President George W. Bush, actors Bryan Cranston, Jake Gyllenhaal and Kevin Bacon, talk show host Tamron Hall and country star Trace Adkins were among the notables who paid tribute to America’s veterans in the “Variety’s Salute to Service Presented by History” TV special that aired Wednesday to mark Veterans Day.
The hourlong special spotlighted the personal stories of a number of U.S. veterans and discussed the different ways they continue to serve their communities beyond their time in the military. It closed with a tribute from Cranston to the USO and its 80-year-history of working with Hollywood to provide “a little piece of home” to troops stationed overseas. The work of Team Rubicon, the veteran-led disaster relief volunteer organization, was also saluted.
Kicking off the event was the story of Onur Yenigan, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran and emergency room physician, who is working under fast-paced, unpredictable conditions during the coronavirus pandemic. Even though the 13 weeks of bootcamp was the most challenging experience in life, Yenigan said it has taught him countless life lessons that have translated into his next career.
Country singer Trace Adkins introduced Kionte Storey, a Marine Corps veteran who lost his leg during a morning patrol in Afghanistan. Storey has since trained as a Paralympics athlete, ran the New York City marathon and hiked Mount Kilimanjaro. “Veterans who are doing extraordinary things can act like a mirror showing the rest of us how much we’re capable of overcoming and accomplishing in our own lives,” Adkins said.
Reggae musician Shaggy honored Brian Henderson, who completed over 100 operations abroad. Switching gears to the fire service, Henderson has devoted his life at home to serving the communities and environment of Orange County.
Hall joined to introduce Marine Corps veteran Jasmin Moghbeli, who now works for NASA. “Once finished with traditional active duty, many of those who have served chose careers that are directly inspired by their time in the military,” said Hall. Moghbeli explained that her collaboration and work ethic from the military have carried over to her career as an aspiring astronaut.
Kevin Bacon saluted to John Gallina, a former National Guard who now works with Purple Heart Homes to create houses in the U.S. for veterans who return from overseas operations. “There’s healing when you go out and serve others,” Gallina said of his work. “It gives me an overwhelming feeling of joy to know that we can make such a significant change in somebody’s life and to give them hope, and to let them know that a community truly does care and loves them.”
For Deborah Lamere, reuniting with her Air Force combat plane led to a new job doing what she loves most.
“In the Army, while serving in Iraq, Debra flew on a Chinook tail No. 346, a helicopter she thought she’d never see again when she retired,” said Kelly Ripa when introducing the veteran. Lamere now works at the Combat Air Museum in Kansas, fixing up her old Chinook and other Air Force planes to preserve the stories of war.
Former President Bush made a surprise appearance to celebrate Veteran’s Day. “I hope you were moved and inspired by our nation’s veterans’ words. Since 9/11, more than three million Americans have worn the uniform of the United States,” he said.
Bush introduced Saul Martinez, a U.S. Army veteran whom he honors in his book “Portraits of Courage” as an “awesome example of resilience, one heck of a golfer and a good friend.”
“Our country can never fully repay him or other veterans,” he continued. “But we are to try. We owe them and their families a deep debt of gratitude — today and every day.”
Gyllenhaal shared his experience supporting the Headstrong Project, a non-profit that provides cost-free mental healthcare services to veterans and their loved ones. He also pointed out the importance of healing the unseen wounds from war by actively reaching out to veterans and their families.
Demonstrating the healing power of the arts, singer Kellie Pickler introduced the work of Sgt. Thom Tran who uses comedy to heal from the experience of war. Tran most recently performed in Hollywood’s Laugh Factory just before the coronavirus-forced lockdown. “The first time I made a comedy club audience laugh, I forgot all the pain. The moment they laugh, I stopped being afraid,” he said.
The special concluded with Cranston’s look at the work of the contemporary USO, which goes far beyond care packages and airport lounges. The organization is known for presenting more than 400,000 “camp shows” for troops stationed overseas. The USO’s mission is to help “bridge the divide between military and civilian life” and to help keep military members connected to their families before, during and after their service.
Cranston noted that the USO today operations out of 250 locations around the world with the help of some 30,000 volunteers. The Emmy- and Tony-winning actor closed out the special with fitting words for Veterans Day.
“To all of those who serve and continue to serve — thank you,” he said.
“Variety’s Salute to Service” was co-produced with History.