Big and Rich to honor vets at September dedication

The country vocal duo Big and Rich will add their voices to the September dedication of South Dakota's Vietnam War Memorial in Pierre. The ceremony will take place at 2:00 p.m on September 16.

Big and Rich co-wrote their current hit "8th of November" as a tribute to their friend Niles Harris, a Deadwood resident and Vietnam War veteran.

"They have a very special story to tell," Governor Mike Rounds said. "I cannot say how much this will mean to a whole lot of veterans who are identifying with this particular performance of the '8th of November'."

Big Kenny and John Rich befriended Harris after a friend invited them to South Dakota "years ago," Kenny said, before their careers had taken off.

"We fell in love with your state and really, really enjoyed visiting the Black Hills and our favorite little town there in Deadwood," Kenny said.

They played in a small bar called the Buffalo Saloon. Bartending was a "nice gentleman wearing a beautiful top hat," Kenny said. Harris took the two aspiring country stars to old gold mines in the area and during these trips they noticed war memorabilia decorating his aging Bronco. They asked Harris about the badges.

"We got to talking to him and he told us this most incredible story," Kenny said.

Harris was on his first major "hump," in Vietnam and his unit, the 173rd, Airborne Brigade, was a lead brigade going through the jungle on Nov. 8, 1965, when 1,200 Viet Cong soldiers ambushed them. He was one of the few men in the unit to survive the day, Kenny said.

After lying on the jungle floor for eight hours Harris was evacuated out and spent two years in military hospitals being treated for gunshot wounds. When he got out he served three more tours in Vietnam and eventually retired from the military after 25 years of service in the Special Forces, Kenny said.

Big and Rich were moved by the fact that after making that sacrifice, losing friends he'd been with constantly for a year and a half, Harris received no recognition or welcome home and the war still is often remembered in a negative light, Kenny said.

But every year, on Nov. 8, Harris puts on a suit, takes himself out to 

dinner and "throws back a couple of cocktails" to remember his fallen comrades.

"We were so moved by it that over the next couple of years John and I kept working on this song," Kenny said. "We wanted to write a song that honored them that would be here forever and ever. And we did."

That song has helped to heal some of the war wounds soldiers still suffer. Throughout their summer tour veterans have come to concerts and a man who served with Harris helped to lead the audience at a Seattle Big and Rich 

concert in the Pledge of Allegiance. Because of his post-traumatic stress syndrome, that man had never been in a crowd of more than 10 people since November 8, 1965.

"Being songwriters and singers this was our opportunity to let these guys know we appreciate them and beyond that hopefully help them in their battered state of mind that many of them are in right now," Rich said. "And we're seeing that come to pass."

Kenny and Rich flew with Harris to Vietnam after helping to find the exact spot of the November 8 battle. Harris buried his jungle boots there - the only thing he had from that day - in a crater left from a bomb dropped by a B-52. They did a shot to remember his fallen friends and performed the song. The event was shown as an hour-long television documentary.

Because of their tight tour schedule the duo will fly into South Dakota from the East Coast, arriving at 1:30 a.m. and flying out again shortly after performing, Rounds said. Northwestern Energy is covering their travel costs and Big and Rich will donate a 173rd coin including their logo to the veterans attending the dedication. Proctor and Gamble is giving a copy of the song's video to all registered veterans.

"We're going to be real proud to be there and be part of this dedication," Kenny said.

"It should be a real moving experience," Rich said. "We couldn't think of a better place to do it than South Dakota. We think of it as our home away from home."

Besides the dedication ceremony the weekend will include a parade beginning at 9:30 a.m. September 16 that will be one of the biggest the state has seen, Rounds said. Various veterans groups, more than 2,000 motorcycle riders and high school and college bands will participate. Events continue throughout Fridayand Saturday, September 15-16, with the Red Willow Band and the Beach Boys performing Friday night. The Steve Miller Band and Creedance Clearwater Revisited will play Saturday night. Other activities include a muscle car show, replica of the Vietnam Wall Memorial, USO Tents, Huey helicopter rides, POW/MIA information, Fallen Sons & Daughters Tribute, Quilt of Tears display and a Find-A-Buddy Service.

"We want them to come and be honored," Rounds said of the Vietnam War veterans. "We want to give them that parade they never received," Rounds said. "We want to honor them for that sacrifice."

For more information visit www.sdvietnamwarmemorial.com