ORLANDO, Fla. – Next month, more help for veterans will be coming to Central Florida. That's because Orlando has been chosen to become home to the nation's first local chapter of the Gary Sinise Foundation.
One of the men at the helm has spent years working to honor veterans. Pat Connors comes from a family with a history of service.
"We have three generations of military," said Connors. "My passion is the love of soldiers and the love of this era's veterans."
As a retired Army colonel that served for 30 years, Connors knows firsthand what America’s military heroes have been through. He enlisted when he was 17.
"I've had three combat deployments in my career," said Connors. "And then the Army sent me to get my Master's degree at UCF in the late 90s. So that's when I discovered Orlando."
Connors was put on teams responsible for innovating simulation and training technology for our troops.
"I worked with units at whichever location I was stationed out at the time and figure out what their training objectives were and then design simulation exercises using tank simulators or flight simulators or large scale exercises to meet their training objectives to get them ready to go to war. We have whole cities which are like an urban training city. And it's all tricked out with everything from camera systems, sounds, live actors, smoke. It's an entire city," said Connors. "And so we try to simulate whatever environment that that unit's going into, whether it be Iraq or Afghanistan."
It was while stationed here in the City Beautiful he began volunteering, starting with honoring veterans with the Association of the United States Army and Florida Citrus Sports.
“The Association of the United States Army has a local chapter called the Sunshine Chapter. The local chapters take care of the needs in the community. One of the highlight pieces of that chapter is that they host the Army birthday ball once a year. It would be this weekend. It’s been canceled for this year. We normally have 900 to about 1,100 people that gather to celebrate art and pay tribute to our Army,” said Connors. “My role with the military ball was to provide and find wounded warriors that we could honor. We would also honor Gold Star families, Buffalo Soldiers, World War Two veterans, Vietnam veterans, Korean War veterans, depending on the theme each year. As I continued on my volunteer journey, we found Florida Citrus Sports downtown. You know, it’s the organization that produces the bowl games that we have in town and other events like the Florida Blue Florida Classic. We, my wife and I, are huge college football fans. And so we wanted to join the selection committee to help pick the teams that come to our ballgames. I quickly noticed that they had these wonderful events that we could use to honor our veterans. And so we did start a military affairs committee, and throughout the beginning of each year, we honor wounded warriors and veterans at our key games. They’re the honorary team captains. We select one warrior for each and their families, for each team. And they’re welcomed by the team. We take them out on the field with the sponsor and the team captains are part of the coin toss and then they’re honored throughout the rest of the game. So it’s just a wonderful highlight. You know, can’t solve all their problems. But at least if you can give them one day to honor them and really give back.”
But in just about a month, Connors will play a major role in the Gary Sinise Foundation’s Central Florida Chapter, the very first local chapter in the country.
Gary Sinise is an actor best known for his portrayal of Lt. Dan Taylor in the film Forrest Gump, but he's also known for his 40 years of work honoring veterans.
“The thing we’ve heard Gary say so much is that we can never do enough to honor our nation’s defenders, our military veterans and our first responders and their families. But we can always do a little more,” said Connors. “So we’re going to be focused on providing services from the Gary Sinise Foundation and really getting the word out what’s available. And that, you know, we can spend those funds that we raise here and we can benefit veterans, military and first responders right here in our backyard.”
Benefits Connors said you may have heard about, like specially adapted homes and vehicles, The Lt. Dan Band and the Snowball Express which brings the families of fallen heroes right here to Walt Disney World, among others.
“But what they probably don’t know is that there is a first responder program that they can apply for grants to purchase much needed equipment, especially in some of our rural areas. So those first responders have really been part of his passion since, you know, since post 9/11. 9/11 had a very, very profound effect on Gary Sinise. And that’s where you can always do a little more comes in. For instance, while he was filming CSI New York, it was a Monday through Friday filming and most of it was in L.A. He would still maintain 50 different appearances or shows each year. And so almost every single weekend of the year,he was going out to entertain, to give back,” said Connors.
The foundation has also stepped up during the pandemic to help veterans stay safe from COVID-19.
“They’ve really started to provide relief, whether it be for military or veterans. They could apply for a grant to pay immediate bills, providing PPE and essential equipment to first responders and firefighters around the nation. Here in Florida, they’ve served 46,000 meals to first responders, to the Orlando V.A., to Orlando Health,” said Connors.
Connors said the launch of the Orlando chapter officially kicks off August 15th with a live virtual event that will include Sinise himself.
These days, Connors has taken his experience and expertise in the military to serve our community in a new way, helping develop simulations and training for AdventHealth.
"We train a whole host of scenarios now that in the COVID environment, we've been critical in helping train all the new procedures," said Connors. "The surge tents that you've seen pop up, how are we going to distribute our labor pools? So we've been doing simulations for a whole bunch of different COVID-related things during the pandemic."
But Connors said what really brings him joy is serving those who have served for us.
“Because no matter where I work or when I retire, I’ll never stop giving back,” said Connors. “And you can always do a little more.”