Emceeing the event was Major Ed Pulido from Folds of Honor, who lost a leg while fighting for his country in Afghanistan in 2004. He told Billboard that the country music industry has always stepped up for them – and other military causes.
"This is one of my favorite cities, and that's in part because the people here have really embraced our Foundation. We have a lot of people that support the work that we do here. The country music artists have inspired us to not only be a part of our movement, but also to be part of a grateful nation. When you get a pat on the back from a Lee Brice, Jerrod Niemann, or a Tyler Farr, and they tell you thank you for your service, it really means a lot," he said, adding that Folds of Honor received a huge boost in its profile when Brantley Gilbert performed at several events during his From Athens To Arlington promotional tour in the spring of 2014.
Pulido introduced several people to the stage to talk about how the organization had helped them. No story was more moving than that of Ginger Gilbert Ravella, the widow of Air Force pilot Major Troy Gilbert who was killed in action. Ravella, who was left behind with five children, has received help with the kids' educations -- and a special surprise from Curb recording artist Lee Brice.
"They told me I was going to get to go to Las Vegas with my children, and accept a check that Lee Brice was going to donate to Folds of Honor," Ravella said. As it turned out, Brice – who recorded the powerful hit "I Drive Your Truck" -- had something else to give her and her family. "In my mind, that was the whole night, to get up on stage and accept this check. We walk out on stage, and there's 20,000 people in the audience. Lee was talking, and he wasn't talking about the check at all. He was talking about my husband selling his truck, I thought 'Lee might be giving my children a truck or something.' All of a sudden, he pulls out the keys out of his pocket, and I recognized them. He said 'Look up on the screen. We found Troy's truck.' It was a 1992 Silverado," she says of the truck that her husband sold upon his deployment in 2006. "There was no mistaking it. I'm surprised it was still on the road."
For her, the organization is doing work that needs to be done for the families left behind. "Folds of Honor is a way that you know that your family member is being remembered. I think that's what all families want when you lose someone so dear to you. Their life was so relevant, and you want that to continue for their name to be spoken. I think that more than the financial peace, which is such a blessing – all five of our kids are all in school, which I wouldn't have been able to afford without Folds of Honor's help."
For Brice, being able to reunite Ginger with a piece of her husband was something he doesn't take for granted. "I'm a blessed individual to get to be part of Folds of Honor's work. Getting to know Ginger Gilbert Ravella and her family has just been amazing. Part of her story that isn't told very often in public is about her late husband, and war hero, Troy Gilbert's, truck. Ginger told us that 'I Drive Your Truck' was especially meaningful to her because Troy was forced to sell his third-generation family-owned truck before his final deployment. We knew we had to find it and bring it back to this family. I'm just a blessed bystander to be able to be part of a story like theirs. Getting to present the truck to her this year was more of a gift to me."
That feeling also rings true for Dallas native and rising performer Ashliegh Lisset, a former scholarship recipient. "I'm an Ambassador for Folds of Honor, and I actually met them about three years ago. My dad was killed in action, so it was really hard for me to go through the motions of what was going on. Music was very healing for me. When I was 15, I came here and recorded for the first time. The military was such a big thing for me because it's so personal. I'm glad to get to do what I do every single day for an organization like this."
Performing during the evening's festivities were Jerrod Niemann and Tyler Farr – both of whom have been touched by the work of Folds of Honor. "We've done a lot of events that benefit the military, but this is particularly special," he told Billboard. "It helps families who have lost loved ones that were involved with the military, and they paid the ultimate sacrifice with their lives to give us the opportunity to do what we love to do. If that doesn't speak volumes, I don't know what does."
Niemann added that the work of Folds -- as well as of the soldiers -- keeps what he does as an artist in perspective.
"Major Ed gave me his book a couple years ago. It's still on my nightstand. This was the first year I got the chance to go over and play for our troops. We did Kosovo, Kuwait, Afghanistan, Romania, and as much as you love and support the military, at the end of the day, at least for me, when you go over there, you find there are always different layers to the onion. When we went over to Kuwait, it was 128 degrees. It was one of the hottest days I've ever played on. Then, you look out and you see brave men and women out there fully dressed, and ready to take on anything. I found out the day before, it was 136 degrees. It peeled away to my heart at the core, and I knew this was something I wanted to be involved in. If our military is kind enough to let us be a part of what they're doing, I'm gonna be there. I know I speak for Tyler and Lee as well. We've got their backs. They've got ours, and whatever they need us to do, we're going to do it."
One place that Niemann, Farr, and Brice are planning to be is at Arlington National Cemetery on Dec. 19, where the remains of Troy Gilbert will finally be laid to rest on American soil. "I will be there with my wife, and I cannot wait to witness an American hero being put where he belongs. Tyler is going to be there, and Lee is going to be there," said Niemann, who added, "It's going to be something special."