In 1868, Union Army Maj. Gen.John A. Logan declared May 30 “Decoration Day,” a day to honor fallen Civil War soldiers with speeches, prayers, and flowers and other decorations on their graves at Arlington National Cemetery. In 1971, Congress made the observance a national holiday to remember all those who have died serving our country, and since then, Memorial Day has been observed on the last Monday of May.
This Sunday, the annual National Memorial Day Concert honored our military with patriotic performances on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol. Hosted by actors Gary Sinise and Joe Mantegna, the free concert featured appearances by Gen. Colin Powell and actor Ed Harris, and performances by the National Symphony Orchestra, the Army Herald Trumpets, the Navy Sea Chanters and the Army Singing Sergeants, among others. This year, special tribute will be paid to veterans of the Korean War and World War II.
There are few better ways to honor the memory of the nation’s fallen heroes than by acknowledging the special sacrifices and answering the special needs of the nation’s military community — veterans, active-duty troops and their families. Few have done more over the years to help the nation’s veterans and first responders than Mr. Sinise, who traces his long commitment to the military community back to his breakthrough acting role as the broken Vietnam veteran Lt. Dan in “Forrest Gump.”
“I got involved with our wounded veterans and just feel like I’ve been embraced by the military community,” Mr. Sinise said earlier this week. “I feel very comfortable there and met some extraordinary people. I feel honored to know some of these folks. They are truly exceptional people.”
Through the Gary Sinise Foundation, the actor — star of “CSI: New York,” the hit CBS show recently canceled after nine seasons — has taken his involvement to a new level. Whether it’s through his concerts with the Lt. Dan Band or by building “smart homes” for wounded warriors, his work reflects his conviction that the nation’s responsibility to its troops extends far beyond Memorial Day.
“This year is very full with military support activities and raising money and awareness” for the foundation, said Mr. Sinise, in D.C. to co-host, as he has for years, the concert nationally televised on PBS. “I’m very ‘boots on the ground.’ I’m constantly out there doing something.”
Mr. Sinise is also here to support the GE Veterans Network’s “Get Skills to Work” program (getskillstowork.org), which has a goal of training and placing 100,000 veterans in manufacturing jobs over the next two years. “What GE’s program does is take some of the skills men and women learn in the military profession and retool them towards the manufacturing industry,” he said. “We have something like 600,000 manufacturing jobs available in the U.S. The veterans community is a great resource that can be tapped to fill that need.”
But America’s military community needs something else beyond job training, high-tech housing and medical care — something no money can buy: connection, affirmation, a nation’s gratitude.
“We have men and women in the military and the first-responder community that willingly go out there every day putting their lives on the line,” said Mr. Sinise. “We still have thousands deployed in Afghanistan. Their families are going through difficult times, worrying about them during their deployments. Some of them have been deployed multiple times — over and over and over. Unfortunately, we have a very small percentage of the population that serves the country in uniform, and if you don’t have a personal relationship or a family member or friend who serves, then sometimes you’re disconnected completely with the military.
“You never know if, when you’re walking up to someone in uniform in an airport, that person has just lost two or three friends in the last month. That person may be going through a difficult time. To have a stranger walk up and pat them on the back or buy them a cup of coffee, that means a lot. To tell them that you appreciate the fact that they’ve chosen to serve their country — that can really make a difference. That can improve their mental health. That’s what I’m in the business of doing — raising spirits, raising funds and letting our men and women know that we are a grateful nation.”
• Samantha Sault contributed to this report.