A new headliner will take center stage this summer when the eighth annual Rockin' for the Troops concert returns to Cantigny Park in Wheaton.
Ronnie Dunn, a member of country music's Brooks & Dunn until the duo split in 2010, will be the featured performer July 20, filling in for the longtime face of the event, actor and musician Gary Sinise.
Dunn's debut solo album includes the song "Cost of Livin,'" which is told from the perspective of an unemployed veteran. It notched a Grammy nomination this year for Best Country Song and dovetails with a program developed by the concert's sponsor, Operation Support Our Troops-America, that equips returning veterans with tools to find employment.
Since its launch, the one-day concert has raised nearly $2.5 million for OSOT-America. Sinise, along with his Lt. Dan Band, has headlined the concert each year, but organizers say he is unable to perform this summer due to a scheduling conflict. He is a sponsor of a tent at the concert for families of troops who have died.
"I think we'll definitely miss Gary," said Deborah Rickert, founder of the nonprofit organization. "The event is bigger than any one person. I think we'll see how different it is with another act there, but I think it's great to open up and give an opportunity for other entertainers to get involved and show their support as well. If Gary is interested in coming back the year after, it's certainly something we would consider."
Kimo Williams, a Vietnam veteran and co-founder and vocalist of the Lt. Dan Band, will return to the concert with a group comprised only of veterans, from the sound and light crews to the musicians. The band covers classic rock and originals.
OSOT-America is funding that effort, said Rickert, who is the mother of two sons on active duty, one of whom is set to deploy to Afghanistan in several months.
"I think it's a great way to keep the history of the event intact," she said.
OSOT-America also is considering an anniversary celebration that would likely lead in to the concert based on this year's concert theme, "Only in America," the name of a Brooks & Dunn hit.
"All of the things that we have been able to do really is a uniquely American story," Rickert said.
She started OSOT-America in her Naperville dining room in 2003, planning to send Valentine's Day care packages to overseas troops with a couple of moms. From those humble beginnings, the concert now attracts about 10,000 people to Cantigny with families scheduling their reunions around the usually sold-out event.
Concert proceeds support shipping costs for care packages as well as other programs including "Leap of Faith." OSOT-America hosts three seminars each year for families of fallen troops that culminates in a tandem-sky dive with the U.S. Army's Golden Knights or the 101st Airborne Division's parachute team. Earlier this month, a record number of participants attended a seminar in Florida, Rickert said.
"It really encourages family members to kind of get back to living again because that's what your loved one would expect," Rickert said. "Our focus has been to kind of broaden that program to allow more people to participate."
OSOT-America also funds research into treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury and helps returning troops translate their skills to the civilian world through resume writing and mentoring from Vietnam veterans. The unemployment rate for post-9/11 veterans was 11.7 percent in January, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
"I think it's really a good time to shed some light on the issue of the unemployed veteran," Rickert said. "We have gotten very involved in trying to work with corporations and educate them about the value of hiring veterans."
And the Dunn single -- "Cost of Livin'" -- aligns with that mission, Rickert said.
"I think it really demonstrates the heart that Ronnie Dunn has for our troops and veterans," she said.
Rockin' tickets are $25. To reserve tickets, visit osotamerica.org.