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By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, May 5, 2006 – Actor and director Gary Sinise and his Lt. Dan Band rocked the Pentagon today, kicking off the second annual "America Supports You" salute concert commemorating Military Appreciation Month.
"You probably think of Gary Sinise as 'Lieutenant Dan' in 'Forest Gump,' or on 'CSI: New York," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told hundreds of soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and civilian employees who gathered here in the Pentagon's outdoor courtyard for the concert.
But at the Defense Department, Rumsfeld said, Sinise is better known as cofounder of the Iraqi Children Fund that sends school supplies to Iraqi children, and as a tireless supporter of the troops who travels the with his band to entertain them. Just before today's concert, Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England presented Sinise the Superior Public Service Award in honor of these contributions. "He's a superstar!" Rumsfeld told today's audience.
Rumsfeld also praised 27 America Supports You team members gathered for today's concert, representatives of more than 200 grassroots organizations supporting the men and women in uniform.
The secretary reserved his highest accolades for U.S. troops being honored today. Today's audience included wounded troops from Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the National Naval Medical Center in nearby Bethesda, Md., servicemembers assigned to the Pentagon, and those who watched from around the world through a Pentagon Channel broadcast.
"We want to say thank you to the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, and all those folks who are doing such a wonderfully professional, dedicated job for our country," Rumsfeld said. "God bless you all!"
Sinise, who returned with his band just yesterday from a whirlwind concert tour through Afghanistan, said he found high troop morale wherever he went and a solid belief in the mission.
"Everywhere I went - and we covered a lot of territory there, we talked to literally thousand of people, I shook thousands of hands, took thousands of pictures, signed thousands of autographs - and everywhere I went... I didn't meet anybody who was down," he told today's audience.
"Everybody was dedicated, everybody felt that the mission was important, and everybody was happy to be there doing their job," Sinise said.
The actor and musician said he talks about America Support You everywhere he goes and directs people to the program's Web site to learn about it. "It's very, very important that we have this Web site out there so our troops, if they are ever in doubt that people are supporting them, can easily go to (the) America Supports You (site) and see just how many wonderful people are out there supporting the troops," he said.
While it's difficult to break away from the "CSI: New York" set during the TV season to visit troops overseas, Sinise said he and his band make every effort to do weekend trips to U.S. bases.
"It's important that we go to these U.S. bases as well, because as we all know, a lot of the troops are deployed overseas and their families are at home on these bases: the kids and wives, moms and dads, brothers and sisters," he said. "And it's important for us to get out and...entertain them a bit and let them know that we care about them. We appreciate their sacrifice that they are making for us."
The Lt. Dan Band got the Pentagon rocking today, serenading them with a medley of hits that included Lynard Skynard's "Sweet Home Alabama," Patti LaBelle's "Lady Marmalade," and Charlie Daniel's "The Devil Went Down to Georgia."
Band members pulled people from the audience to the stage to dance to several of the numbers, and Rumsfeld and his wife, Joyce, joined the group in cheering them on. The play list hit a high spot when Kimo Williams, a band member who's also a Vietnam veteran, heated things up with a rendition of Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze."
"That's got to be the first time Purple Haze has been played at the Pentagon," Sinise joked.
But all joking turned serious when the Lt. Dan Band performed Lee Greenwood's "Proud to be an American." Those in seats jumped to their feet and many in the audience joined in singing the lyrics. A group of wounded troops and family members in the front section of seats locked arms, swaying back and forth in unison to the music.
"This is one of the best days I've had since I've been here," said Army Sgt. Leroy Scott, a Walter Reed Army Medical Center patient who lost his right leg in Iraq in July. Scott said he remembers when Sinise visited his unit in Germany before his unit deployed. "He's a great guy," Scott said. "He's always there for us."
"It's awesome," Army Staff Sgt. Joe Bowser said of the band's performance. Bowser, an Army Reservist being treated at Walter Reed after a Chinese rocket sheared off his lower right leg in Iraq, said the concert demonstrates support for the troops. "And it shows they're proud of their country too," he said.
Army Staff Sgt. Brian Donarski, also a Walter Reed patient, said he's overwhelmed by the support he and his fellow troops are receiving from the American people.
"It's good to have backing,' he said. "When you look at the things people are doing and all the volunteers who are offering support, I think these people are the superstars," he said. "It's awesome what they're doing, and they're doing it out of the goodness of their heart."
Troops stationed at the Pentagon said the Lt. Dan Band concert made them feel that they too are doing something important and supporting the war on terror.
"It makes you feel good inside and makes it all worthwhile coming to work every day to hear someone tell you you're doing a good job," said Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael Arnold, who works for the deputy chief of naval operations. "It makes me feel proud."
"It's a really nice feeling, and it's nice to know that people want to come and do this," agreed Army Sgt. Karen Walker of the Secretary of Defense's Office of Military Personnel. "And the performance is awesome!"
"This means a lot" and sends a message "that we matter," said Air Force Tech. Sgt. Nancy Holloway from the Defense Information Systems Agency's Joint Staff Support Center. Holloway said she felt touched "by the fact that people care" and she "got goosebumps" during the performance.
"This shows public support for the military" and a sense of appreciation that isn't always evident to the people who serve, said Marine Col. Gregory Ryan from the Joint Staff's Force Restructure, Resources and Assessment Directorate. "It shows support, not just for the mission here, but for the greater missio