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Actor, USO Tour Veteran Penn Embraces Troops, Stories They Tell

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

By Christian Pelusi 

All good actors look for good stories. They know that excellent shows and films come from interesting concepts and great writing. But that professional curiosity often extends into an actor’s personal life and it is what has kept Kal Penn coming back for USO Entertainment tours. Penn (TV’s “House,” “How I Met Your Mother”; film’s “Harold and Kumar” series) will be taking part in his third USO tour this spring, traveling with actress Kate Walsh (“Private Practice,” “Grey’s Anatomy”). (Dates and locations are being withheld at this time for security purposes.)

Penn began working with the USO in 2009 on a trip to visit troops based in Djibouti and Bahrain and the memories are still very vivid.

“You’ve got folks, above and beyond anything else, wanting to serve their country. Regardless of what branch they’re in or what their actual duties are, just to get a sense of ‘When did you join the military? What did you decide to do? How long have you been here?’ The incredible stories. ... It’s just very humbling and very inspiring to hear all the stories.

“I met a guy who was a photographer who wanted to go into photography and the Army had given him the skills to do that,” Penn said. “There were a bunch of folks who we me met who were looking forward to the GI Bill so they could go to film school. On the base in Djibouti, there were a couple of folks that had guitars with them and would play acoustic guitar every night after dinner. There are a lot of those kinds of things that you don’t often hear about and so the range of talents and the range of passions that are brought to the table are very cool.”

In 2010, Penn returned to the USO Entertainment tour schedule to visit Hawaii and South Korea. The tales shared by the troops deployed to the Demilitarized Zone were astounding to him. “And then you also realize all of the checks and balances that are on both sides of the border and get a sense of how militarized it actually is. And particularly since [U.S. troops have] been there for so long, it kind of gives a notion of, ‘Wow, of all the places in the world, what a particularly bizarre place.’ ”

Each destination has allowed Penn to witness how unique each situation was for the troops, calling for different approaches but all requiring the same, elite level of coordination. He especially enjoyed when his group stopped on the aircraft carrier USS Eisenhower in 2009.

“The ways that I think each job compliments the other was very obvious and very apparent,” Penn said. “They make it look flawless, but you can tell it’s not easy. And I think the carrier is the most obvious example of that because you have planes landing and taking off and literally everything that goes into it, from the arresting gear to the folks that are working underneath the deck to the guys that are working a couple floors down in the trash room. If you even one portion of that is out of sync, it affects everything.

“I don’t think you appreciate that until you see it.”

The same can be said for aspects of the USO mission that take place overseas, as well.

Penn said: “I think the importance [of the USO] is bringing a piece of home to a lot of these folks and providing support services. I had the chance to meet and talk to young dads, young moms, a lot of whom hadn’t seen their kids or loved ones in months, if not a year. A lot of times spouses have to move with the person who is in service and that’s a huge burden on the family, not to mention the sacrifice of actually being in harm’s way, every single day. So seeing what the USO does really gave me an appreciation for how deeply connected stuff is and seeing how [appreciative] our service members were.

“Even doing a handshake tour seems to have an impact because the USO is bringing all this stuff and providing this cohesion which was really humbling.”

Penn has made helping others and his country a priority. In addition to his relationship with the USO, Penn spent two years away from Hollywood, working with the Obama Administration on several initiatives an Associate Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement. He now returns to the entertainment industry with “The Big Brain Theory,” a new program on The Discovery Channel which pits ultra-intelligent people in a competition to devise workable solutions and inventions that can ultimately have an impact beyond the show itself.

“One of the reasons the Discovery Channel show appealed to me, [is that] it’s focusing on science and technology which is something we need to continue to push in the United States,” Penn said. “I was lucky, in high school, I went to one of the few publicly funded arts high schools in the country [Freehold Township High School in New Jersey] and I think were it not for that, I would not have had the chance to be a working actor. And so I think the more that we can fund the arts, the more creative our engineers can become and the more we can fund the science and technology fields, the more innovators we can turn out. So when the Discovery Channel approached me for the show, I thought how cool, to be able to host a show that’s a documentary-reality show but it’s about something positive, featuring crazy explosions and gadgets and I still don’t understand the math behind it but I think it’s cool.”

With plenty of cool stories to tell.

* * *

Photo caption: Actor Kal Penn visits with USN Cmdr. Joe Fricke at USN Expeditionary Camp Lemonier in Djibouti in May 2009. (USO Photo by Fred Greaves) 

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