Military veterans and active-duty service members were among the swarm of music fans who packed the National Mall on Tuesday for a free Veterans Day concert, bouncing to Rihanna, head-banging to Metallica and cheering protest anthems from Bruce Springsteen, Dave Grohl and others.
The first-of-its-kind Concert for Valor, staged by HBO, Starbucks and Chase Corp., was intended to raise awareness for issues affecting veterans. While official crowd estimates were unavailable, organizers were expecting hundreds of thousands of people, making it one of the biggest events of the year on the Mall.
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“What an amazing way to celebrate veterans on Veterans Day,” said Jack Black, one of the concert’s hosts.
While tickets were free, the celebrity hosts directed fans to ways they can volunteer or donate money to causes helping war veterans. Some in the audience said the gesture had symbolic importance.
“This is the first time since I’ve been back that I’ve felt honored to be back home, and I’m 65 years old,” said Bobby Monk, a disabled Vietnam veteran from Washington who wore a gray Army T-shirt. “They treated us like criminals when we came back home. They didn’t give us a parade.”
The massive crowd was energized by Rihanna’s anthem “Diamonds in the Sky” and an ear-splitting set by Metallica, a longtime favorite of soldiers. Springsteen was more subdued, standing alone with an acoustic guitar to play a ruminative version of “Born in the U.S.A.,” about a disillusioned Vietnam veteran. Earlier, Springsteen joined Grohl and the Zac Brown Band to cover another Vietnam-era anthem, “Fortunate Son.” Eminem, wearing a camouflage hoodie, dropped several expletives before closing the show with his empowering “Lose Yourself.”
Between the performances, extraordinary veterans were honored in video tributes hosted by Steven Spielberg, Reese Witherspoon and Oprah Winfrey, among others. Some of the subjects appeared onstage, including Leroy Petry, a Medal of Honor recipient who lost his right hand while serving in Iraq. Petry helped inspire Starbucks president Howard Schultz to write a book about veterans and pledge to hire at least 10,000 former service members.
Comedian John Oliver, whose wife is a former U.S. Army combat medic, said he’s seen firsthand the difficulties that returning veterans go through.
“It’s kind of staggering, the dislocation over the past decade between the civilian population and the military,” he said. “It offends me on a personal level.”
Carrie Underwood, the Black Keys and Jessie J also performed. Jennifer Hudson kicked off the event appropriately with a powerful rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” a performance reminiscent of Whitney Houston’s during the 1991 Super Bowl.
The concert was televised live by HBO, which made its signal available to non-subscribers. Online streaming was also available. HBO chief executive Richard Plepler said it was possible that the concert could become an annual event.
Schultz said he hoped the concert would help more Americans recognize the importance of welcoming post-9/11 veterans back to civilian life.
“Veterans Day comes once a year. Unfortunately, at times, it’s turned into an annual weekend sale,” Schultz said. “That’s not what it’s about.”