Former Marine Matt Victoriano is being recognized as a "Champion of Change" at the White House.
At the Country Music Association Awards last night, “I Drive Your Truck” won Song of the Year.
The song tells the story of a Massachusetts father whose son was killed in Afghanistan. The father drives his son’s Dodge Ram to honor his memory.
Now, Monti’s decision to drive his son’s truck has taken on a life of its own.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
Were you watching the Country Music Awards last night?
(SOUNDBITE OF 2013 COUNTRY MUSIC AWARDS)
JAKE OWENS: And the CMA Award for Song of the Year goes to - here we go.
LUCY HALE: All right.
OWENS: "I Drive Your Truck," Jessi Alexander.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I DRIVE YOUR TRUCK")
LEE BRICE: (Singing) I drive your truck. And I roll every window down. And I burn up...
YOUNG: "I Drive Your Truck," sung by Lee Brice. And by now, you probably know who it was inspired by: a Massachusetts father named Paul Monti. His son Jared was killed in Afghanistan in 2006, shot down while trying to save another wounded soldier. Jared was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for that action, then he was buried at the Massachusetts National Cemetery on Cape Cod.
And when his father, Paul, visited the grave one Veterans Day, he noticed there were no flags on the graves. So Paul started Operation Flags for Vets, to place flags on all the graves for Memorial Day and Veterans Day. He appeared on this program, asking for help in doing that. We thought: Oh, my gosh. How's he going to pull this off? Afterwards, HERE AND NOW's Alex Ashlock went to the first Operation Flags for Vets before Memorial Day 2011 and had this conversation with Paul.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)
ALEX ASHLOCK, BYLINE: I think I have this right. Do you still drive Jared's truck?
PAUL MONTI: Yes, I do. Here it is. (Laughter) Yup.
ASHLOCK: Tell me about that truck.
MONTI: What can I tell you? It's just - it's him. It's got his DNA all over it. I just - I love driving it, because it reminds me of him, though I don't need the truck to remind me of him. I think about him every hour of every day.
ASHLOCK: It's a Dodge 4x4 Ram 1500. It's got the decals, the 10th Mountain Division, 82nd Airborne Division, American flags, a bumper sticker for the Jared Monti Scholarship Fund.
MONTI: My Gold Star plate on there, and Go Army and Support the Troops and - though it only gets pretty bad mileage. It's - I'm happy driving it. He's with me. But he's with me all the time, anyway.
ASHLOCK: You've already put a flag on your son's grave. What were you thinking when you did that?
MONTI: I was just thinking of him, you know, and how much I miss him and how proud I think he'd be that we're doing this for his fellow service members. I know he would have done something like this.
YOUNG: Well, a Nashville songwriter was listening, and the rest is country music history. But how is Paul Monti doing? And what about that flag campaign? Veterans Day is Monday. Let's check in with Paul Monti. He's on the line. So, Paul, what was it like last night? You were watching, but was it bittersweet or was it rewarding? What was it like for you?
MONTI: It was all of the above, definitely bittersweet because I'd rather have my son than anything else in the whole wide world. But to have him recognized nationally in this song, just fantastic. And it reaches Gold Star families, and other families, as well, all across the country.
This song has touched the hearts of so many, many people. I've received so many emails and posts on Facebook that this song is so meaningful to them, whether they hold on to their child's truck or car or motorcycle or boots or dog tags or teddy bear. It reaches to the heart of all people who've lost a child.
YOUNG: Yeah. Those are some of the things people tell you?
MONTI: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. Definitely.
YOUNG: Well, and it seemed like such a simple thing, I'm sure. Well, you've told us this, you know, I'll just drive the truck, after your son's killed, sort of still got smells and, you know, everything in it. But could you have imagined what this was going to lead to?
MONTI: No, no. No way in the world. In fact, I didn't even know - I heard the song long before I knew that I had been the influence for it. I mean, it was two years from the time they wrote the song until they actually found me, because they had to look. They had no idea who had done the interview. And they found me April 29th of 2013 when they finally found me. And by that time, the song was number one. So, no, no idea at all.
YOUNG: I love that part of the story, because here you are humming along - maybe in your truck - to the song "I Drive Your Truck," thinking, wow, that's a powerful song, not even knowing that you'd inspired it.
MONTI: Actually, I don't think I was ever humming along with the song. I could only listen to a small part of it before, you know, I'd start welling up. And it's difficult to listen to.
YOUNG: Yeah. You told us that last time, that you hadn't even gotten through it.
YOUNG: Have you now? Have you been able to...
MONTI: Oh, yeah. Yeah, I've willed my way through it now. Yes.
YOUNG: Yeah. It's quite something.
YOUNG: And how about the truck?
MONTI: Well, it's still on the road. I drive it everywhere. I did have to put a new engine in it. And, you know, I'll keep it up. I'll make sure it stays on the road one way or the other.
YOUNG: Yeah. And how about...
MONTI: I'm putting a new bumper on it now.
YOUNG: New bumper. Oh, no.
MONTI: Yeah. Well, I backed into a few things.
MONTI: Jared would be very, very angry with Dad. But...
YOUNG: I doubt it. And how about the flag campaign? You know, we - when you first came in, we thought, oh, that - how are they going to do that? There are thousands of graves, which is sad in and of itself. But we thought all this - we felt for you, you know, because it was just a couple of days before your first campaign, and you didn't have anybody, hardly. How - what's happened since?
MONTI: Well, this will be the sixth time. This Saturday, at 10 o'clock, at the cemetery in Bourne. We now have well over 57,000 graves to do. We are expecting some 2,000 people to show up at the cemetery.
YOUNG: How many? How many?
MONTI: Over 2,000.
MONTI: They are coming in by the busload. The wonderful thing about this is that it reaches the heart of the ordinary person that is usually silent about things, that wants to do things, but can't find them. And here is something so simple, that they can drive to a cemetery and pick up a flag and put it on the grave of a loved one, or of a veteran that they wish to honor. And so not just groups of people, we have, like I said, busloads of people coming in. But individual families now that come down, they've made it a tradition, and mom and dad and the kids and grandma and grandpa are all there, all putting flags on the graves. And it's just phenomenal to see people of every single age, from infants in strollers to, you know, the senior citizens down there helping out, and with smiles on their faces. It's a marvelous thing.
MONTI: And I never thought it would come to that, either.
YOUNG: Well, Paul Monti, congratulations on the flag campaign, on your Country Music Award...
YOUNG: ...which is how we're referring to it.
MONTI: No. It's not me. It's divine intervention.
YOUNG: Yeah. And our colleague Alex Ashlock, who was the conveyor of your words that day, will be bringing is truck down to help you convey the flags this year. So...
MONTI: That's awesome. That's just great.
YOUNG: We wish you the best.
MONTI: We thank you very much.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I DRIVE YOUR TRUCK")
BRICE: (Singing) This thing burns gas like crazy, but that's all right. People got their ways of coping, oh, and I've got mine. I drive your truck. I roll every window down. And I burn up every back road in this town. I find a field.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
Just incredible story. And we've got the previous interviews, by the way, that had been done on this program with Paul Monti at hereandnow.org. From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson.
YOUNG: I'm Robin Young. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.