Marcus and Sinise Partner to Build Mental Wellness Network for Veterans, First Responders

A new partnership between two renowned philanthropists, Gary Sinise (left) and Bernie Marcus (right), brings hope to veterans and first responders suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.

Right now, military service members, veterans and first responders are facing a triple threat to their mental well-being: traumatic brain injury (TBI), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and substance abuse, the “invisible wounds of war.” 

According to the National Center for Health Research, an estimated 27-37% of service members experience PTSD or a TBI. Studies show those who suffer from PTSD are more likely to engage in substance abuse to manage the symptoms. Meanwhile, firefighters and law enforcement officers are more likely to die of suicide than in the line of duty, per the CDC. 

This Veterans Day, Philanthropy Roundtable is spotlighting efforts by philanthropists Bernie Marcus and Gary Sinise to address this crisis. In February, the Sinise Foundation announced the launch of the Gary Sinise Foundation Avalon Network, expanding the years-long work of the Marcus Institute for Brain Health and Boulder Crest Foundation to treat traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder.   

Marcus’s Mission 

Home Depot co-founder and philanthropist Bernie Marcus has been on a mission since 2007 to transform the mental health care of our nation’s military service members.  

That year, while touring the Shepherd Center, a rehabilitation hospital he had supported for years, Marcus met a soldier with a spinal cord injury and a traumatic brain injury. Military doctors told the soldier he would never walk again. Moreover, despite the severity of his injuries, the soldier’s health care was mired in paperwork and bureaucracy, sending him in search of private sector treatment. 

Thanks to some passionate lobbying by his family, the soldier secured a spot with the Shepherd Center, one of the nation’s finest rehabilitation hospitals specializing in spinal cord injuries. Within three weeks, he was up and walking again. 

That encounter left an impression on Marcus, a strong supporter of the military and its veterans. He had served in the Air National Guard for four years, and his older brother was a World War II veteran who fought in the Battle of the Bulge. Home Depot was widely known as one of the most military-friendly companies in the country, due to its efforts to hire veterans and reservists. When employees who served in the reserves were called to duty, Home Depot would help take care of house and home while they were away from their families. 

Marcus found the idea that soldiers would offer their lives in defense of their country and then be subjected to shoddy treatment from the federal government totally intolerable. He resolved to fix the problem. 

Marcus provided $2 million in seed funding to the Shepherd Center to create a holistic treatment program for veterans with brain injuries, an initiative called SHARE. It proved to be highly efficacious in terms of patient outcomes. However, there was just one problem. Program operators could not figure out how to expand it, as Marcus bluntly noted during a keynote address at a SHARE event. 

“You know, this is a great program,” he told the crowd. “But it’s a failure because we’ve never found a way to replicate it so it can do its good for an even larger number of people.” 

Marcus attempted to partner with the federal government, but those efforts were unsuccessful. That’s when he brought in Marcus Ruzek, an Army veteran of three combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, to help.  

“I want you to make SHARE a nationwide network and really extend it,” Marcus instructed Ruzek, who is now senior program director for the Marcus Foundation. “Go big.” 

In an interview with the Roundtable, Ruzek described the scope of the operation. “Bernie made it clear he would consider building just one clinic to be a failure,” he said. “This needed to be a robust national network that served all veterans who needed help.” 

Ruzek began an in-depth exploration of the people and institutions who were making a difference in the treatment of TBI. Along the way, he developed a partnership with Dr. James Kelly, one of the foremost experts in brain injury treatment and the founding director of a philanthropically supported medical facility within the Department of Defense known for outstanding brain injury treatment. 

Kelly, who also was frustrated by a bureaucracy that limited his ability to help more people, decided to leave the Defense Department for the private sector. With a $30 million grant from Bernie Marcus, Ruzek and Kelly began making preparations for a permanent brain injury treatment clinic at the University of Colorado’s Anschutz medical campus. The Marcus Institute for Brain Health would become the hub for the national network Ruzek was instructed to build.  

Enter Lt. Dan 

Bernie Marcus first met Gary Sinise around 2011, a few years after the Shepherd Center visit that sharpened his focus on achieving better mental health care for veterans.  

Sinise was already well known in military philanthropic circles as a person of high integrity and incredible dedication to the troops. He lived by the motto, “We can never do enough to show our gratitude to our nation’s defenders, but we can always do a little more.” 

Like Marcus, Sinise had a family member who served in World War II. His Uncle Jack was a navigator on a B-17 bomber that flew 30 missions over Europe.  

However, Sinise’s commitment to the troops significantly deepened when he was cast in the 1994 Academy Award-winning film “Forrest Gump” as Lt. Dan Taylor, a Vietnam veteran who lost both his legs during the war. In the film, Lt. Dan overcame his injuries and PTSD, and helped Gump launch a successful shrimping company.  

After the film, Sinise noted that every time he visited the troops, they would call him by his character’s name, usually with Forrest Gump’s signature drawl. A talented bass player, Sinise went on to name his cover rock band “The Lt. Dan Band.” To date, the band has played over 500 shows for service members all over the world. 

By the time he met Bernie Marcus in 2008, Sinise was building smart homes for severely injured veterans, a project that piqued Marcus’s interest. Sinise also had developed programs to help firefighters, law enforcement officers and other first responders.  

The two became fast friends, and as Marcus continued to lead the effort to build a veteran mental wellness network, which would expand to include treatment for first responders, he enlisted the support of Sinise and his Gary Sinise Foundation and offered a generous financial commitment to see it through. 

“When Bernie came to Gary with his commitment to help address the suicide epidemic due to the invisible wounds of war, GSF was ready to build upon our current efforts to help save the lives of those who deserve every bit of our support,” said Mike Thirtle, CEO of the Gary Sinise Foundation.  

A Growing Network 

In February, the Sinise Foundation announced the launch of the Gary Sinise Foundation Avalon Network, named after the legendary British Island where King Arthur was taken to heal from battle. This new enterprise “will establish 20 treatment sites nationwide to serve thousands of veterans, first responders and their families.” 

Bernie Marcus funded the initial phase of development with a $20 million contribution. He also secured a $20 million matching grant from his lifelong friend and business partner, Home Depot co-founder Arthur Blank, who is also a passionate supporter of veteran causes. 

These are the initial commitments for an overall $200 million network that will model the Marcus Institute for Brain Health’s TBI treatment protocols and the Boulder Crest Foundation’s Warrior PATHH program to treat PTSD. Marcus is a longtime supporter of Boulder Crest and helped fund the program’s development. 

According to Marcus Ruzek, this network has already expanded to 15 partners since the February announcement, including two organizations that specifically address substance abuse.  

“Service members are often turned away from TBI treatment if they are not clean,” Ruzek explained. 

As more organizations and philanthropists join this effort, both foundations view this network as fulfilling a promise their founders made long ago to help our heroes heal.  

“Since before the Gary Sinise Foundation was created, Gary had been on this mission to serve and honor the needs of our nation’s defenders and the families who sacrifice alongside them. Expanding his efforts through GSF, every program stems with the purpose to uplift the spirits of those we serve,” said Thirtle. “This cognitive health and mental wellness network will help heal the invisible wounds afflicting too many of our veterans and first responders, transforming struggle into strength and lifelong post-traumatic growth.” 

“Bernie Marcus invested his passion and his wealth to help solve a serious crisis facing our nation’s military and first responders,” Ruzek said, adding, “He narrowed his focus on the invisible wounds of war, and enlisted support from equally passionate friends like Gary Sinise and Arthur Blank to stop this epidemic and help our veterans live their best lives. He believes if we heal our veterans, we will heal our nation.”