WASHINGTON — The National Memorial Day Concert is an annual tradition for D.C. residents to attend on the National Mall and for Americans around the world to watch on television.
“It’s quite a night in Washington,” host Joe Mantegna told WTOP. “There’s a reason why [it’s] the most-watched show on PBS. … It made me realize how important Memorial Day is. It’s our most important holiday because it’s the one holiday that allows us to have all the others.”
Montegna has emceed since 2002, most of those alongside Gary Sinise (“Forrest Gump”).
“It is a little buddy thing, two guys from Chicago,” Mantegna said. “I suggested they bring in Gary and the Lt. Dan Band, because he’d been traveling all over the world entertaining the troops. … When the concert was over, Gary was so moved by the event, he said, ‘I’ll come back and do this anytime you want.’ I said, ‘They just asked me to take over for Ossie Davis to host. Those are big shoes to fill. Why don’t we do it together?’ We’ve been co-hosting ever since.”
Other celebrities include Leona Lewis (“Bleeding Love”), Allison Janney (“I, Tonya”), Graham Greene (“Dances with Wolves”), Mary McCormack (“Deep Impact”), John Corbett (“Northern Exposure”), Charles Esten (“Nashville”), Cynthia Erivo (“The Color Purple”), Megan Hilty (“Smash”), Alfie Boe (“Les Miz”) and Jack Everly with the National Symphony Orchestra.
“It a twofold thing,” Mantegna said. “You’re out grilling a burger, watching the Indy 500, whatever you do, we’ve decided collectively as a country, let’s put this day aside, the last Monday in May. … On the other hand, there’s the solemnity of knowing you’re honoring people who made the sacrifice that allows you to have a celebration of your life [and] country.”
To that point, the concert is a wonderful chance to honor our military heroes, including Iraq War veteran SFC Leigh Ann Hester, who was the first woman ever to receive the Silver Star for valor in combat. Growing up in Kentucky, Hester seemed destined for military service.
“My uncle and my grandfather were both veterans, one World War II, the other Vietnam,” Hester said. “I was kind of a tomboy when I was a kid. I would always look up to women in uniform, whether it was an army or police uniform. That’s what encouraged and excited me.”
At age 19, she enlisted in the U.S. Army. That was in April 2001, just months before 9/11.
“It put a true scent of realism,” she said. “I was waiting to be shipped off to basic training when Sept. 11 happened. … When we went to basic training, the drill sergeants were even tougher because they are veterans and knew what was probably going to happen in the near future. It’s a huge gut check when you’re a young kid … knowing we’re probably going to war.”
Then came the fateful day on March 20, 2005.
“Our job was to do MSR (main supply route) patrol and clear them of IEDs, insurgents and make sure that convoys carrying various supplies … could get through the area [to] drop off supplies. … One of the convoys came through that morning about 10:30 and we happened to turn around on them and follow them to make sure they got through our area safely. Little did we know, there was about 50-60 insurgents down the road that were set up in ambush.”
That’s when the firefight happened.
“The front of the convoy got attacked with RPGs and a mass amount of small-arms fire. My squad of nine MP’s and one medic put ourselves between the insurgents and the convoy. We dismounted and fought the enemy until they were suppressed or were no longer a threat.”
What was going through Hester’s head during the attack?
“I think for me it was more of an adrenaline rush,” Hester said. “You always go back and rely on your training, but it was almost surreal like, ‘Is this really happening?’ I remember the intense sound of the gunfire. We’re yelling at each other, telling each other where to go, where to shoot, shooting our rifles, throwing grenades. It was almost like a video game if you can imagine — but with the potential of a deadly outcome. It was almost indescribable.”
She says the historic nature of her Silver Star is an honor, but that she was just doing her job.
“That’s always been my mentality: as long as somebody can do the job, it doesn’t matter if they’re a man or a woman,” she said. “That moment was humbling. I don’t know if I realized how big it was actually going to be being the first woman to receive a Silver Star. … I hope that my story had a positive influence on proving that … women can do the same job as men.”
Fittingly, the Memorial Day concert will include the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff with The U.S. Army Herald Trumpets, The U.S. Army Chorus and Army Voices, The Soldiers’ Chorus of the U.S. Army Field Band, The U.S. Navy Band Sea Chanters, The U.S. Air Force Singing Sergeants, The Armed Forces Color Guard and Service Color Teams provided by the Military District of D.C.
“It’s one of the most important holidays,” she said. “It’s in remembrance of those who made the ultimate sacrifice. It’s important for people to realize what the holiday is for, not just for cooking hamburgers and hot dogs, but the real meaning behind it. It’s also important to honor the families — veteran families, Gold Star families. Without family support, we could not do our jobs overseas if we didn’t have somebody waiting to come back home to.”
The concert airs live on PBS at 8 p.m. and will be live-streamed on PBS.org and YouTube.
WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with host Joe Mantegna (Full Interview)