Joe Mantegna, Gary Sinise rock out for Memorial Day

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When Joe Mantegna and Gary Sinise host Sunday’s annual “National Memorial Day Concert” in Washington they’ll have special guests on hand: relatives who served in World War II.

I’m going to be bringing my Uncle Jack this year,” Sinise said, referring to 83-year-old Jack Sinise, who flew 30 missions over Germany as a B-17 navigator.

Mantegna’s guest of honor is his uncle, William Novelli, also 83, who was part of Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army and is among several WWII veterans in Mantegna’s family.

They are just two of the many men and women whose military service deserves the nation’s attention and thanks, the actors said.

Memorial Day, Mantegna said, “very easily becomes one of those holidays that you put in your head as, ‘Oh, what are we going to do Memorial Day weekend? We’re going to have a barbecue, maybe watch the Indianapolis 500 ….”‘

“Or the ball game,” interjected Sinise.

“Unless there’s some immediate relative that draws your attention to the meaning of the holiday it’s very easy to forget,” Mantegna said. “I would hope that people come away from the concert thinking, ‘Wow, so this is what the holiday is about.”‘

This year’s program, airing 8-9:30 p.m. EDT on PBS (check local listings), will focus on Air Force pilots as the military branch marks its 60th anniversary, and on those in the National Guard, including four Louisiana National Guard soldiers killed in Iraq.

Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day, was established in the 19th century to honor those killed in the Civil War but later grew to encompass all who died in combat. It is officially observed on the last Monday in May.

The concert, held on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol and in its 17th year, typically draws a crowd of 300,000 and is watched by as many as 10 million viewers on public television stations, making it one of PBS’ highest-rated performance shows each year.

The program also is carried by National Public Radio and in more than 135 countries on American Forces Radio and Television Network.

Sunday’s performers will include country singers Lee Ann Womack and the duo Big & Rich; actors Charles Durning and Dianne Wiest; opera singer Frederica von Stade; Daniel Rodriguez, the singing ex-New York police officer, and Erich Kunzel and the National Symphony Orchestra.

Ret. Gen. Colin Powell will take part, along with the U.S. Army Chorus and Army Chorale; the Army Herald Trumpets; Air Force Singing Sergeants; Navy Sea Chanters and an Armed Forces Color Guard.

Durning, a longtime concert participant, is himself a WWII veteran who earned a Silver Star and three Purple Hearts. The Oscar-nominated actor will recount the story of Corbin Willis Jr., who survived nearly 80 missions in WWII and Korea and was a prisoner of war.

The concert’s emphasis on the 1940s-era pilots and the National Guard combines a respect for the past and the present, said supervising producer Michael Colbert.

During the war against Nazi Germany, Japan and Italy, more than half of U.S. aircraft were lost and crew casualties numbered 95,000, he said.

“As the greatest generation is really getting into their later years, it’s important to understand and know about that sacrifice,” Colbert said.

For the National Guard, the burden its members are carrying at home and abroad made their recognition especially important, Colbert said.

He rejected the idea that the concert is at all different because America is at war in Iraq.

“Every year we’re trying to honor and remember the sacrifices people have made at home and abroad in time of war,” Colbert said. But, he added, the ongoing conflict has increased public consciousness of military contributions.

Mantegna said he hopes that people can separate their opinion of the war from their respect for the troops.

“I’m very adamant when I’m talking to people about this concert to let them know, “Look, don’t confuse it with being any sort of political statement one way or another,”‘ he said. “This is not about politics or about who’s right or wrong. It’s about supporting” those in service.

“As Joe said, it’s not a political statement about the war,” Sinise added. “We’re honoring all veterans who have sacrificed throughout the history of this country. It’s important to remember that what we have here has been paid for, paid for with human life.”

Neither Mantegna or “CSI: New York” star Sinise are veterans, but both have been long active in supporting veterans’ groups and causes. Sinise and his Lt. Dan band (named for his role as a military officer in the film “Forrest Gump”) perform on USO tours.

Mantegna, a stage and film actor who co-starred in the TV series “Joan of Arcadia,” stepped in as host of the Memorial Day concert last year after the death of Ossie Davis, inviting Sinise to perform for that show and to join him as host this year.

There are some in the entertainment industry who cite politics in declining to take part, Mantegna said.

“All I can say is that everybody who has participated has come away with a very positive feeling of having done it, and it turning out to be much more than they anticipated,” he said.

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