The National Memorial Day Concert on Sunday night was less of a concert than it was a muted, broadcast tribute to the sacrifices and heroism of American veterans, fallen service members and their families.
The PBS event wove together vignettes spotlighting veterans, musical performances from noted artists and archival footage across decades of war. Celebrated actors lent their talents to tell first-person accounts of veteran trailblazers. The pre-taped concert, usually held at the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol building, was semi-virtual this year because of COVID-19 protocols.
Tony Award-winner Joe Mantegna and Emmy winner Gary Sinise, who hosted the program, acknowledged the recent crises fought close to home.
“It’s no secret we’ve been living through challenging times, and our hearts go out to the families of the almost 600,000 Americans who lost their lives in this pandemic,” Mantegna said.
They made a special mention of frontline health care workers, as well as the U.S. Capitol Police and its members “who lost their lives serving their country.”
In a tribute to nurses who served during the Vietnam War, actress Kathy Baker told the story of Diane Carlson Evans, a Vietnam combat nurse haunted by the horrors of treating wounded servicemen. Upon returning home, a Veteran’s Center helped her on a path to healing.
On a 1982 visit to the Vietnam Memorial Wall, she was blown away: “Who of you died on my watch? I’m sorry we couldn’t save you. We tried — we all tried.”
Envisioning a monument that would honor the women who had served beside the men, Carlson Evans faced a decade of opposition before founding the Vietnam Women’s Memorial.
Speaking from Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, former secretary of state and retired Gen. Colin Powell underscored the often overlooked sacrifices of nurses.
“We as a nation should have thanked you and recognized you when you came home. You should have been comforted by us as you comforted so many wounded and dying soldiers in Vietnam,” Powell said. “And yet in spite of your pain, your story is one of courage, healing and the triumph of the human spirit.”
The 2nd Rangers, the Army’s only all-Black Airborne infantry unit, were honored in a moment remembering the Korean War.
Cleveland Valrey, whose story was told by actor Joe Morton, is an original Ranger, who navigated life-threatening assignments. During Operation Tomahawk, he was part of the first ever Army Airborne Ranger combat jump.
On Memorial Day, Valrey said via Morton, he grieves not only for the fallen men he fought alongside. He also remembers the Chinese and North Korean soldiers who died, and how moved he was when he saw family photos tucked inside their uniforms.
“War is hell. It just is,” he said. “There is nothing pretty about it.”
Actor Steve Buscemi, a former New York City firefighter, stood above the 9/11 Memorial Plaza as he recounted the horrifying series events that unfolded on Sept. 11, 2001.
In the years following 9/11, Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Joseph Phaneuf spent a year in Iraq before he went to Afghanistan. It was there that he was killed by a roadside bomb in 2006. Actresses Mary McCormack and Bailee Madison portrayed his Gold Star family, the widow and daughter to the Army National Guard staff sergeant.
To his daughter, Jordan, it’s important that people remember the meaning of Memorial Day.
“They kind of treat it like just another Veterans Day,” she said, her words relayed through actress Madison. “I want them to remember that the day is for honoring those who have actually been killed serving our nation. On Memorial Day, I remember my Dad a little more.”
Elsewhere, World War II veterans recalled the moment Pearl Harbor was attacked, almost 80 years later.
In between the emotional salutes, music stars — including Gladys Knight, Vince Gill, Sara Bareilles, Alan Jackson and The Four Tops — stuck with the night’s themes in their performances of both their own hits (“Baby I Need Your Loving”) as well as covers of “Wind Beneath My Wings,” “You’ve Got a Friend” and more.
If you missed the online stream, you can still catch the full event on the PBS website for another two weeks.