The USO provides a vital connection between service members, their families, and ultimately the American people, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said at the USO Gala last night.
Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford thanked the USO for all it has done and continues to do to support service members in the United States and around the world.
The gala marked USO’s 76th year. The nonprofit organization has a small professional staff and 30,000 volunteers worldwide.
A Bit of Home
The chairman thanked the USO volunteers for their tireless efforts, noting the USO provides a bit of home to service members, Dunford said.
“One of the great things we have an opportunity to do is go out on a holiday [USO] tour and last year we actually did two,” the chairman said.
The first tour was to Turkey, Qatar, Afghanistan and Germany and was a few weeks before the holiday season. But Dunford felt it was important for USO performers to actually be entertaining troops on Christmas Day, and he asked USO President J.D. Crouch if it could be done.
It didn’t look good, as the holidays are often the only time entertainers get a break, but Crouch was able to get Kellie Pickler and her husband singer-songwriter Kyle Jacobs, the Roastmaster General — comedian Jeff Ross — and Chef Robert Irvine and his wife wrestler Gail Kim to give up their holiday season to bring a bit of home to U.S. troops deployed in Iraq.
Christmas Eve USO Show in Baghdad
The troupe did a Christmas Eve show in Baghdad and then four shows in various parts of Iraq on Christmas Day. “The one I remember best was in Q-West [Qayyarah Airfield West],” the chairman said. “It’s about 15 kilometers south of Mosul — certainly at that time our most austere outpost.”
There was still some fighting around the area and service members were still removing ISIS improvised explosive devices from areas on the base. It also didn’t help that the base had had five days of rain, and the area where the stage was mud overlaid by gravel.
But the entertainers were excited about going there and bringing some Christmas to the soldiers at the post, Dunford said. The chairman said he will not forget the faces of the soldiers as the entertainers took the stage.
Dunford and Army Command Sgt. Maj. John Troxell, the senior enlisted advisor to the chairman, stood in the back, but the chairman asked the soldiers what they thought of the show. “They’d say, ‘Sir, for a couple of minutes I forgot I was here,’” he said. “What an extraordinary impact.”
But the USO’s impact goes way beyond entertainment, Dunford said. The USO rushed supplies and personnel to aid the sailors affected by the accidents to the USS Fitzgerald and the USS McCain.
They opened a USO at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey that quickly became the most-visited facility in Europe, he said.
They opened USO facilities in Iraq, and the organization maintained the USO lounges at airports, the chairman said.
All this adds up, the chairman said. “We’ve been at war for 16 years,” Dunford said. “I don’t think any of us 16 years ago thought we could continue with an all-volunteer force after 16 years at war and, frankly, no end in sight, we could continue to recruit and retain the high-quality force that we have today. I’m not sure we thought we would have people with the same commitment, the same courage, the same professionalism after 16 years of war.
“There are many reasons for that, but one of the reasons is that our young men and women know that what they do is appreciated,” he continued. “They are proud of what they do and they know you are proud of what they do.”
There are a lot of organizations in the United States that send that message, “but there isn’t another organization out there that does it better than the USO,” the chairman said.
(Follow Jim Garamone on Twitter: @GaramoneDoDNews)