Americans love their movie and TV stars. They know them by their roles and by the stuff they read about or watch on any of the nightly shows. But most don’t think about film and TV celebrities as men and women who might have served their country in the military.
On June 17th at the old Palace Theatre in downtown LA where the likes of Harry Houdini, Will Rogers, Fred Astaire, and Rita Hayworth once performed, a diverse audience of 600 came together as 18 veteran organizations hosted a thank-you celebration for those stars who once served their country, as well as a celebration of actor’s and other media professional’s union SAG/AFTRA and its LA local president Jane Austin.
The leading vet organizations which make up the membership of the California State Commanders Veterans Council include the American Legion, VFW, AMVETS, Vietnam Veterans of America, our National Veterans Foundation, the Jewish War Veterans and a dozen other groups that regularly call upon celebrities to help raise funds for vet homelessness, veteran suicide prevention, disabled sports competition and many more special programs.
The theme of the day was simple – Thanks to those who have helped those who have served! The two-hour program was as varied as its audience.
35 World War II veterans, average age 91, with a collection of canes, walkers and wheelchairs but full of energy and appreciation for the special day, watched Jimmy Stewart in black and white, urging young men to enlist in the then Army Air Corps, vintage 1942.
Actor Dan Lauria, a member of our Honorary Board, explained there is no such thing as a former or ex-Marine – just Marines, like him. Lauria had been a combat officer in Vietnam and was greeted by an “Oohrah!” from some uniformed Marines back from deployment.
The list of stars honored, some gone and many still with us, who had been in harm’s way for their country, read like a database of the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
There was Charles Durning and his three Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star and a Silver Star from the Normandy invasion that was the beginning of the end of World War II.
Veterans of Korea, Viet Nam, Iraq, Afghanistan and actions in between learned about Mel Brooks, Bob Newhart and the late Don Rickles along with Hugh Hefner and Tony Bennett suiting up during World War II and Clint Eastwood being discovered as a potential movie star during the Korean War era where future world champ Chuck Norris, then an Airforce MP, would be introduced to martial arts.
James Earl Jones, Morgan Freeman, Harvey Keitel, Gene Hackman, Tom Selleck, Montel Williams and Robert Duvall are a few from SAG/AFTRA’s current roster of several hundred military veterans.
Actor and former Army MP Kevin Dobson was a powerful host. While best known for Knot’s Landing, Kojac and the World War II film Midway, Kevin, another NVF supporter, has led the national campaign of volunteers to visit and assist hospitalized veterans.
The vets offered special thanks to SAG/AFTRA members who may not have worn the uniform but who consistently support veteran causes. They were represented by Esai Morales and Mathew Modine on stage and Martin Sheen on screen with his award winning public service announcement for our National Veteran Foundation’s campaign to combat veteran suicides.
It was a show with many standing ovations but none longer or louder than following the closing ceremony in which 100 teenagers mostly 18 and 19, but many looking younger, raised their right hands to fulfill their decision to volunteer for active duty for their country. Lt. General Wendy Masiello, one of the highest-ranking female officers in the military, administered the oath to the group that included 30 young women and then invited the crowd to “Welcome America’s newest warriors.”
On a personal note, I had the wonderful opportunity to ask all the Viet Nam vets in the audience to stand so the whole audience could finally say “Welcome Home!”
One of those who served in Viet Nam closed the show with a song and a reminder there is more to be done. Dave Curtis, with a long white beard, roared “God Bless The USA” and the audience loved it.
The event was written and produced by our friend and supporter Chuck Ashman and the Commanders Council chairman Greg Lee.