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Performers Salute Troops, Vets at American Freedom Festival

By John D. Banusiewicz
American Forces Press Service

NEW YORK, Nov. 12, 2005 – Servicemembers, veterans and supporters of the people past and present who have worn the nation's uniform packed the historic Roseland Ballroom here Nov. 11 for a night of music and a celebration of freedom.

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(Left to right) Country music artist Mark Wills, former World Wrestling Entertainment champion John Bradshaw Layfield, comedy writer and nationally syndicated talk show host Al Franken and country music artist Darryl Worley laugh it up with reporters Nov. 11 at the American Freedom Festival in New York City. Photo by John D. Banusiewicz

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The American Freedom Foundation's 2nd annual American Freedom Festival brought together a variety of entertainers who donated their talents to raise money and awareness for veterans organizations. The foundation places special emphasis on the welfare and education issues facing those wounded in action, amputees, and the families and children of servicemembers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Retired Sgt. Maj. Of the Army Jack L. Tilley, who got to know many of the entertainers on tours to entertain deployed troops when he served as the Army's top enlisted soldier, said the festival gives him and the entertainers a way to continue serving the nation's warriors.

"It's a great collection of entertainers with a passion for what they do and a deep, abiding love for the soldiers and their families," Tilley said. "They have been in the field with these men and women, and they have all been touched by the experience and the stories they have heard."

Country music star Keni Thomas said he's always looking for the chance "to jump up on some good soap boxes" to thank the nation's veterans and advance their causes. He's a combat veteran himself, having earned the Bronze Star for valor in the Somalia battle recounted in the book and movie "Black Hawk Down" as a member of an elite Army Ranger assault task force.

Thomas said he and anyone else who has worn a military uniform is able to enjoy life "because of the people who serve on your left and on your right."

"And when some of our veterans come home, they often find it hard to reintegrate into civilian life," he said. "It's difficult. So I'll do anything I can to help them and the people who are still serving."

Darryl Worley, whose song "Have You Forgotten?" topped the music charts, said he grew up among family members who had served in the military. He said he continues to be impressed by the character of people who have served when he performs for them and gets to meet them.

"They're top-notch people," he said. "Something about going into any branch of the service brings out character in people. We all have it, but sometimes you're just not challenged to reach inside and pull that out, and all of those folks have that. To be around them, I think, it lifts us up to their level, and it really means a lot to me."

Comedy writer and talk-show host Al Franken espouses political views not normally associated with support for military men and women, and Worley freely admitted he wasn't happy that Franken would be along the first time they traveled together on a tour to entertain deployed forces. But what he saw in Franken during the tour changed his mind, Worley said.

"I think what you find is that people can be liberal and left-wing and still love the troops and still be in support of the troops and what they do," Worley said. "Nobody loves the troops more than Al Franken."

Franken started entertaining deployed forces in 1999, when he traveled to Kosovo. "That was a very moving experience for me," he said. "I go to show the troops that everybody supports them - and everybody does. There's just no doubt that virtually everyone in this country supports our troops."

World Wrestling Entertainment star John Bradshaw Layfield, son of a career soldier, noted that U.S. servicemembers preserve the American way of life. At the same time, she said they have liberated more than 100 million people around the world from repressive regimes, "never asking for any more land than to bury our dead."

Layfield has visited deployed forces on several occasions, and said the nation owes a debt of gratitude to its servicemembers and veterans. "I'm just here to say thanks," he said.

Country music star Mark Wills said his grandfather served in World War II and his father, in Vietnam. When he takes part in next month's USO holiday tour, it will be his second year entertaining deployed troops. "I get to meet a lot of great people," he said.

He tipped his hat to Tilley for his work on active duty and subsequent efforts in the American Freedom Foundation. "He was a soldier-friendly sergeant major of the Army," Wills said, noting that Tilley continues to work tirelessly to raise funds for wounded servicemembers.

Other entertainers at the American Freedom Festival included country music legend Charlie Daniels, classical singer Michael Amonte, actress Karri Turner, the USO Show Troupe of Metropolitan New York and "Military Idol" finalist Army Staff Sgt. Ron Henry.

An appreciative audience danced, cheered, sang, shouted, stomped and "hooahed" throughout the three-hour show, but the artists agreed the real pleasure was theirs. Worley summed up the performers' sentiment in performing for past and present servicemembers.

"It's something that's very honorable - a real special thing to be able to say that you served your country," he said. "So I'm proud of them - all of them."

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American Freedom Foundation

Click photo for screen-resolution imageKarri Turner, best known for her role in the long-running television series "JAG," told the audience at the American Freedom Festival in New York City on Nov. 11 that she's preparing to embark on her sixth USO holiday season tour to entertain deployed troops. Photo by John D. Banusiewicz  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageCountry music artist Keni Thomas, who earned the Bronze Star for valor as an Army Ranger in the Somalia battle recounted in the book and motion picture "Black Hawk Down," performed Nov. 11 at the American Freedom Festival in New York City. Photo by John D. Banusiewicz  
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