his legacy and so we started the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation.”
With Frank Siller as chairman of the organization, what followed was a cornucopia of giving, first with orphans, then burn centers, then children who had lost a parent in the service. An integral part of the foundation is an annual run that retraces Stephen’s trek that day, a run that ends poignantly at Ground Zero where Stephen died. In 2011, on the 10-year anniversary of the attack, over 30,000 people participated in the race, along with participants in 31 other cities.
Meeting Brendan Marrocco was an epiphany of sorts. The quadruple-amputee’s sacrifice was so inspiring that when Siller and he met, the Tunnel to Towers chairman offered to build him a “smart house” then and there. “Building a house in New York isn’t cheap, though,” Siller explains.
The question became how to pay for the smart house; the answer came when Siller remembered Gary Sinise’s interest in wounded vets . . . and that he had a band. He then asked his friend, Commissioner Cassano, to ask Sinise if his band would play for Marrocco.
And as Siller describes, “Gary said, ‘Yes.’ And we started our friendship and our bond and our commitment to the military through this project.”
Unfortunately, Marrocco wasn’t alone—there were several other men who had become triple- and quadruple-amputees. At dinner one night, Sinise asked Siller, “Well, you’re building a house for Brendan, what are you going to do for them?”
Looking at Frank Siller it’s not hard to guess what his answer would be. He radiates a sort of quiet confidence and if someone were to make a film about Siller’s life, they would almost have to hire Siller to play himself. He’s an imposing figure, with an angular face, silvery hair combined with a salt and pepper goatee——the overall effect projects an aura of resolved determination. It’s not a face you’d want as an enemy. However, if he is on your side Siller, is one dedicated hombre.
And Siller is on the side of the many severely wounded soldiers who have returned from battle over the last 10 years.
Tonight is really about Lance Cpl. Juan Dominguez of the United States Marine Corps. Wounded that day in Afghanistan, the serviceman described the experience to a SoCal news station as a “Saving Private Ryan moment where everything was in slow motion . . . I was screaming for God to take the pain away. I was saying, ‘Please, if you are going to take me, take me now.’”
His fellow Marines saved him, although it was touch and go-one. A Navy Corpsman refused to give Dominguez morphine because he theorized it might send him into shock. It may have prolonged his agony; it may have saved his life.
Back in the States, Dominguez faced round after round of grueling surgeries . . . and the question of what to do now. He had his mother to help him—she rarely left his bedside for 16 months.
“She is a strong woman,” he told the news station. “She had to clean me, shave me, teach me . . . God wanted me alive for a reason. I am trying to figure out what he wants me to do every day.”
Part of Dominguez’s new mission is to care for his daughter; something that a “smart” house designed to respond to his voice will help immeasurably in. For many severely wounded veterans it’s technology like this that will enable them to achieve what they want the most: independence and ability to look after themselves and the ones they love—in Juan Dominguez’s case, his daughter.
Dominguez has already done some amazing things since his injury, such as completing a Marine marathon and learning to play the piano.
But his most amazing accomplishment might simply be getting back to as “normal” a life as possible.
Today’s concert—with some help from “Lt. Dan”—may go a long way toward helping him do just that.
Benefit concert for Lance Cpl. Juan Dominguez feat. Gary Sinise’s Lt. Dan Band w/The Brewer Boys and Danny Rodriguez “America’s Singing Cop” at Town Square Park at Civic Center, 41000 Main St., Temecula, (866) 653-8696; temeculatheater.org; www.tunneltotowers.org; www.garysinisefoundation.org. Thurs, March 1. 7PM. Tickets start at $30.