Joe Bonsall of the Oak Ridge Boys has a message for the Department of Veterans Affairs: “Get your butts in gear and look after our kids coming home.”
He’s speaking in his new official capacity, since the “The Oaks” are the new spokesband, as it were, for the American Legion, the nation’s largest veterans organization.
The Grammy award-winning band — with hit tunes such as “Elvira,” “Y’all Come Back Saloon” and a sing-a-along with Johnny Cash and June Carter called “Praise the Lord and Pass the Soup” — is hoping to raise awareness and support for the needs of military veterans.
The group wants to improve detection and treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, in addition to helping veterans with the often tedious VA benefits process. It also plans to participate in a national fundraising and awareness campaign to support the detection and treatment of mental health issues among veterans.
In a telephone interview from his farm in Hendersonville, Tenn., Bonsall said his father, a World War II veteran, received excellent VA care when he suffered a stroke after shrapnel was stuck in his carotid artery.
“My father was looked after by the VA, but the VA of that day was on top of it,” Bonsall said. “Of course they also had my mother to deal with. But we all know about the wait-times issue these days, and we also know that the American Legion has been working real hard to get the VA back on track.”
American Legion national commander Mike Helm said his organization realizes it might need to draw in younger celebrities such as a Taylor Swift or a hip hop star to appeal to the younger veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq wars, who probably don’t remember the Oak Ridge Boys’ appearances on the 1970s show “Hee Haw.”
“They are older than me,” Helm, who’s in his early 60s, said of the band members. “But they have a lot of appeal and a lot of passion for this issue.”
The Oak Ridge Boys — lead singer Duane Allen, bass singer Richard Sterban, tenor Bosnall and baritone William Lee Golden — recently celebrated more than 40 years performing together.
“Let’s face it, a lot of people think the [Veterans of Foreign Wars] and American legion are not for the younger guys coming home,” Bonsall said. “But the American Legion is legendary. And everyone knows us because their grandparents and parents forced this generation to listen to us on their 8-tracks and cassettes.”
Bonsall says it’s a particuarly important cause for him. He wrote a 2003 biography about his military veteran parents, “G.I. Joe and Lillie: Remembering a Life of Love and Loyalty.” His song by the same name was included in the Oaks’ “Colors” album, released the same year. A music video of the song reemerged in the summer of 2009 and became a YouTube phenomenon, surpassing 1.5 million views.
As part of the American Legion’s efforts to reach out to younger veterans, the band recently filmed a series of emotional commercials about coping with post-traumatic stress disorder and suicidal thoughts. The ads will appear on television in coming months.
The American Legion says it’s been helping veterans cope with the invisible wounds of war since its formation in 1919, including extensive focus in the last four years to help veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who have suffered what are known as the “signature wounds” of today’s war era: post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.
“We are jumping at the chance to help,” said Bonsall. “It’s the highest honor.”