RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany, Dec. 10, 2015 —
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff thanked USO performers for touching the lives of service members during the week-long holiday trip that ended here last night.
Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr. led the 2015 USO Holiday Show, which included actor/director/producers Elizabeth Banks and David Wain, singer Chris Daughtry, singer/songwriters Kyle Jacobs, Brett James and Billy Montana; comedian Sydney Castillo and Red Sox baseball players Steve Wright and Heath Hembree.
The group met and entertained thousands of troops and civilians on three continents, stopping in Sigonella, Italy; Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti; Manama, Bahrain; and Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, before ending here.
In an interview, Dunford recalled his first experience with the USO.
“The first one I remember was in 1985 and I was having shoulder surgery at the Naval Hospital in Okinawa, and I woke up after the surgery and the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders are standing around my bed,” he said. “And it wasn’t a dream --- it was the USO show was in town on tour and stopped by the hospital.”
Thirteen Years of Chairman-Led Holiday Tours
Then-chairman Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers led the first holiday tour in 2002.
“And it is my honor to do so this year,” Dunford said.
The shows are more than just entertainment, he said.
“I can tell [the troops] that people back home support them,” the general said during a farewell dinner in Kaiserslautern, Germany. “But after a while, it sounds like just talk. But when we go out there and say, ‘Look who is here with us,’ they see that Americans really do support them.”
The performances really do touch the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, Dunford said.
“I asked how people liked the show,” he said, “and about four or five times people told me, ‘For a couple of minutes, I actually forgot I was here.’ You know, when you are in Djibouti or you are in Bagram [and] just for a few minutes you actually forgot that you were there -- it’s a big deal.”
In addition to being on stage, the performers also meet with service members who explained their jobs, how they do them, and why they are there. The performers met special operations forces in Bagram and pararescue airmen in Djibouti. They toured a minesweeper and a U.S. Coast Guard cutter in Bahrain. The examined C-130 Hercules refueling tankers, C-17 Globemaster III aircraft and Predator and Global Hawk remotely piloted aircraft.
Everywhere the performers went, they spoke with service members and got to know them. They also visited the USO Wounded Warrior Center at Landstuhl Hospital in Germany.
“You brought a piece of home out here to young men and women that I am incredibly proud of,” Dunford told the performers. “For those of you who hadn’t been around them before, I hope what you’ve seen this week tells you why I am so proud of them. Because they are incredibly talented, capable, smart young men and women who are committed, yes, to America, but really to each other.”
The performers said that they often felt humbled on the tour. “It’s easy to feel insignificant compared to them,” Daughtry said. “I mean, we’re entertainers. We’re having fun. To see the gratitude and appreciation on their faces is moving and humbling.”
Wain said it is one thing to read about a deployment or watch a news report, but it is quite something else to be there. “Speaking to [troops] one-on-one and understanding these are people who are smart, interesting and caring and have families and dreams and being able to do that has been inspiring, educational and a true honor,” he said.
Banks said her father served in the Navy in the Mekong Delta during the Vietnam War. “My father tells very few stories about Vietnam, but he tells a story about when he left Vietnam and was transferred to the eastern [Mediterranean Sea],” she said.
“His ship hosted David Niven and his very hot and considerably younger wife. That’s what he remembers. He remembers that day very fondly and not many others,” Banks said. “And I really felt if I could make someone’s deployment feel a bit more like home -- feel special, give them a special day they can focus on rather than the bad -- then that is definitely worth my time.”
James called the experience “life changing.”
And Jacobs -- for whom this was his 9th USO trip -- said he’ll “continue doing this as long as I am needed. We owe it to them.”
(Follow Jim Garamone on Twitter: @GaramoneDoDNews)