The nation will pause over the coming days to honor all Americans who have given their lives to defend the United States, and this year the National Memorial Day Concert will continue its legacy of saluting all who have worn the uniform with a special tribute to a man who still serves decades after losing a leg in Vietnam.
The National Memorial Day Concert takes place Sunday, May 29 at 8 p.m. on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol. It airs on PBS. Actors Gary Sinise and Joe Mantegna will co-host the event, which will include acts such as the Beach Boys, Trace Adkins, two different American Idol performers and the National Symphony Orchestra.
“I wouldn’t be anywhere else this weekend,” said Sinise. “It’s become such a special way to highlight and honor the men and women who served our country and paid the ultimate price for our freedom.”
Sinise has strong family ties to veterans dating back to World War I. He became active in supporting Vietnam veterans in the 1980’s and his involvement skyrocketed after playing “Lieutenant Dan” in “Forrest Gump.” After 9/11, he devoted even more time to active duty forces and veterans. He now heads the Gary Sinise Foundation and heads up the Lt. Dan Band.
Sinise says the National Memorial Day Concert is a terrific way of reminding Americans Memorial Day means more than a three-day weekend and the unofficial start of summer.
“The freedom to enjoy the backyard and the barbeque and the ballgame and all of that cones with a cost. The men and women who are a part of this concert and the stories that we tell about those who have served over the years are very, very important,” said Sinise.
Memorial Day is set aside for those who lost their lives in service to America, but Sinise himself will be leading a tribute to a living hero at the concert.
“I’m going to be doing a story about a Vietnam veteran who lost a leg and ended up giving back by going to Walter Reed and supporting the Afghan and Iraqi veterans who are coming back with injuries,” said Sinise.
That veteran is retired U.S. Army Captain Jack Farley. He was serving as a battery executive officer, overseeing six howitzers on January 10, 1969, when his life changed forever.
“All of a sudden we came under very heavy mortar and rocket attack. When we were attacked, my wonderful troops shot back. My men were at the guns and I was out with them on the radio. All of a sudden, a mortar landed gimme distance from me. I remember flying through the air,” said Farley.
His time combat was over.
“They took the leg off in Japan after gangrene set in and I was medevaced to Walter Reed. I spent a year-and-a-half learning how to use a new leg and then went about what I thought would be a normal life.
Farley started a family, went to law school and was eventually nominated to be one of the original judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims.
But he later discovered his greatest gift was reaching out to those who found themselves where he was in 1969.
“I got involved working with other amputees. When Iraq and Afghanistan started, I got called over to Walter Reed and really never left. I helped set up the amputee program. I was on the original board of directors. And I continue to train the amputee peer visitors at Walter Reed,” said Farley.
With more than 1,500 service members enduring amputations as a result of their service, Farley says he and his friends help shepherd the vets through the process of dealing with such a major change in their lives. He says there are critical stages they must go through.
“In the beginning it’s enduring, getting through it. You’re all confused. You’re wondering what’s going on. You get into a stage of suffering. Gradually, you start to get into a stage of reckoning, becoming aware of this new reality. Then you reconcile. You put that loss into perspective. Finally, we hope that you’re getting into a normalizing,” said Farley.
He says some amputees reach an even more optimum level of “thriving.”
“As they go through the process, often what we see, and I include myself in this group, is that having gone through this process you actually come out stronger. You can actually accomplish things that you might not have accomplished before,” said Farley.
Farley says he is deeply honored to be a part of the National Memorial Day Concert, although he admits he’s a bit nervous about what Sinise might say since concert organizers will not let him read the script.
The hero who continues to serve hopes the moment brings help to those who need it.
“To the extent that any of my Vietnam colleagues can take any strength from it – just one of them – I’d be thrilled,” said Farley.