Two-time Oscar-winning actor and comedian Tom Hanks has been chairman of the Hidden Heroes campaign, raising awareness of the challenges military caregivers face, since its inception in 2016.
Former Sen. Elizabeth Dole, who claims to be the first to highlight military caregivers' needs in Washington, recalled at the annual gala Wednesday night how quickly Hanks, 63, agreed to become chairman.
"He didn't even wait for me to finish my pitch before he said, 'Senator, I'm all in. I'm in it for the long haul. Just tell me what to do and I'll do it,'" Dole recounted to the gala's audience of nearly 900. "Tom was making an iron-clad promise that he has never failed to keep."
She said Hanks has "responded to every request, taken every phone call, and posed for every selfie." In a gaggle with the media, Dole called him a "great ally."
The Hidden Heroes campaign began after Dole's foundation commissioned a study that found there are at least 5.5 million military caregivers in the United States providing an estimated $14 billion worth of uncompensated health care annually to loved ones. One-fifth of them are caring for someone who served after Sept. 11, 2001.
Hanks, who's starred in movies including "Saving Private Ryan" and "Forrest Gump," said he feels it's important to be campaign chairman because of his "degree of countenance."
"'Cause I've been in people's living rooms for many, many years," he said at the gala. "That I've been the guy who's babysit so many kids because the folks have come out and said, 'OK, we've rented "Cast Away." You can watch it and have pizza. Don't look at the dirty parts, and go to bed as soon as it's over.'"
In addition to his movies, Hanks said he gained perspective by growing up near the Alameda Naval Air Station during the Vietnam War and seeing how big a deal it was for his friends when their fathers returned home.
"I have received a vast education of the type of service that was never asked of me because I was too young and there was no draft," Hanks said. "So, this is a matter of giving back."
Because less than one percent of Americans serve in the military, Dole said raising public awareness of military issues is a key part of the foundation's mission.
"Who could have been better at promoting awareness than Tom Hanks?" she asked.
The foundation's latest work for military caregivers is to map out where they live so it can customize help to address each person's specific needs, such as mental and physical health; community support at home; and employment and workplace support.
This year, Hidden Heroes gave its first Tom Hanks Caregiver Champion Award to former first lady Michelle Obama for her support for military families and caregivers.
Obama said being honored in the military caregiving community is "truly overwhelming" and that receiving an award in Hanks' name was a "deeply humbling experience."
"Tom has always been known as someone who knows how to use his platform for good," she said, "and he's left his mark on so many important causes from supporting our veterans and military families to lifting up our space program. Now, when you get an asteroid named after you like Tom did, now that's doing something."
-- Dorothy Mills-Gregg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.