Concert scheduled to reflect on Vietnam War

Country singer Ricky Lee of Altoona once sang “The Star Spangled Banner” in front of 80,000 fans before a nationally televised NFL game.

It’s the pinnacle of his career, so far.

He’ll be holding a free concert in Altoona 3 p.m. Sunday to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War.

He doesn’t expect it will make him nervous like the event last November at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo.

But it too will be “one of the great highlights,” he said by phone this week. “[It’s] an honor thing.”

And if there should be a flicker of nerves, as he unveils a new song that includes a tribute to the 58,000 men and women whose names are on The Wall That Heals, the replica Vietnam War Memorial, arranged behind him as he sings?

“They got my back,” he said.

Lee, 46, was never in the service.

By the time the First Gulf War began in 1991, he was starting a family, he said.

But he came from a military family, with an uncle who served in Army for his career and a grandfather who served in both the Army and Navy. That made Lee conscious that those vets put themselves at risk – “while I’m living the American dream,” he said.

Accordingly, for the past nine years, he has dedicated much of his own career to veterans.

He guessed that 65 percent of his singing events and 30 percent of his songs are military-themed.

He’s performed at bases across the country, various vets’ homes and last year twice at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

He works with veterans groups, including the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion – sometimes taking the initiative, sometimes accepting their invitations.

“It’s my way of giving back,” he said.

A member of his crew, Bill Brantner of Williamsburg, who served in Vietnam, the First Gulf War and the Iraq War, helps inspire him.

Fire Base Eagle, a local organization that hopes to create a Vietnam War history center in this area, is organizing and promoting the concert, according to member John Gority.

Around the end of July, Lee approached FBE member Paul Johnson, pastor of the Eighteenth Street Community Church, and suggested the concert, said FBE President George Montgomery.

They went to the Department of Veterans Affairs, which granted permission for the concert in front of the Wall, which is on the grounds of the Van Zandt VA Medical Center, Montgomery said.

“They put it together fairly quick,” he said.

It’s a 50th anniversary concert, in keeping with the Army’s launch of its 50th anniversary commemoration in August.

The official anniversary won’t occur until 2015, as the U.S. ground war didn’t begin until March 1965, according to an Army New Service article.

It’s hard to be definitive, as the war wound up, then down slowly.

It began in 1954, when the U.S. sent a small number of advisers to help South Vietnam retain its western-style non-Communist government, after North Vietnam expelled the French, according to Encyclopedia Britannica.

It ended in 1975, when North Vietnam overran South Vietnam and unified the country.

But the ground war ended two years earlier.

There’s also been uncertainty over milestone U.S. casualties.

The first one is now considered to be Capt. Harry Cramer of Johnstown in 1957, according to a 2007 article on the Army website.

But The Vietnam Veterans Memorial website lists Sgt. Richard Fitzgibbon Jr., killed in 1956, as the first.

The first battlefield fatality was in 1961.

The last deaths were in 1975, in connection with an attack triggered by the seizure of a merchant ship, although there is uncertainty surrounding the identity of the last one, as three Marines were mistakenly left behind on an island in the wake of a rescue and recovery operation, according to online sources.

There were massive protests about the war over the years, and many service members met with protests on arriving back in the U.S.

Even now, “we can still get into heated arguments,” sometimes with people who lost loved ones in the war, Montgomery said.

But people over the years have come to understand Vietnam vets better, Montgomery said.

Sunday’s concert is a reflection of that.

“It’s never too late to thank a Vietnam vet – or any vet,” he said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.