Vietnam Veterans of America
Since 2017, VetsAid has been staging annual all-star benefit concerts in a new city each year to raise funds for veterans causes across the country. So far, this self-styled “rock-and-roll traveling circus” has held star-studded events in Washington, D.C., Takoma, Washington, and Houston, Texas, to packed arenas of as many as 18,000 fans, veterans, active-duty military personnel, and families. VetsAid also co-hosted concurrent job fairs where employers work with vets looking for meaningful employment. As a result of these events, the organization has been able to dispense dozens of five-figure grants each year to worthy veterans organizations to the tune of more than $1.4 million so far.
The unlikely man behind it all? Legendary rocker Joe Walsh.
Not so very long ago, Walsh (of James Gang, Eagles, and solo fame) was universally considered one of rock and roll’s most notorious delinquents. So how does a man—who at one point reportedly required a $20,000 security deposit in order to stay one night in any hotel—find himself a beacon of light to the nation’s veterans?
“Well, I’ll tell you,” he explained. “It came about because of three entirely separate reasons.”
Reason 1: Live! At Walter Reed
“I’ve always been concerned about the veterans’ situation, going all the way back to my generation—the Vietnam generation.” Walsh said. “I had some buddies serve in the Vietnam War, and they either came back shattered or didn’t come back at all.” So at the suggestion of a friend a few years back, Walsh made what he thought would be a one-time visit to soldiers recovering from serious injuries at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
“It was just something I did once. But after that visit, I dropped in every time I was in Washington,” he recalled. “There was that one wing [of the facility] that is just for prosthetics—you know, I.E.D. survivors—and, you know, the first couple times I didn’t know what to say to these guys. What can you say, you know? So I just listened. And it turned out to be the right way to be.
“I took them some Eagles hats and tee shirts and stuff. Some of them knew who I was and some of them really didn’t. But these guys, across the board, these guys weren’t bitter. They were positive and upbeat. I swear to you, they put themselves in harm’s way. They knew what they were going in for. They knew this might happen. It happened. They’re grateful to be alive.
“They were being fitted with state-of-the-art prosthetics. And they were rehabbing—they had a great gym and great physical therapists. They were all just focused on how their prostheses worked so they could get back to their lives.
“The other part of it was that there was a fellowship there. They were all in it together. They were like brothers and sisters. They were a family, taking care of each other.”
Walsh’s son Christian, who serves as VetsAid’s Executive Producer, accompanied him on a later visit. “They knew who Joe was, but there was also a lot of ‘God, I wish my parents were here.’ They’d scramble to FaceTime their parents. That always made me laugh.”
On subsequent trips Joe arrived with guitar in hand, offering lessons for any disciples among the patients. “There were a handful of guys who didn’t know how to ask, but they wanted me to perform ‘Hotel California,’ ” he said. “You know, Don Henley wrote the lyrics and Don Henley sang it, so I never had to sing the whole thing. I only ever sing on the choruses, so I told them, ‘Look. I’ll play it, but I don’t know the fucking words. You guys are going to have to sing it.’
“And that’s what we did: They sang it, and I played it. And man, that whole room lit up.” A benefit concert was the next logical step.
Reason 2: The Other Joe Walsh
An almost-comical set of coincidences led to Walsh campaigning on behalf of Iraq War veteran and double amputee Tammy Duckworth during her 2012 campaign for Illinois’s 8th Congressional District.
Duckworth’s opponent in the general election? Joe Walsh.
That Joe Walsh, the then-incumbent congressman (and future Tea Party presidential candidate), had attracted national attention to the race not only with controversial comments dismissing Duckworth’s service, but also the revelation that his congressional salary was being garnisheed in order to pay the more than $100,000 he owed in child support. Walsh recalled, “I was getting emails from people saying, ‘Pay your child support, you bum!’ I kept telling them, ‘That’s not me, man!’ ”
But Duckworth’s opponent’s biggest mistake came when he began using “Walk Away”—Walsh’s 1971 hit with the James Gang—in his campaign ads and at his rallies. A fact that Christian quickly brought to his father’s attention.
“Joe’s lawyer wrote what is now a very famous cease-and-desist letter that Rolling Stone published.” Christian said with a chuckle. “But the simple fact was he didn’t ask permission to use the song.”
“And he changed the words! That’s a no-no,” Joe Walsh added. The publication of the jocular cease-and-desist, along with the celebrity spotlight Walsh’s involvement shined on the race ended up being unbeatable publicity for Duckworth, whose victory that November made her the first woman with a disability to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives—and set in motion a meteoric political career.
“When Tammy asked me for my help, I decided there and then, with all her sacrifice for her country, she deserved to be in Congress,” Walsh said. “Today she’s a senator. To see her blossom from a disabled vet with a dream and to become who she is now, that really kicked me in the ass. It was yet another factor that helped lead to VetsAid.”
Reason 3: Gold Star Kid
”The third reason is I am what is now known as a Gold Star kid,” explained Walsh. “My father was in the Army Air Corps—before there was an Air Force—and he flew the first operational jet fighter: the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star. And when they say ‘operational’ that’s about all it was. It was their first jet; they were still figuring it all out.
“He was a flight instructor, which was in essence also a test pilot. So much so that his flight log went straight back to Lockheed for analysis so they could make improvements in the jet. There were some maneuvers it just wouldn’t respond to, and some other things, like in a dive it was really complex to pull out if it reached a certain speed.”
Walsh’s family was living on Okinawa in 1949 while his father trained pilots preparing for the impending conflict in Korea. “One day he didn’t come back. He was 24,” Walsh said. “I was not quite two years old. My mother and I returned to the States.
“So everywhere I went I would always resonate with Gold Star Families. I would see what they go through, and then it just hit me: ‘Wait. I’m a part of this family. I can do something to help.’ My son, Christian, took that and turned it into VetsAid.”
“Out of the blue Joe said, ‘I want to do a benefit concert for veterans.’ I said, ‘Great. Cute. We’ll do it in a theater and it’ll be fun,’ ” Christian recalled. “But Joe said ‘No, I want to do it in an arena. I want to make it huge.’ Now here we are, our biggest show was 18,000 fans in just our second year. It’s taken us all by surprise. And we’re very grateful to the veterans community for embracing it.”
Championing the Small-But-Mighty
“I know just from being on tour all over, there are many smaller vets organizations in small towns—local organizations that are really in the trenches and doing wonderful work,” Walsh said. “If you’re a veteran with PTSD isolated in a rural area, you’re in deep shit. You’re all by yourself. But there are these little pockets of people trying to help: A lot of them are Vietnam vets—they’d been through the same things themselves when they returned. I decided they needed all the help they could get just to keep going.”
VetsAid awards two tiers of grants each year in order to serve the widest possible array of organizations. “Joe wanted to make sure anybody with a need could apply. So we do large grants for larger, more established groups, and have smaller grants available for the more modest, grassroots ones,” explained Christian. “We make a special effort to encourage charities in the region where the concert is being held to apply: Texas in 2019, Takoma in 2018, Virginia in 2017.” Charities involving music are of special interest to Walsh. His wife Marjorie has a passion for equine therapy.
Suffice it to say, with the whole country on lockdown there will be no VetsAid 2020. But both Walshes remain undaunted. “We had a plan. We had city. We had an arena. We had everything ready to go,” Christian said. But no amount of wishful thinking will bring about live music anywhere this year. “Obviously with Joe being in the music industry, we know what the real deal is. There is no way 15,000 people can safely gather indoors.
“It’s a shame because we were finally going to have it in the Midwest. Because it was time. We like to bring this concert to different regions of the country each year,” he said. “Joe envisioned this as a traveling circus every year. Yes, it’s about raising money, but what we didn’t expect was the community that we would create in every city every year.
“We have fans who buy hotel rooms a year in advance. We have caravans of veterans and their families who book Airbnbs and all come together and buy their seats together and wear the same colors to the concert. The community that we fostered is awesome, so the fact we cannot do it live and in person this year is heartbreaking. It’s a six-hour show and it’s very emotional and it’s very awesome.”
Not only has the COVID crisis foiled any hopes of holding an in-person 2020 VetsAid concert, it also foiled plans to present Walsh with the VVA Excellence in the Arts award at this year’s National Leadership & Education Conference in Dayton, Ohio. “I’m honored and humbled that you’d single me out for an award,” Walsh said. “My thoughts go out to the whole Vietnam veteran community. It was a long time ago, but they are not forgotten. And VetsAid is committed to doing what we can.”
“My father has always been my hero,” Walsh confided. “I spent a lot of time wondering what he’d be like. And I spent a lot of time thinking about how to do something that would make him proud of me.”
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