Jacksonville rocks for hometown vet
by Eddie Burkhalter
May 19, 2013 | 9539 views |  0 comments | 28 28 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The Lt. Dan Band, led by actor Gary Sinise, performs Sunday at a benefit concert in Jacksonville for wounded veteran Ben Tomlinson. (Photo by Trent Penny/The Anniston Star)
The Lt. Dan Band, led by actor Gary Sinise, performs Sunday at a benefit concert in Jacksonville for wounded veteran Ben Tomlinson. (Photo by Trent Penny/The Anniston Star)
JACKSONVILLE — Actor Gary Sinise’s character in the 1994 movie “Forrest Gump” lost both legs in battle, but his injuries were only make-believe.

Marine Sgt. Ben Tomlinson’s war wounds are very real, and Sinise and his Lt. Dan Band played a benefit concert Sunday at Jacksonville State University to help make life easier for the Jacksonville native.

Tomlinson was shot in the upper back while on a rooftop in Afghanistan in May 2010, the bullet leaving him paralyzed.

“That’s when my teammates, whom I consider to be the real heroes – I don’t think of myself as a hero for getting shot – my heroes are the guys that got up there and pulled me down with bullets flying over their heads and got me breathing again,” Tomlinson said prior to the start of the concert.

“It’s just been a long recovery process, starting with learning how to breathe on my own again, how to talk, learning how to eat,” he said.

Click to view more photos from Sunday's concert

The concert was a partnership between the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation and the Gary Sinise Foundation. Money raised will be used by the foundations program, Building for America’s Bravest, to build Tomlinson a “smart” home, with automated features like kitchen countertops, a stove and cabinets that lower at a command delivered through a tablet computer.

Lightning stalled the start of the concert by more than an hour, but as soon as Sinise took the stage the crowd erupted.

The band played cover songs from a mix of genres, with Sinise playing bass guitar, backed by a dozen musicians and several singers.

AOD Federal Credit Union provided a $50,000 donation, and an anonymous donor gave $50,000 in matching funds to help build the $400,000 home. The donor will match every dollar spent on tickets until the $50,000 is met.

An additional donation of $50,000 was given by the Semper Fi Fund, and another $50,000 donation came from the nonprofit Hope for the Warriors foundation.

The largest single donation, however, was a $200,000 donation from Veterans United, a home mortgage company that caters to veterans.

Frank Siller, chairman if the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation, said it’s hard to say how much has been raised thus far, but he expects the concert and other events held throughout the week to have raised several hundred thousand dollars.

Sinise, 58, expressed his appreciation for the community coming out Sunday under threat of rain to make a difference in Tomlinson’s life.

Sinise said his foundation and Tunnel to Towers joined forces, and later began the mission to build homes for severely wounded veterans.

The homes are designed “to make the life of a severely wounded soldier more manageable and more independent,” Sinise said.

“A big part of what I try to do is to just bring awareness and bring the community together,” He said, adding that his character in “Forrest Gump” got him started in his work helping service members and veterans.

The band was named after the character to make it more identifiable, and he doesn’t mind one bit using Lt. Dan as leverage to help make wounded veterans’ lives better.

“If Lt. Dan can help me do that, I’m all for it,” He said.

“Spoiled,” is what Ben Tomlinson said he feels like after receiving so much support from the community and from people whom he does not know. “I’ve said it several times, and I sound like a broken record, but I feel spoiled and blessed … It hasn’t stopped since I got back.”

The kind of support he’s received is crucial for returning vets like himself, Tomlinson said.

“It can keep your head up when you’re having bad days, just knowing that people care for no other reason than ‘Hey. This guy ran into some bad luck,’” Tomlinson said.

“It gives me the sense that I can never stop working to improve myself because then I’m giving up on all these people that showed so much support. And that’s just wrong,” Tomlinson said.

Tomlinson once said that his biggest fear while in Afghanistan was that he’d be forgotten.

“Obviously that was pretty stupid of me,” he said. “Because it’s been completely opposite. I’ve gotten such intense support. People I’ve never even said a word to write me cards and send me money. Call me and bring dinner to my house when I got back.”

“Obviously I had that completely backwards and I couldn’t ask to be from a community that’s more heartfelt than this one,” He said.

Tomlinson took to the stage with the band at the end of the concert.

“You guys are my heroes. You really are. I’m just a guy that ran into some misfortunes and you guys just poured out so much time and effort and all kinds of resources for me,” He said. “Thank you so much.”

Staff Writer Eddie Burkhalter: 256-235-3563. On Twitter @burkhalter_star.
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