Criminal Minds star Joe Mantegna has a message for Americans this Memorial Day: Our veterans need jobs.
Mantegna, who will return as co-host of Monday's National Memorial Day Concert on PBS with fellow CBS star Gary Sinise, is also actively working with America Wants You!, a new initiative that encourages corporate America to hire men and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Mantegna and Criminal Minds co-star Thomas Gibson have also filmed PSAs to spread the word.
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"When you meet people who've had a lot of military training, they're America's finest," Mantegna tells TVGuide.com. "They're just dedicated, respectful, hard-working. They have all those qualities that you would hope they would have. So, to me, it was a no-brainer."
Mantegna says hiring vets is an easy way to give back to those who have dedicated themselves to protecting our country. "They've fought and served so we can have a free country, so we can have the choices to do the things we want to do, whether its choice of religion or freedom of speech. Or even hiring a person to do a job," Mantegna says. "It's an ironic situation. They're fighting for freedoms that allow you to not hire them too if you want. But I think we can help them along."
America Wants You! estimates that there are 800,000 veterans out of work. Mantegna knows that the PSAs won't solve the problem by themselves, but he remains committed. "At least by increasing the awareness, [we're] letting people know to be sensitive to it," He says. "[Employers] should give them a consideration, knowing that their lives have been disrupted for, sometimes, years. I grew up through Vietnam, and I thought that took a long time. And the Vietnam Era was actually shorter than [Iraq]. So, it's been quite a hardship for many of them. I think they can use a little boost up."
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Mantegna, who says he has lots of military connections in his family, says his support of the troops grew stronger once he became involved with PBS' National Memorial Day Concert 11 years ago. "I was so taken by the whole event," he says. "What I was actually most taken by was by the non-politicalness of it. I've been an independent my whole life, so I distrust organizations to tell you the truth. You get more than three people together and I get nervous. But I came away from that whole experience with the feeling that our military really needs our help [and] our support. When the stuff hits the fan, those are the guys that are called upon to do the dirty work."
Pieces of this issue may even make it onto Criminal Minds. Because of his character Rossi's military background on the show, Mantegna had pitched a story idea even before he became involved with America Wants You! "We already have the bones of the story line, and I am fairly assured it will be happening this coming season," he says. "It will encompass partly just what we're talking about. The character is a vet that falls on hard times."
Mantegna says he hopes the initiative grows and that he can continue to be a part of it. "If it does what it's supposed to do, if it's successful in any way, that'd be great," he says. "And if there's anything that can be done to improve it, I'm certainly game. But there are people who are working 365 days out of the year to make this stuff happen. They deserve the thanks. I mean, I'm just putting a face on it. I don't really need any thanks for that. I hit the jackpot in being able to do what I do."
And Mantegna says it's not just corporate America that owes veterans a debt. "When you see somebody in uniform, it's a great gesture to just kind of give them a smile and reach out your hand and say thanks for your service," Mantegna says. "I think it goes a long way."
Click here for more information on America Wants You! The National Memorial Day Concert airs Sunday at 8/7c on PBS (check your local listings). Watch Mantegna's America Wants You! PSA below: