‘Goodnight Saigon’ brings recognition to U.S. veterans

Co-written by Lois O’Connor and Mike Mc Mahon

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Photo credit: Michael Mc Mahon

On Saturday, July 26th Billy Joel played for a sold-out concert at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C. The week of the concert, VVMF was contacted by Billy Joel’s team to get veterans to accompany him onstage during the song, “Goodnight Saigon.” VVMF quickly took up the request to find local veterans with whom they were affiliated with. The contacting was easy, and our veterans jumped on the opportunity. More than a dozen veterans gave up their Saturday to spend the day at Nationals Stadium. Attendees ranged from active-duty service members to Vietnam veterans. And while “Goodnight Saigon” is a song not as popular as “Uptown Girl,” or “Piano Man,” it is also a song rarely sung. This only added to the excitement of the big moment!

 

Some people like to refer to Billy Joel’s music as “timeless,” loved by audiences old and young. And they couldn’t be more accurate. Billy’s music brings people together.  The charming musical talents of one man has been able to reach and connect far and wide, giving one’s audience a sense of commonality.

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Photo credit: Michael Mc Mahon

The lyrics of “Goodnight Saigon” surround around Marines in battle bonding together and fighting their fears. “Goodnight Saigon” pulls at your heartstrings. First heard on the 1982 album, The Nylon Curtain, the song brings together the sentiments and attitudes of U.S. Marines on the battlefield and everything in between.

VVMF’s Director of Advancement, Lois O’Connor worked the concert event. Her words are as follows:

“It is trendy now a days to “support our troops”…..to bring a wounded veteran on stage….to highlight a family. Our current generations of service members and veterans feel the gratitude and warmth of a grateful nation.

However, this wasn’t the case for our Vietnam veterans.

In November of 2013, Billy Joel was awarded the Kennedy Center Honors and was surprised with a performance by Garth Brooks singing his hit Goodnight Saigon, during which a group of Vietnam Veterans came on stage to sing. It was the Kennedy Center, there wasn’t a dry eye, and everyone applauded.

Two weeks ago, our offices were contacted about having about 14 Veterans participate in a very rare performance of Billy Joel singing at National’s Park on Saturday July 26 and asked if we could we help. We gathered some VVMF staff members and veterans consisting of: current members of the military, men and women, Gulf War veterans, and most importantly Vietnam Veterans.

A group photo before the concert

Photo credit: Michael Mc Mahon

We were all a bit overwhelmed: sound check – complete. Rehearsal- complete. Green Room- store gear, refresh and wait (they joked they were good at that). We were all treated like royalty- special “Working” badges, which meant we had all access and could go anywhere (which some did- we lost two for a bit)!

Our credentials

Photo credit: Michael Mc Mahon

When the golf carts arrived to take us to the back of the stage, we were dressed, excited and ready to go. As we rolled away- some were singing “We will all go down together…”.

Then we got backstage, It was dark. I had sent around the video of the Kennedy Center Awards so that everyone would know what to expect…..but this was above anything one could explain! It was dark. It was loud. People kept stopping us and thanking these folks for their service…..I could see, as we walked our Vietnam Vets through the crowd – they were truly unaccustomed to this greeting, and were often shy about responding.

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Photo credit: Michael Mc Mahon

We took our place backstage…..the rotors of the helicopters started and we all got goosebumps…..the sold out crowd of 40,000 people cheered….everyone knowing every single Billy Joel song…and this is Washington, DC. When our cue came, our veterans climbed the ladders to the stage. The eruption of the audience was spontaneous! The noise, the smoke, the song….and then it came the Chorus. Everyone began singing ,”We will ALL GO DOWN TOGETHER.”

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Photo credit: JoAnn Waller

When the song ended- the cheering from the crowd continued, and then transformed into chants of, “USA, USA, USA!” The Veterans on the stage were stunned. Tears filled everyone’s eyes. Billy Joel’s band dropped their instruments and hugged and thanked each and every one of them!

What Billy Joel somewhat unknowingly did for those men and women on that stage, was to allow a few Vietnam Veterans to experience the warmth, love, and appreciation of a grateful nation on behalf of each and every one who served and for the 58,300 on The Wall.

Thank you, Billy Joel. Thank you to our veterans for their service!

Michael Mc Mahon

Photo credit: Michael Mc Mahon (pictured)

Mike Mc Mahon, Vietnam War veteran and devoted Wall volunteer was also in attendance. His experience was not only exciting, but overwhelming. His words are as follows:

The entire evening was special from the time we arrived at 3:30pm to when I drove out of the parking lot around midnight. There are many stories to tell from the special friendship and camaraderie that developed among the VVMF staff and my fellow veterans, to the standing ovation we received, but a very moving, and unexpected part occurred after we performed.

Returning to our seats (Row 20, center stage) the people around us immediately recognized we were the Vietnam Veterans on stage. They congratulated us on the performance and added, “thank you for your service.” This continued after the concert…people stopped us, asked our reactions to being on stage, and always extended a “thank you for your service to our country.” The reactions were sincere and heartfelt. There is much said about the welcome home Vietnam Veterans received after their tour of duty. I always treasured the welcome I received from my wife, my family, and my friends. Leaving the stadium, 44 years after returning from Vietnam I felt the “Welcome Home” of a grateful Nation.

Read more about Michael’s experience on his blog. See his photos here.

Watch our veterans onstage with Billy Joel here. And on Billy Joel’s own blog, get a recap. 

It’s never too late to give our veterans the recognition they so justly deserve. There is also no better time to say, “thank you!”

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