The Washington Times - December 21, 1999
Saluting warriors in song and deed
By Cathryn DonohoeOn veterans day, John McDermott stood in front of the thousands of names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and sang the kind of song he has made a specialty.
In a way, singer John McDermottís visit two weeks ago to the veterans
housing facility in Adams Morgan thatís named for him really started on
Thatís when the Canadian tenor, invited to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial ó ìthe Wallî ó by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, stood in front of the thousands of names there and sang the kind of song he has made a specialty ó of soldiers dead, maimed, forgotten or otherwise ill-treated by the people who asked them to fight.
ìThatís one of the most overwhelming places Iíve ever been to,î Mr. McDermott says of the memorial. ìIt was a terribly emotional day. It really was.î
And so on a Wednesday afternoon, in town for a pledge-week pitch during WETAís reprise of ìThe Irish Tenorsî ó the public TV roots-music special whose blazing success in March made Mr. McDermott, 44, something of a household name ó the singer sits by the TV set in Army veteran Harvey Langleyís sparely furnished apartment at McDermott House and riffles through an inch-thick stack of snapshots taken at the Wall as he sang.
ìI forgot how beautiful the colors were that day,î Mr. McDermott tells the people now knotted about the TV set. The cluster offers a cross section of the services that come together in this red brick building at 2422 Ontario Road NW, all of them focused on one goal: to let homeless veterans reclaim their lives by living in a clean, secure setting while they learn to get and keep a job.
Ted Rischer, there, looks after the facility for the D.C. Housing Authority (DCHA), which once held the building as part of its public housing stock and now leases it to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the VA. Victor Harris, over there, is a mental health specialist with the VAís programs for the homeless. Debbie Jackson, in the doorway, coordinates all the on-site programs for the VA. Tanya McNair, her associate, is the case manager assigned to the vets living here; she dubs herself a ìsocial worker.î
In the hallway is Allen Slater, resident manager for the Chesapeake Health Education Program, a private group charged with the day-to-day, nuts-and-bolts staffing and running of the place, which opened Oct. 14. His boss, Guy Tyndal, will show up a few minutes later.
Of course, thereís Mr. Langley, who moved in Nov. 1 and now has a job escorting patients at the VA hospital in Washington. Like all 14 current residents here ó the house can handle up to 30 at a time ó Mr. Langley pays $270 a month for this one-bedroom apartment with a separate kitchen complete with microwave. The rent includes telephone service and soon a computer with Internet access and help with on-line job searches and resume preparation.
The deal is that residents may stay up to 90 days ó more or less ó after
they get a job. But in the meantime, Ms. Jackson says, ìAll they need to move
in is a pillow.î Itís that simple. ìThatís one of the big
attractions ó the lack of bureaucratic . . . î Mr. McDermott says. ìIíll
spell that for you: b-u- . . .î
Ms. Jackson says the idea for McDermott House began two years ago with a Veterans Day concert by Mr. McDermott at Lisner Auditorium that was hosted by Gen. Richard I. Neal, then assistant commandant of the Marine Corps.
It was then, she says, that the singer capped discussions between DCHA and the VA on a ìtransitionalî housing facility by offering to lend his name to the enterprise.
ìWe nailed them at the intermission,î a smiling Mr. McDermott says. He has not served in the military, but today, as he did at the Wall on Veterans Day, he wears a tie that was a gift of Gen. Neal ó a red wool patterned with the gold globe-and-anchor emblem of the Marine Corps.
So in a way, todayís visit to Ontario Road NW did not really start on Veterans Day this year, but began on that Veterans Day two years ago, didnít it?
Could be. Could be, too, that it started much earlier than that. Eddie Colero, director of special-market sales for EMI Canada, says Deane Cameron, the labelís president, was ìtotally blown awayî by the songs on Mr. McDermottís first album, ìDanny Boyî ó released in November 1992 ó but that initially he himself was wary.
ì ëIíll be honest with you,í î Mr. Colero says he told Mr. Cameron. ì ëThis is depressing. These are war songs. Guys are getting their legs cut off.í î
Now, seven years later, Mr. McDermott not only has not put aside those songs, but obstinately has rerecorded them in new arrangements for his newest release, ìRemembranceî ó and they include Eric Bogleís searingly anti-war ìAnd the Band Played ëWaltzing Matilda,í î the song in which the Australian narrator gets his legs shot off at Gallipoli.
Named for the Canadian equivalent of Veterans Day, the album is a tribute to
all soldiers, including the singerís tail-gunner father as well as an uncle
who died in World War II. It includes a reading of ìIn Flanders Fields,î by
John McCrae, a Canadian battlefield surgeon of World War I whose literary work,
with its admonition to those left living to not ìbreak faithî with those who
died, is counted one of the most affecting war poems of all time.
At the WETA studios in Arlington in the evening, after Mr. McDermott ó still wearing his Marine tie ó has autographed the liner notes to the album so the station can use it as a promotion, a WETA staffer brings him a tiny, gaily colored Christmas gift bag, a present from one of the phone-bank volunteers who appears to know the singerís story.
Mr. McDermott dips a hand into the bag and brings out a Christmas tree ornament in the form of a color guard ó a soldier, a sailor, an airman and a Marine, bearing the American flag.
ìMy army,î he calls it.