Hawaii veteran, family honored at National Memorial Day Concert

May 26—1/3

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Allen Hoe honors his fallen son, Nainoa, by paying tribute to soldiers who die in combat every year. Hoe and his son will be honored at the National Memorial Day Concert in Washington, D.C. Allen Hoe stands alongside a portrait of his son.


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Allen and Nainoa Hoe are shown together.


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Nainoa Hoe poses in front of the Hawaiian flag during his time at basic training.

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For the last 19 years, former combat medic Allen Hoe hasn't left home without a plastic button displaying a picture of his son, Nainoa, and the words "My Hero," pinned to his chest. Since Nainoa was killed in combat in Iraq in 2005, Hoe's commitment to honoring and remembering fallen soldiers every year has grown.

"I never fully understood or appreciated the significance of Memorial Day, even though I had lost a number of very close friends and buddies in Vietnam," said Hoe, who served during the Vietnam War. "Over the years, what has become more important for me is remembering these young soldiers, especially their families. It wasn't until my son was killed that it came home significantly harder and closer."

This year, Allen and Nainoa Hoe will be honored on a much larger scale during the National Memorial Day Concert in Washington, D.C. Held annually for the past 35 years, the 90-minute program features the stories of three preselected veterans or Gold Star families.

"We honor real heroes," said Jill Jackson, an executive producer at Capital Concerts, which puts on the National Memorial Day Concert each year. "We're sharing stories of people who have served and sacrificed for us, and people who make a difference in our world and allow us to live the lives we can because of their efforts and because of what they've given to the nation."

Jackson first met Allen Hoe through a mutual friend, Diane Carlson Evans, who founded the Vietnam Women's Memorial Foundation and asked Hoe to serve on her board of directors. At a Vietnam Women's Memorial event last Veterans Day, Jackson talked briefly with Hoe about his story before deciding to ask him to be featured in this year's National Memorial Day Concert.

"I called him right after and said, 'We'd love to share your story and Nainoa's story on this year's program. Is that OK?'" Jackson said. "He said, 'Yes, you have permission to share my story. And Nainoa's story belongs to everyone.'"

"I was totally blown away, and it made me focus a little bit more on the significance of not forgetting these young individuals, the soldiers and the service men and women who do so much for us," Hoe said about the opportunity.

Hoe said that Nainoa was "very special." A graduate of Kamehameha Schools, Nainoa earned both his bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Hawaii, as well as his U.S. Army commission from UH's ROTC program before he enlisted.

"He was excited with the prospect of what it meant to be an officer leading 40 young soldiers in combat," Hoe said. "He grew up knowing about my experience. From time to time, he got to meet some of the guys that I served in combat with, and it was significant for him."

He was a first lieutenant when he was killed in combat by a sniper's bullet during the 2005 battle for Mosul in Iraq.

A few months after Nainoa died, Hoe attended the Memorial Day program at the Vietnam Women's Memorial in Washington, D.C., where two nurses coming back from Iraq would be honored. Hoe decided to bring lei to present to the nurses as a thank you for participating in the program, and when presenting the lei to one of the nurses, he learned that she had been Nainoa's trauma nurse when he died.

"As she leaned down to allow me to put the lei over her head, her hand just reached out and grabbed my button. She said, 'I know him.' I went, 'Wait a minute now, you know him? How do you know him?' She said, 'I was with him when he died,'" Hoe recalled. "You could have heard a pin drop. That was an incredible moment. What are the odds that all of this would occur?"

To prepare to share the Hoe family's story on the national stage, Jackson said that she and her team began the process of "researching and reading everything (they) could." A four-person team also traveled to Hawaii for a week to conduct interviews with family members and friends of Nainoa, including his younger brother, Nakoa, and his best friend, Maj. Ray O'Donnell.

"Part of this is to make sure that the voices of Gold Star families and veterans are heard, that their stories and their words are heard and acknowledged," Jackson said. "We really had the chance to make sure that we're honoring the story that we're sharing authentically."

Jackson said that with so many stories to choose from to highlight, the concert's production team tries to find stories that are specific to one person, but that will also resonate with many. The circumstances shaping this story, Jackson said, made Hoe a clear choice.

"(Hoe's) story resonates with Vietnam veterans, and all veterans who lost friends, and for Gold Star families, he's able to give voice to some pain, heartache and experiences that only a Gold Star family can speak to," she said. "His story is moving in just so many different ways. We were like, 'Wow, how can we not tell this story?'"

For Hoe, who's been actively involved with the veterans community since his sons put on the uniforms themselves, telling his family's story and continuing to learn more about his son has been extremely rewarding.

"For me, it's been fascinating over the years to hear stories from other soldiers and other families who either knew my son or served with someone who knew him, and it totally blows me away," Hoe said. "Those are the best stories of the day. It's amazing, and maybe a little bit selfish on my part, because I want to know more and more about who he was, what he did and how he got along with everybody. He was an incredible soldier."

The 35th annual National Memorial Day Concert will air today on PBS.

"If our story can affect one person, one family, to make their lives a little bit easier, it is worth it," Hoe said. "As a combat veteran, I tell that story to encourage other veterans to share their story, because it's going to help them. You need to share your story, so that you help yourself understand, and help others understand."