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Winnefeld's USO Tour Boosts Morale of Troops in Middle East

By Lisa Ferdinando DoD News, Defense Media Activity

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ABOARD THE USS CARL VINSON, March 5, 2015 — In the North Arabian Gulf, thousands of miles from home, a USO celebrity tour led by the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff visited this ship to bring a piece of America to thousands of deployed sailors.

Between jets returning from and taking off for missions against Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant terrorist targets, Adm. James A. Winnefeld Jr. and the stars -- including NFL players, American Idol contestants and film and television personalities -- put on a performance aboard the aircraft carrier that was filled with humor, music and words of appreciation.

"The first thing I want to do is thank each and every one of you for your tremendous service and sacrifice," Winnefeld said. "You are protecting America. We appreciate it. Thank you very much for what you do."

Also Thanking Families

Winnefeld thanked the USO for all it does for servicemen and women around the world, while his wife, Mary, made special mention of the service and sacrifice of the families.

"What's missing today are families," Mary Winnefeld said. "I consider the families serving right alongside everybody in this room, because they really do. Thank you and thank your families for your service."

The visit to the massive carrier, which holds 3,000 sailors and 2,000 air-crew members, comes as Winnefeld and the group travel the world to thank the deployed service members. Other stops were Germany, Italy and Bahrain.

Football Stars

At the show today, the crowd cheered as Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, Colts tight end Dwayne Allen, and Pittsburgh Steelers guard David DeCastro appeared on stage, with Luck tossing out footballs signed by the USO tour celebrities.

Film and television personality Dennis Haysbert told the service members to keep up their work against ISIL targets in Iraq and Syria.

"I just want to say how proud I am to be here and how proud I am of you," he said. "We really appreciate you; we know what the mission is here, and I hear from your commanding officers that you guys are putting it to the metal."

The sailors on the Carl Vinson are some of the "best America has to offer" and they are essential to the success of the mission of the carrier, according to Rear Adm. Christopher Grady, commander of Carrier Strike Group One, of which the Carl Vinson is the flagship.

"We can't do this without the sailors. They are the lifeblood of the ship," he said.

Visits Are Big Morale Booster

The celebrities mixed and mingled with the sailors before and after the show.

Indiana native and Petty Officer 2nd Class William Leon said he was thrilled to be among those having lunch with the quarterback for his favorite team. It was "unbelievable," he said, for the stars to come all this way just to visit with the service members.

"It means everything to us, especially me, being a die-hard Colts fan, to see a guy who I really look up to," he said. "Being away from home and having them do that for us is just an awesome experience."

Yesterday, the USO entourage held a show for Naval Support Activity Bahrain. Service members and their families took in appearances by American idol contestants Diana DeGarmo and Ace Young, American Idol season 11 winner Phillip Phillips, Miss America Kira Kazantsev, Jason "Wee Man" Acuna and Colts coach Chuck Pagano.

Petty Officer 1st Class Melissa Sheek said military members appreciate everything people do to help lift the spirits of those serving so far from home.

"This is pretty important. This is morale enhancing for all of the sailors here at NSA Bahrain, for all of the hard work that they do and for everything that the spouses do as well," she said.

"It does bring a slice of home here, which is something we all miss," she said.

Remembering 9/11

After the show on the Carl Vinson, the troupe toured the USS New York, a landing platform dock ship.

Kazantsev told the sailors and Marines on the ship that she has a special connection to New York. Of particular significance, she said, is when she represented New York state in the Miss America pageant, part of which took place on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

"On that night, when I introduced myself to the audience and judges, I got to say 'Never forget,'" she said. "The crowd went wild, and it was one of the proudest moments of my entire life."