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USO Gala Emcee Haysbert Earns Respect of Troops

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

By Christian Pelusi 

For actors, successfully portraying characters can sometimes lead to fame, fortune and a long career. For Dennis Haysbert, it also gave him entree to the USO.

Haysbert, who takes the stage Friday night as emcee of this year’s USO Gala, acknowledges that the opportunity is due in large part to his memorable on-screen performances. His iconic roles as President David Palmer on “24” and Command Sergeant Major Jonas Blane on “The Unit” caught the attention of the USO. That started a relationship in 2008 with a USO tour to Iraq and Kuwait.

“I knew that those roles were starting to resonate with the troops and the reasons I went [abroad with the USO] were [that] I just wanted to give them a little taste of home,” he said. “And give them a chance to see some Hollywood, see somebody from the states that would take time out to come and see them. And I know first-hand that they are very appreciative of that. As was I.

“To be able to go out there and see them and also have them tell me how much they enjoy what I do. So it helped both ways. It was nice to have that feeling of acceptance.”

Gaining that acceptance requires more than just filling out a uniform or spouting jargon, especially when the group you are depicting is the very discerning Delta Force.

“What I’ve found was that they thought that we were doing a really credible job of portraying them, especially the Special Forces guys," he said. "Any time I’ve gone over there, we’ve driven by the Special Forces compound and not many tours get a chance to do that. So I felt really privileged to be able to meet these gentlemen who are really putting it on the line out there on the line … in order to save dozens if not hundreds of other soldiers. So it’s really kind of satisfying to me that those guys really enjoyed what we did on ‘The Unit’ because they’re so unsung. To do what they do, portrayed on our show, and have it be as accurate as we could possibly be without giving away any secrets. So that is gratifying for me.”

Serving as emcee at the USO Gala affords Haysbert the opportunity to meet with another part of the military community: the families.

“The sacrifices that [military families] make are very significant," he said. "I feel for them. Not only are they missing their mom or dad or uncle or brother or sister, they have to worry about whether they are in harm’s way. So it’s just a double-edged sword. And that’s not lost on me. Especially kids, because kids change so much in a month, three months, six months, a year. It’s incredibly hard on the parents and the kids.”

That separation is a driving force behind Haysbert’s continued support of the USO and why he encourages his peers in the entertainment world to join him.

“[The USO] gives the troops that moral support,” he said. “Having people from all parts of the performance spectrum and the industry to come and visit them and make them feel that they are appreciated for the sacrifices they’re making for the nation. I think any and all performers, actors, musicians, artists that can go over there and give them some moral support should do it. These men and women need to have and know that they are supported by our nation. The more [entertainers] that get out there … the better it’s going to be for the troops.”

Photo caption: Dennis Haysbert poses for photos with troops in Italy in April 2012. (USO Photo by Fred Greaves) 

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