By Lee Habeeb
It happens now and then. You hear a story so sad, so beautiful, so filled with loss and pain and grief and love, that it makes you cry. Really cry.
Two years ago, I was making a grocery run for my family on Memorial Day when a story came on the local NPR station in Oxford, Miss. It was about a father whose son had been killed in action in northwest Afghanistan. The father was Paul Monti; his son was Sergeant Jared Monti. Jared died in Afghanistan trying to save the life of one of his men. Jared was 30 years old when he died, and was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously for his heroism under fire. But that was small consolation to his father: The son he loved and admired was gone, forever.
We then heard from Jared’s dad. His grief was palpable, as he told the NPR reporter some stories about his son. Stories of how his son was always helping people, especially people less fortunate than himself. His father nearly choked up telling a story about how his son once took a brand-new kitchen set he and his buddies at Fort Bragg had just purchased for their home, and gave it away to a fellow soldier’s family.
“One day his buddies came home and the kitchen set was missing,” his father recounted. “And they asked him where it was and Jared said, ‘Well, I was over at one of my soldier’s houses, and his kids were eating on the floor, so I figured they needed the kitchen set more than we did.’ And so the $700 kitchen set disappeared. That’s what he did.”
His dad told the reporter that his son shunned any kind of notoriety or attention. “All of his medals went in a sock drawer,” Jared’s dad said. “No one ever saw them; he didn’t want to stand out.”
Then came the part of the interview that hit me hardest: It was the moment when Paul Monti talked about his son’s truck, and why he still has it, and still drives it.
“What can I tell you? It’s him,” Jared’s father explained, nearly choking on his words. “It’s got his DNA all over it. 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.”
I was already tearing up before that story about Jared’s truck. But as the details piled up — the truck was a Dodge 4X4 Ram 1500 with decals on it that included the 10th Mountain Division, the 82nd Airborne Division, an American flag, and a Go Army sticker — I lost it.
And there I was sitting in my car in a Walmart parking lot on a sunny Memorial Day in my hometown crying hard. Crying like a child. Crying as if I’d lost my child.
I wasn’t the only one in a car crying that day. It turns out that a Nashville songwriter named Connie Harrington was in her car, too, listening to the very same story. Moved to tears, she pulled over to the side of the road, scribbling notes as the story proceeded.
She wrote down detail upon detail, everything she could remember. When she got back home, Harrington couldn’t get that story of the soldier’s father and his son’s truck out of her mind. So she did what writers do, and turned the words of that grieving father into a song. With the help of two co-writers, the finished product found its way to singer Lee Brice, who recorded the song called, aptly, “I Drive Your Truck.”
Last month, the song reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart. The YouTube video has nearly 5 million views. If you watch it, bring a stack of Kleenex tissues. It is that moving.
But this remarkable story didn’t end there. It turns out that Jared’s father got a message on Facebook from a woman whose son had died in the same battle Jared died in.
“She sent me a message that she had heard the song,” Paul Monti told NPR last week, “and that I had to listen to it. She knew I drove Jared’s truck and she drove her son’s truck.”
Paul Monti told NPR that he remembered not being able to get through the entire song. “I’d get into it a few bars or so and kind of welled up,” he explained.
But he still didn’t know that it was his interview — his own words — that inspired the song. That the song was about him and his son and his son’s truck.
Meanwhile, Connie Harrington was doing everything she could to track down Paul Monti and let him know that he was the song’s inspiration. But she was having a hard time finding him. After many hours searching on the web, she finally found his name, and got his phone number. And earlier this month, Paul Monti flew to Nashville to meet the people who wrote that song, and to celebrate the song’s meteoric success.
“I Drive Your Truck” captures in painstaking detail the grief of Paul Monti, with the kind of emotional honesty that has made country music America’s music. If you don’t know them, here are the opening lyrics to the song about a truck that’s moved a nation:
Eighty-nine cents in the ashtrayIf ever there were words written that captured the universal grief of a parent coping with the loss of a fallen son or daughter, that opening verse and the chorus contain them.
Half-empty bottle of Gatorade
Rollin’ on the floorboard
That dirty Braves cap on the dash
Dogtags hangin’ from the rearview
Old Skoal can and cowboy boots
And a “Go Army” shirt folded in the back
This thing burns gas like crazy
But that’s all right
People got their ways of copin’
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, I tear it up
Till all the pain is a cloud of dust
Yes, sometimes, I drive your truck
What the song does not do is describe how Paul’s son Jared lost his life in Afghanistan. In June 2006, Jared’s patrol came under fire from 50 enemy fighters. One of the soldiers who served under him was wounded and needed help. Despite the blistering firefight, Jared responded to the call not once or twice but three times. It was that last try that got him killed.
That was the way Jared was hardwired. His father explained that his son was the kind of man who never gave up on people and always tried to do the right thing. “The right thing was trying to save this young private who was alone, out in the open, injured and calling out for help,” Paul told NPR last week.
The subject then turned back to the loss of his son, and the truck he had talked about almost two years ago in that first NPR interview. He said this: “You know, I think it’s important for people to understand — or at least try to understand — what Gold Star parents go through. Your child is your future and when you lose your child you’ve lost your future, and I think one of the reasons so many Gold Star parents drive their children’s trucks is because they have to hold on. They just have to hold on.”
The grief Jared’s father feels will never go away. And he’ll probably drive that truck of his son’s for as long as it will run. And longer.
The last verse of the song says it all:
I’ve cussed, I’ve prayed, I’ve said goodbyeOn Memorial Day, this most sacred of all secular American holidays, gather your family around the computer screen and watch that video of “I Drive Your Truck.” Cry a little bit. Cry a lot. Cry together. And then reach out to a soldier. Reach out to the parent of a soldier. And thank them for everything they’ve done. And are about to do.
I’ve shook my fist and asked God why
These days, when I’m missin’ you this much
I drive your truck