John Rich, of country duo Big & Rich, said it best when he said (while at CBS Radio’s second annual Stars and Strings concert), “I think during a time when the country is divided, we can all agree to take care of our veterans today.”

Wednesday night (Nov. 9, 2016) I had the privilege of attending CBS Radio’s Stars and Strings concert for the second year in a row. 2015 was the first year for the concert and it was truly an unforgettable experience. So much so that my brother (an Army veteran) and I have made it a point to make it a sibling tradition of ours. Being at the show was incredible, but to be there with my younger brother, an Army veteran who my family and I were so scared we wouldn’t get to see again during his two deployments to Afghanistan, was nothing short of a blessing. Sitting in the Chicago Theater with him, listening to some of our favorite country music stars perform acoustically, and express their gratitude toward our troops and veterans was an experience that I can only describe as amazing in the truest definition of the word. For those unfamiliar with Stars and Strings, it’s a stripped down acoustic concert, constructed by CBS Radio, which honors our nation’s military heroes, as well as their families, and features some of country music’s biggest names.

The concert began with US 99’s new morning show hosts Stylz and Roman introducing Blackhawks anthem singer, Jim Cornelison, who hit every note perfectly as he sang our nation’s Star Spangled Banner. Set up in a round table format, the first set of performers were Chase Rice, Dan and Shay, Big & Rich, and Randy Houser. They each took turns performing three of their own songs, which included “Ready Set Roll,” “19 You and Me,” “Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy,” and “How Country Feels.” Being that it was a show to support our troops and veterans, Big & Rich of course did their song “8th of November,” which tells the story of Niles Harris. Harris was one of several soldiers in the 173rd Airborne Brigade of the United States Army during Operation Hump in South Vietnam on November 8, 1965 that was saved by Army medic, Lawrence Joel. Joel later became the first living African American to receive the Medal of Honor since the Spanish-American War of 1898. After their three songs, all four artists sang “God Bless America” together after asking the veterans in attendance to stand in recognition for their service.

CHICAGO, IL - NOVEMBER 09: Jo Don Rooney performs at CBS RADIOs second annual Stars and Strings concert at The Chicago Theatre on November 9, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images for CBS)

CHICAGO, IL – NOVEMBER 09: Jo Don Rooney performs at CBS RADIOs second annual Stars and Strings concert at The Chicago Theatre on November 9, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images for CBS)

Before the second set of performers were introduced, popular US 99 DJ Drew Walker brought Major Dan Rooney on stage with him to discuss Folds of Honor. A portion of the proceeds from Stars and Strings benefits the Folds of Honor Foundation, which provides educational support to spouses and children of America’s fallen and wounded soldiers. Folds of Honor was founded by Major Dan Rooney and his wife, and as he explained, “is about the less than 1% of America that puts on the United States uniform to defend the freedoms for all of us.” Rooney, an F-16 Fighter Pilot in the Oklahoma Air National Guard told the story that inspired him to create the Folds of Honor Foundation. During his return home from his second tour in Iraq, as his flight landed, the pilot announced they were carrying the remains of Corporal Brock Brucklin. The pilot asked all the passengers to respectfully remain seated while the casket was carried off the plane. Rooney watched as the Corporal’s twin brother walked besides the flag covered casket along with the deceased’s young son, Jacob. Mooney said his own heart broke for them as he thought of his own wife and daughters. Half of the passengers on that flight disregarded the pilot’s request and deboarded the plane anyway. It was that moment Rooney said when he knew he needed to find a way to pay tribute to the families of soldiers who suffered such losses as Corporal Brucklin’s had.

Major Rooney’s story left an impact, as we’ve all bore witness to the ignorance of those who just don’t understand the sacrifices our men and women in uniform make on a daily basis. Concerts like Stars and Strings and an organization like Folds of Honor are so important because they not only pay tribute and show appreciation, but they also help to spread awareness. It’s imperative to know what our soldiers go through, not just while they’re overseas fighting for this country, but also when they come home. I’ve seen first-hand the struggle our soldiers face when they return home, not knowing where they fit into society anymore and not knowing how to deal with everything they’ve seen and been forced to do while putting the safety of this country and their fellow soldiers first. People should also know what military families go through, not just while our loved ones are away, but also while we watch helplessly as our loved ones fight an internal battle that we know nothing about and cannot even begin to fathom. I can tell you personally that it is without doubt one of the hardest things to go through. And to know that there are far too many soldiers who don’t make it through the battle they’re fighting inside is more heartbreaking than most of you will ever know.

CHICAGO, IL - NOVEMBER 09: Brett Eldredge performs at CBS RADIOs second annual Stars and Strings concert at The Chicago Theatre on November 9, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Timothy Hiatt/Getty Images)

CHICAGO, IL – NOVEMBER 09: Brett Eldredge performs at CBS RADIOs second annual Stars and Strings concert at The Chicago Theatre on November 9, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Timothy Hiatt/Getty Images)

The second group of round table of performers to take the stage were Tyler Farr (who flew to Chicago all the way from Alaska), Kelsea Ballerini, and surprise guests Old Dominion and Brett Eldredge. Each of them performed some of their hit songs, which included “Redneck Crazy,” “Snapback,” “Break Up With Him,” “Love Me Like You Mean It,” “Peter Pan,” “Drunk On Your Love,” and “Wanna Be That Song.” Farr performed his newest single “Our Town,” which could not have been more fitting for the night, and Brett closed out the set with the World Series Champions anthem “Go Cubs Go,” with help from the crowd of course. Jason Aldean was the next performer to take the stage and performed four of his hits, which included, “Tattoos on This Town,” “A Little More Summer Time,” “Fly Over States,” and “My Kinda Party.” The last two performers of the night to take the stage were Rascal Flatts and Brantley Gilbert, who were introduced by US 99 DJs Kasper and Kimmie C. Both performed their popular hits, which included “Country Must Be Country Wide,” “I Like the Sound of That,” “You Don’t Know Her Like I Do” and “Fast Cars and Freedom.”

It was Brantley Gilbert, though, who stole the show when he sang “One Hell of an Amen” after telling the heartbreaking story behind the song. Gilbert explained that he wrote half of “One Hell of an Amen” about a guy he had never even met. His friend Josh Greene was an Army Ranger and returned home several years ago after seeing a friend die when the Humvee he was in was bombed. Gilbert shared with the audience at Stars and Strings how his friend Josh was never the same, and how Gilbert watched as he battled demons. The other half of the song was written about another of Gilbert’s close friends, Kory, who lost his battle with Leukemia. As Brantley was telling this heartbreaking story, I (among others I’m sure) couldn’t help but get choked up with him. It’s far from easy to witness someone you love grieve the loss of a loved one, and “One Hell of an Amen” is the perfect tribute to those we’ve lost; an ode to our fallen angels.
Stars and Strings was an incredible experience, full of excellent performances by every artist and even some emotional tributes. It was the level of gratitude and appreciation, though, that they each expressed for our military men and women and their families that really spoke volumes, and made the night as special as it was. There is no other music genre that shows this kind of love to our troops and to our veterans the way country music does. From the songs they write, like “One Hell of an Amen” and “Our Town,” (among others) to the special tours they do overseas and their involvement with organizations like the USO and Wounded Warriors Project (just to name a few), country artists and the country community truly understand what it means to honor those who sacrifice everything for the good of their country. As Big Kenny and John Rich told US 99’s Drew Walker in an interview before the show, “Without veterans, without active duty, we don’t have a country.” I couldn’t agree more with that statement.

With Veterans Day today, Friday, November 11th, I wanted to take this opportunity to share my thoughts, feelings, and personal experiences on the topic, which is very near and dear to my heart. I want to stress that no matter what your political stance is, respect for our country, for our flag, and for military men and women should always come first. Without these brave souls who wear the uniform and sacrifice being with their loved ones in order to provide the rest of us a blanket of security to sleep under every night, we the people of the United States would not have ANY of the luxuries we have today. Freedom means different things to different people. The best definition I’ve heard of the word freedom, though, came from Jason Aldean. He said, “Freedom means being in a position to be able to do all the things we want to do, and live the life want to live.” We get to live a life the rest of the world only dreams of. That includes our First Amendment right to freedom of speech. In no other country can you speak out freely against your government without being put in jail or killed. I think that’s something that certain people in this country need to be reminded of.

I believe people need to know how important it is to thank our troops and veterans, not just during the month of November or just on Veterans Day, but EVERY SINGLE DAY. When you see a man or woman in uniform, you should make it a point to thank them for their service. Trust me when I say your simple thank you and show of appreciation will mean more to them than you know. With that being said, I’d like to personally thank, from the bottom of my heart, every active duty member of our military, as well as all of our veterans. Both of my grandfathers served, as well as two of my uncles. I never fully understood, though, what military families go through until my brother joined the army and did two deployments in Afghanistan. The scariest thing I’ve ever experienced, to this day, was not knowing each time the phone or doorbell rang if that was going to be the news that my broke my family. We were blessed that God brought my brother home to us, but so many families aren’t that fortunate. So to the military families who have lost their loved ones, you have my deepest condolences.

As Jay DeMarcus from Rascal Flatts said, “’Thank you’ doesn’t begin to describe the gratitude we feel in our hearts to those who have put their lives on the lines.”