Jacob Rowe was feeling the love on Veterans Day. An airman at Bolling Air Force Base, he and wife Michelle Kuzenko waited Tuesday at a VIP entrance gate to the National Mall for "The Concert for Valor," a first-time event honoring those who’ve served in America’s armed forces.
Basking in sunshine on an unseasonably balmy fall day, Rowe was eager to hear and see performers such as rapper Eminem, heavy-metal band Metallica, and rocker Bruce Springsteen.
Celebrities’ participation validates his choice to serve, Rowe said: "It just makes me feel like I’m doing the right thing. A lot of people like this go out of their way" to give a free concert.
Hundreds of thousands joined Rowe here on the mall for the three-hour concert starting at 7 p.m. local time. Millions more could tune in via cable channel HBO, a co-sponsor with the Starbucks coffee chain.
Among the many scheduled musicians: Springsteen, who prominently championed veterans on his 1984 album, "Born in the USA"; singers Carrie Underwood and Rihanna; the Black Keys; and Dave Grohl, who’s directing an HBO series, "Foo Fighters: Sonic Highways," on the musical heritage and history of eight American cities.
Actor Tom Hanks, an executive producer of the live event and a promoter of the nearby World War II Memorial, also was expected to appear. Other big names expected to show, in person or only onscreen, include Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep and Jamie Foxx.
But the event’s honorees are those who’ve served their country.
The concert represents an "opportunity to demonstrate our country’s potential to come together as a nation and do right by those who have done so much for us," Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz said in a press release.
The Seattle-based coffee empire last fall pledged to hire more than 10,000 veterans and military spouses over five years. Schultz’s family foundation also committed $30 million to help veterans adjust to civilian life.
The concert also provides a chance to celebrate the American values contained in song, said Deane Root, who directs the Center for American Music at the University of Pittsburgh.
"People all over the world know American musical styles and songs that have entered into their own cultures – sometimes welcomed and sometimes resented," the musicologist said from his Pennsylvania office.
Root said over the years he’s had students and visitors who've lived under oppressive regimes – such as the former Soviet Union and South Africa during apartheid – who were passionate about U.S. songs that expressed sentiments they couldn’t, at least publicly.
"American music for at least the last 150 years or so has carried the American ideals of freedom and democracy" – ideals that don’t always get protected in other cultures, said Root.
Taste of different cultures
Ali Tuz, a young Turkish man studying English at Mentora College in Washington, acknowledged there was nothing high-minded about his coming to the National Mall. He was there purely for the sound.
"I love Metallica and also Dave Grohl," said Tuz, who with friend Ruchan Ozgocmen arrived at 5 in the morning to be among the first in the general-admission line. They secured a spot right behind the section reserved for veterans.
Concert-goer Donald Morgan and his family experienced numerous countries and cultures over his 26-year Air Force career. Now retired, he had 12 different posts, mostly in the United States but also in Germany, Japan and the Philippines. He was able to sample a range of native music but still favors American music.
Morgan, who came to the mall with wife Janaki from their home in nearby Alexandria, Virginia, said, "It’s really nice to see that all these entertainers support the military."
"I love it that it’s such an eclectic mix of artists and celebrities – as long as the vision doesn’t get lost amid the fanfare," added Mark Lee Greenblatt, who endorsed the concert’s "positive attention" on the military.
Greenblatt himself has no military experience, but he salutes some who have. He’s the author of "Valor: Unsung Heroes from Iraq, Afghanistan and the Home Front," a book released in spring that profiles nine servicemen. He spoke to VOA by phone Tuesday, just before giving a talk in a Maryland suburb of Washington.
For him, the word "valor" – highlighted in the titles of the concert and his book – embodies "a mix of definitions, not just being in a combat situation but also showing honor in your life."
He cited Mike Waltz as a prime example. While serving in Afghanistan, the Army Special Forces commander had trained with and befriended an Afghan sergeant major. The men were together when insurgents ambushed their squad, and the sergeant major died in Waltz’s arms.
Since then, Waltz has demonstrated true valor, Greenblatt said. "He started donating his own money" to his friend’s widow, so their children could attend private school instead of the madrasas that the man feared would poison their thinking.
"That, to me, is valor," Greenblatt said.
Stars under the stars
Back on the National Mall, thousands spread blankets to stake out good viewing spots.
Meredith Newell drove six hours, from her home in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, to attend the concert with her step-father. She also wanted to honor her late grandfather. She sees veterans like them as heroes.
Concert-goer Sean Reese served in the Army for 10 years, most of that time as a captain, and lives in the Washington area.
He happily braved the throngs at the mall because, as he said, "Music has always been a soundtrack for veterans."