Memorial Day (May 28th) is a US holiday that honors members of the armed forces who have died in the service of their country.  The three-day Memorial Day weekend also marks the unofficial start of summer, with picnics and family events.  But in Washington D.C., a concert Sunday evening will remind the nation of the holiday's meaning.  Mike O'Sullivan spoke with actor Joe Mantegna, who will co-host the commemoration.

The concert is a huge event, drawing hundreds of thousands of people to the West Lawn of the Capitol building in the heart of Washington.  It will be seen throughout the United States on public television, and around the world on the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service.

Joe, a versatile actor known for his work on stage, film and television, was asked six years ago to take part in the ceremony.  It was just eight months after a national trauma, the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on September 11th, 2001.

Mantegna says the commemoration that year made clear for him the meaning of Memorial Day.

"I wasn't familiar with the concert," he said.  "I hadn't seen it at that point.  I go up on the stage.  In front of me is the Capitol Building, the United States Capitol, lit beautifully.  The American flag is flying on top.  In front of me is a live audience of about 300-thousand people."

Mantegna says his job was to read the words of four New York firemen who were in the audience with their wives.  All had lost sons on September 11th.

"And I was speaking the words of these four men about what it was like to look for the bodies of their sons in the rubble," he added.  "Behind me, the Washington Symphony Orchestra is playing Mozart's Requiem."

That moment brought home to Mantegna the meaning of heroism and sacrifice.

For most American families, Memorial Day weekend is a time for picnics and watching a celebrated auto race, the Indianapolis 500, on television.

Many families also display flags on their homes, and some take time to visit a veterans' cemetery. Since 1990, some have made the annual concert a part of their weekend.

Mantegna says he often encounters fans at charity events, and expects them to talk about roles they have seen him in.

"But when they say, 'We just want you to know we watch that Memorial Day concert every year.  It's a big part of our life, and we just appreciate so much you being part of it.'  And I say, oh no, thank you.  You have no reason to thank me.  I'm privileged and honored to be part of it, which I am," he said.

The concert has a serious purpose, but it is also a celebration.  There is lively entertainment from Broadway hits to jazz and country music.

Mantegna says it brings together people of divergent viewpoints - "red" voters, that is, Republicans, and "blue" voters, or Democrats - in a musical celebration that transcends politics.

"I don't care what a person's political feelings are," he noted.  "I have my own, and everyone is entitled to their own.  But this is not about that.  And it shouldn't be confused in thinking that this is either a red concert or a blue concert.  It's a red, white and blue concert."

The concert has a special segment that changes each year.  This year's will focus on the many veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who have survived the war, but must now cope with traumatic injuries.