FORT DRUM, N.Y. -- When Lee Brice's country hit "I Drive Your Truck" comes over the radio this summer, 10th Mountain Division (LI) Soldiers can take pride in knowing the song honors the memory and Gold Star father of one of their fallen comrades. One of its songwriters was inspired to write it two years ago, when she heard Paul Monti on National Public Radio telling a reporter that he drives the truck left behind by his son, Medal of Honor recipient Sgt. 1st Class Jared C. Monti, as a way of staying close to him.
"What can I tell you, it's just … it's him," Monti said then of the black Dodge Ram pickup, which he drove to his son's gravesite at the Massachusetts National Cemetery in Bourne, Mass. "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." More than a thousand miles away, on that same Memorial Day weekend in 2011, Nashville-based songwriter Connie Harrington was listening to the NPR program on her car radio. Riveted by Monti's story and fighting back tears, she scribbled down her thoughts on Post-it notes.
In the days that followed, she would enlist the help of fellow songwriters Jessi Alexander and Jimmy Yeary.
"You have these songs that just get to the core of you in your heart and you feel like you know you have got something special -- you want to write it as soon as possible," Harrington said. "It's a quicker process when you write with co-writers. You end up, oftentimes, with something that you wouldn't have had on your own." A year and a half later, what the three songwriters created, country music's latest star crooned, and the song reached No. 1 on Billboard's Country Airplay chart and its official video on Youtube has well over 5 million views. But the story of a truck, a fallen hero and a father's grief that sparked a chart-topping song only begins here. "I Drive Your Truck" was written, recorded and released, and Paul Monti had no idea he helped inspire it. A father's hero Monti's son, Jared, was a team leader with 3rd Squadron, 71st Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division (LI). His patrol was ambushed on June 21, 2006, by a much larger enemy force in Nuristan Province, Afghanistan.
During the onslaught, Monti called for artillery and close-air support while he engaged enemy forces attempting to flank his patrol. He was killed after three desperate, heroic attempts at rescuing one of his Soldiers wounded out in the open.
Monti is the division's second Medal of Honor recipient behind Pfc. John D. Magrath, whose actions in Italy during World War II also warranted the nation's highest military honor for valor. Monti's parents received the medal on their son's behalf during a ceremony at the White House in 2009. "Jared never liked any kind of notoriety," Paul Monti said during the NPR interview. "All of his medals went into a sock drawer -- no one ever saw them. He never wanted to stand out." Col. Sam Whitehurst, 3rd Brigade Combat Team commander, said he found it "very uplifting" to hear the NPR broadcast in which Monti shared his feelings about his son. Whitehurst said that during regular meetings with Soldiers new to the brigade, he not only welcomes them but also discusses what it means to be a Soldier in the unit.
"The highlight of that discussion is always about Sgt. 1st Class Jared Monti," Whitehurst said. "He represented the best in all of us -- duty, honor, selfless service and personal courage.
"I always ask our new Soldiers to aspire to be the Soldier and leader that Sgt. 1st Class Monti was, a Soldier who always led from the front and never let his comrades down," he added. "This is Sgt 1st Class Monti's lasting legacy in our brigade." Monti's legacy is Fort Drum's as well.
In June 2010, the Pine Plains Physical Fitness Center was officially renamed the Monti Physical Fitness Center. Monti's parents, Paul and Janet, drove from their home in Raynham, Mass., to attend the historic ceremony, which also drew several commanding generals from the division's past. 'Like a whirlwind' Paul Monti's first brush with "I Drive Your Truck" came this past February, when a friend who lost her son in the same battle as Monti sent the song to him over the computer. "She told me that she drove (her son's) truck," Monti said. "She knew that I drove Jared's truck. She thought it was an appropriate song." The song's melody -- "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, 'til all the pain's a cloud of dust."
Monti said he never made it through the whole song. More than two months passed. "I Drive Your Truck" reached No. 1 status in the nation. In Nashville, a "No. 1 Party" was planned by the artists involved. But Harrington said she knew something was missing.
"We wanted to honor (Monti) and let (him) know what a special thing resulted from him sharing his story that day," she said.
After many computer searches, Harrington ultimately found the NPR broadcast that began it all. She found Paul Monti's phone number and called him.
It was April 28. Monti was at his brother's 70th birthday party. He said the shock and emotion from Harrington's phone call forced him to leave the party early.
"It's been like a whirlwind since then." Within two weeks, Monti was on a plane to Nashville, where he met with Lee Brice and all three writers. He said everybody was very caring and down-to-earth. "It was just a great experience," he said. Harrington said that during what is typically a loud and celebratory party, Monti was invited to speak to the crowd during the event May 13. "You could have heard a pin drop when he spoke," Harrington said. "It was so moving." Honoring the sacrifices "This song honors every single Gold Star Family in the country," said Monti, who created the SFC Jared C. Monti Memorial Scholarship Fund several years ago to help needy students and military-oriented charities.
"They all hold on to something," he added, "whether it's a truck, a car, dog tags, CDs, a baseball glove, a teddy bear -- whatever it is, all of us hold on to something from our child."
Harrington, who has written more than a dozen No. 1 songs in multiple genres, said she nearly missed Monti's story on her car radio two years ago. "Honestly, I tell everybody it is pretty ironic this song even got written, because I almost changed the station," said Harrington, whose father spent a year and a half in a Japanese POW camp during World War II.
She said he suffered from seizures and severe post traumatic stress throughout his life, often dropping to his knees in their home and calling out to his fellow 6th Ranger Battalion Soldiers. "Which made growing up in our house not the easiest thing," she said. "It's a painful topic for me, so I almost changed the channel." But Monti's tender story reached out to her across the miles, and she feels grateful for the way the song inspired her to eventually tell it.
"It's a way a songwriter can honor that sacrifice," she said. For Monti, he reiterated his hope that the song not only honors the nation's fallen service members but also helps comfort the ones left to grieve.
"The important thing for me is that this honors all of our fallen, and especially the Gold Star Families, who have to live with that pain for the rest of their lives," Monti said. "That's the real importance of it for me."