AJ Cooke, BB King, Capt. Jonathan Pruden, Chuck Gregoire, Daniel Rodriguez, Dianne Wiest, Forest Whitaker, Gary Sinise, Gen. Colin Powell, Hayley Westenra, Jason Ritter, Joe Montagna, Kris Allen, LCpl Lawrence Phillipon, Leesa Phillipon, Memorial Day Concert, Pia Toscano, Richie Gibbons, Spc. Michael Martin, Yolanda Adams, Yvette Baugh
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I hope you didn’t miss it.
The Memorial Day concert, held on the lawn of our nation’s Capitol in Washington DC was a moving tribute to our fallen, as beautiful as any I’ve ever seen to commemorate our American heroes, all those who fought and died for our country. The concert was broadcast live on PBS and live via American Forces Network to the nearly one million American service men and women, Department of Defense civilians and their families overseas, stationed at bases in 175 countries as well as 140 U.S. Navy ships at sea.
Sponsors included Lockheed Corporation, the Disabled American Veterans and Golden Corral Restaurants, National Park Service, Dept of the Army, the Corporation for Pubic Broadcasting General Dynamics, and the NEA.
The concert opened with our National Anthem, performed by the National Symphony Orchestra under direction of maestro Jack Everly, and sung by Pia Toscano. The 90-minute event was co-hosted by actors Joe Montagna and Gary Sinise, who stepped out onto a stage resplendent in our patriotic colors. A salute to the Navy Seal Team Six brought the crowd to their feet in standing ovation.
This year’s Concert also commemorated the nearly 3,000 victims who died on 9-11, and now a decade later, it was noted that our nation is experiencing a renewed sense of resolve and victory.
During those dark days of shared grief following 9-11 there was one song that gave comfort at hundreds of memorial services, and in remembrance of all those who died, former NY police officer Daniel Rodriguez sang “God Bless America”, while a Jumbotron flashed photographs of candlelight vigils and the blue shafts of light where the twin towers once stood.
Special members of American family of NYPD and NYFD who helped 25,000 people escape those buildings alive were given loud cheers and sustained applause for the NYPD members there. Almost 400 of their fellow officers died at Ground Zero that day.
Montagna said regardless of how you felt about the War in Iraq, so many Americans supported our troops — he welcomed “a few of the thousands who served”, and also Gen. Colin Powell. On stage, Powell told the troops “You honor us, you humble us, and so we say to all of our troops tonight, thank you from the bottom of our hearts. I have just two more words to add to those here with us tonight and the thousands of others “Welcome home!”
To celebrate their homecoming, singer Kris Allen dedicated his song to all the troops still fighting and the ones at home, and then launched into Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA”. ” …And I won’t forget the ones who died who gave that right to me…”
Among the returning troops welcomed tonight were four busloads of wounded warriors now recuperating at Walter Reed and Bethesda Naval hospitals.
More than 43,000 service members have been wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan. Video clips of the war zone in both places were shown, as the audience was reminded that in the last ten years, the number of amputees who’ve lost more than one limb has raised dramatically as have incidences of traumatic brain injury. The wounds of war will never completely heal.
Tonight we were privileged to hear the experience of two wounded warriors.
Actor Jason Ritter recited the words of Capt. Jonathan Pruden, one of the first IED victims. Ritter recited the testimony of this wounded warriors who lost his right leg below the knee after 20 surgeries in seven different hospitals. His left foot is severely deformed and “won’t be with me till the end of my life. But there are new opportunities. Those with the least visible injuries are coping with the most, so I volunteered to help them, the best thing for my own healing process.”
Actor Forest Whitaker then recited the words of Specialist Michael Martin, who sustained severe brain injury in an IED explosion. “The bomb blasted thru the windshield right to my face, vehicle flipped three times, and an M-16 rifle smashed right into my skull. It was lights out. My brain, my mind…right away I noticed things weren’t the same. The simplest things like putting on a seat belt, is frustrating. Short term memory is gone. The Army was my life, it’s all I ever wanted to do. I’m not gonna quit, for my kids, for my wife. Its been seven years since that IED blasted my vehicle, my brain. The only thing I can do is take it one day at a time for the rest of my life.”
Actress Dianne Wiest recited the heartbreaking story of Gold Star mom Leesa Phillipon, mother of Marine LCpl Lawrence Phillipon. Stationed near the Syrian border going house to house looking for insurgents, the 22-year-old Marine was machine gunned in the face. “We still miss him everywhere. He would have been 28 this year. I want to celebrate his life. You don’t move on from your child being killed. You go on. At first its only because you keep breathing. But later its because you want to honor their lives and you want to tell their stories.”
Colin Powell said “we remember the ones who did return and came home severely wounded. Our hearts break as they are forced to confront the challenges of the cost of war. You and I can play a critically important role… the healing bond of friendship. Offer your help, acts of kindness and compassion. Reach out and touch our wounded and their families. Just as they served us, we must now serve them. Lets take care of our troops — we love them and treasure them.
Four-time Grammy award winning gospel singer Yolanda Adams then sang “Reach out and Touch Somebody’s Hand”.
“… Make this world a better place if you can.”
As she sang, Colin Powell, Diane Weist, Forrest Whitaker and Jason Ritter walked into the audience to hug and talk to those they had represented onstage.
“Reach out and touch somebody’s hand and make this world a better place if you can… and if you see an old friend on the street and he’s down, remember his shoes could be on your feet…we can change things if we start giving, so why don’t you reach out and touch somebody’s hand…” Lots of tears. And hugs.
This marks the 70th year anniversary of the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, the beginning of WWII. In honor of our WWII fallen, the National Symphony Orchestra performed the theme from the movie Pearl Harbor, as black and white film of that infamous day were shown. Some of our WWII Pearl Harbor veterans were recognized and welcomed. “Your actions saved the world from tyranny and we are honored to salute you once more.”
When victory was finally declared in 1945, it was time to celebrate. 85-year-old BB King, a striking figure in a gold tuxedo jacket sat with his guitar on his lap and said “Alright — I’m ready to let ‘er go, let ‘er go!” before launching into a jazzy uptempo number than had some in the crowd dancing.
“Hey! How are you this evening? Here’s a song written right after WWII — for those who came back and for you who came back today and your people who’s been waiting for you to come back, we’re playing this for you. Hey ya’ll – stand up tall, and let’s be good to every one and all! Let the good times roll!”
The mood grew somber when actress AJ Cooke recited the words of Yvette Michelle Gibbons Baugh, the daughter of Richie Gibbons, who died at 19 in Vietnam, never having seen his daughter but for a photo of her he showed off to his war buddies.
“…I never met my father, I was just three months old when he died in Vietnam. …I felt like half of who I was was missing. …I became the queen of “what ifs”. Then fate intervened in the person of Chuck Gregoire.
Gary Sinise recited Chuck’s words:
“I met Richie Gibbons soon after I arrived in Vietnam in 1968. We were like brothers, we watched each other’s back. In May, all hell broke loose and we were airlifted to a beach… he went into a bunker and was shot and killed by an enemy who had survived the attack.”
AJ Cooke (for Yvette Michelle): “I wanted to know everything — my dad’s favorite aftershave lotion, his jokes, how he always called his rations ‘peaches and pound cake’. He became a real flesh and blood person. The story I loved the most was the letter announcing the birth of his new baby girl. “Isn’t she the most beautiful girl you ever saw?”
The pair went to Vietnam at Yvette Michelle’s request, to retrace her father’s past.
AJ Cooke (for Yvette Michelle): “I needed to walk in my father’s footsteps, to see with my own eyes where he died. I felt something stronger than fear – my need to be my father’s daughter. I began to feel my father’s spirit in a way I had never before. I felt the love of my father and of his friend. My father hadn’t died alone. He’d been in the arms of a true brother. At that moment Chuck became my other Dad.”
For those many years, Chuck Gregoire was haunted.
Gary Sinise (for Chuck Gergoire): “Why did I come home and he didn’t? I could see the same excited Richie in her smile. She’s like medicine for a broken heart. When I came back from Vietnam I was embarrassed to tell anyone I had served… there were times when you’d just sit and cry. If anybody says they weren’t scared, they’re lying. Even know, talking about it, inside, I’m shaking like a leaf. Your Daddy was the best, the bravest man I’d ever known. Richie and the guys were my family. When something happened to one of us, it happened to all of us.”
At that moment, former Celtic woman Hayley Westenra sang the ethereal Pie Jesu.
Taps were blown before a fluttering flag, with the lighted dome of the Capitol behind the bugler.
The event closed with Pia Toscano singing “I’ll Stand by You” — a heartfelt promise to our servicemen and women who wore and continue to wear our nation’s uniform.
Reaching for another tissue… like I said, I hope you didn’t miss seeing it.
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