Memorial Day is a time to remember the sacrifices of Americans who gave their lives in defense of our nation, and National Memorial Day Concert Host Joe Mantegna says those sacrifices allow us to enjoy all the freedoms we cherish this weekend and every day throughout the year.
“To me it’s our most important holiday,” said Mantegna. “Without Memorial Day, you don’t have the Fourth of July, you don’t have Christmas, you don’t have Labor Day. You have nothing.”
“I’m not saying everybody has to look at it that way. What I am saying is do understand how important this holiday is and give it its proper respect,” he added.
“Go ahead and barbecue. Go ahead and watch the Indianapolis 500. Do all the wonderful family things you’ll do this weekend. If watching he concert is part of it, great. But pause a moment and say to yourself how lucky we are that these men and women over the course of our history made these sacrifices,” said Mantegna, who had five family members serve in World War II.
Mantegna will share hosting duties with fellow actor Laurence Fishburne. The concert airs live on Sunday at 8 p.m. Eastern Time from the West Lawn of the Capitol. The program will feature honored veterans but also note what Memorial Day truly commemorates, those who gave what Abraham Lincoln called “the last full measure of devotion.”
That includes a tribute to America’s Gold Star Families, a designation to those families who lost a member in service to America.
“I remember the first concert I did 15 years ago. I remember seeing this whole section of women in white dresses out there. I said, ‘Who’s that?’ They explained those are the Gold Star mothers and explained to me what that organization was,” said Mantegna.
“Luckily, I had five uncles who all fought in World War II. They all came back so I was fortunate enough to not have to experience what it was like to be part of a Gold Star family. But I can certainly relate because these these five uncles of mine were so important in my life,” said Mantegna.
The concert will also honor Luis Avila, who suffered severe injuries from an improvised explosive device. Mantegna says Avila and his wife are an inspiration to him.
“Americans will be so moved and taken by their story. Talk about people who have taken what would be a major, major tragedy in anyone else’s life and trying to look at the positive side of it and just push forward and overcome it,” said Mantegna.
Legendary veterans will also be part of the program. 2017 marks 75 years since the famed Doolittle Raid that bombed Tokyo and other Japanese cities just four months after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. 101-year-old Richard E. Cole will be there. Cole served as Doolittle’s co-pilot in the lead plane and is the last surviving member of the 80 men whose heroism rallied a nation in desperate need of morale.
Fishburne, who is filling in for Gary Sinise, will share the story of the Tuskegee Airmen as part of the celebration of the 70th anniversary of the U.S. Air Force. At least two of the surviving airmen will be there, including Lt. Col. Robert J. Friend. Mantegna says the 97-year-old friend still goes to work every day.
Most of all, Mantegna says he hopes the concert will help Americans take that pause and appreciate every single life laid down for the United States.
“Without those sacrifices, who’s to say what our country would be today. ‘Freedom isn’t free,’ is an often-used phrase, but it’s so true and the military are those who have to cash the checks,” said Mantegna.