Opry Honors Veterans, Reunites Family

By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service

NASHVILLE, Tenn., Nov. 12, 2006 - In word and patriotic song, The Grand Ole Opry honored the nation's veterans and reunited a family during last night's live show at the historic Ryman Theater, its former home in downtown Nashville.

The Opry is a member of America Supports You, a Defense Department program highlighting ways Americans and the corporate sector support the nation's servicemembers.

"It's great to be able to pay tribute to our veterans any time, but particularly with the Opry show," John Conlee, host of the televised Opry shows, said of last night's performance, which happened to coincide with Veterans Day. "The people who serve the country, past and present, are the bedrock of the country."

One of those veterans was recognized on stage, and while the sentiment was authentic, there was an ulterior motive.

Retired Navy Chief Petty Officer Robert Hayes and his wife, Dorothy, didn't suspect America Supports You and the Opry had flown them to Nashville to be reunited with their grandson on stage. In fact, the couple from Arizona thought they were at the Ryman to talk with their grandson via teleconference, Dorothy said.

"We were trying to figure out how we could get to Washington, D.C., since we're this close," she said, laughing.

Army Spc. Dustin Evitts is stationed at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington while he recovers from injuries suffered while serving in Iraq with the 101st Airborne Division. He also had been flown in for the occasion, and had been in on the plan from the beginning.

Somehow, Evitts kept the secret through several phone calls with his grandparents. "I am pretty good at kind of lying a little bit," Evitts said. That's a claim his grandmother denies. "He would never lie at home," she said.

Evitts hadn't seen his grandparents in almost eight years, but had a message he wanted to deliver in person to the people who raised him until he was a high school freshman: "Surprise!"

His grandparents were certainly that, and grateful for the opportunity to reconnect with Evitts. "I'm just overwhelmed. I'm so happy to see him," Dorothy said, still in a pleasant state of shock some 30 minutes after the reunion.

The family will continue to catch up today before returning to their respective homes.

The show had a personal aspect for Conlee as well. His son is an active duty servicemember. Marine Lance Cpl. John Conlee, or Johnny as his dad calls him, has done one tour in Iraq with the 2nd Battalion, 6th Marine Division, and will be heading back for a second tour in the near future, Conlee said.

"I'm so proud of his willingness to do it, he and all the other young folks who are at this," he said. "You just have to put it in God's hands and then hope for the best."

Faith and hope may be all the folks back home have, but the Opry provided audience members a chance to make those sentiments tangible for deployed troops with America Supports You post cards. A card was placed on each seat to be filled out with a message to troops.

The show, awash in patriotism, began with the presentation of the colors by an Army color guard and the singing of the national anthem. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for Army Staff Sgt. Robert Sexton, who participated in the color guard.

"It's always been a place I wanted to come," Sexton, with the Nashville Recruiting Battalion, said. "To come here for the second time and go on stage and represent my country was pretty (awesome)."

Throughout the show, many of the performers played patriotic tunes and nearly all offered their thanks and gratitude to veterans past and present. Andy Griggs was no exception. His grandfather, a World War II veteran, was watching from the front row.

"I want to dedicate this song to anybody out there who has red, white and blue on his shoulders ... but especially I want to dedicate this song ... (to) my papaw," he said referring to his song, "If Heaven." "He is my favorite, favorite veteran."

Singer Darryl Worley wasn't shy about expressing his gratitude to the veterans either. In musical tribute, he offered his new single "Just Came Back (From a War)."

"This song is very different, and it really was inspired by a story that was told to me by a young Marine that had just come back from Iraq," he said. "Just hearing a lot of different troops talk about how coming home is not always what you think it might be, ... those true stories I took in bits and pieces and wrote this song and it seems to be being well received."

Worley, an ardent supporter of the military, has performed numerous concerts for servicemembers around the world. His family's history of military service influenced his dedication to support the troops, he said.

"I've always been real patriotic," Worley said. "That's just part of growing up in my family."

While he gets to do something he enjoys, it's all about the troops. "We have a little bit of knowledge of what they go through and how tough it is to be away from their families," Worley said. "It makes us feel good to be able to go and do what we can to entertain them."

Breaks in the show were filled with messages to veterans from loved ones back home. The Opry previously collected the salutes via e-mail as part of the Veterans Day celebration.

Conlee, who performed his "They Also Serve," a song dedicated to the families of veterans, offered his own message to the audience that summed up the sentiment of the evening.

"God bless the greatest military the world has ever known and the families who support them," he said.
[Web Version:]