By Sarah Kemp

The tables have turned for Craig Morgan.

As a soldier serving in South Korea in the 1980s, Morgan won a contest. It wasn’t for marksmanship or doing the most push-ups. It was a singing competition. The prize was an opportunity to open for the band Sawyer Brown, which was on a USO tour in the region. Morgan played guitar and sang one song, then blended right back into the audience of camouflaged soldiers to enjoy the rest of the show.

More than 25 years later, he headlines USO tours and sings to a sea of camouflaged young men and women. In an interview with On Patrol, he remembered what it was like to watch Sawyer Brown and Charlie Daniels perform for him and his fellow service members.

“It felt like there was a little bit of home there for a few minutes,” he said. “I remember that feeling that I felt when I was standing down there looking up.”

Photo credit Department of Defense

Craig Morgan

When Morgan is on a USO tour, the memories of his Army career come rushing back. He understands the military community, which helps him bond with his crowd and play pranks on the soldiers assigned to escort him.

Morgan remembered being the head of security for a dignitary’s visit when he was serving. “Because I’ve done that job, I know what they have to do,” he said. Now that he’s the VIP who needs to be watched, he knows exactly how to get away from them. Giving his security detail a hard time reconnects Morgan to the military community he misses.

Morgan, who was honored with the USO of North Carolina’s Heart for the Warrior Award in October, said his wife notices a three-week period of pouting after he completes a USO tour because he misses the camaraderie.

“There’s no company that you can work for, there’s no business, there’s nothing that you will do, where you will share the same sense of loyalty and esprit de corps like you do in the military,” he said.

Morgan’s experiences in the armed forces—17 years in the Army and Army Reserve—inspire his music. Paradise and Let Me Take You Home are just two of the military-themed songs he’s written during his career.

Let Me Take You Home was written after meeting a wounded warrior at a USO event at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia, in 2008. Morgan wrote the song in a few hours and performed it that night. The lyrics were scribbled on a piece of paper taped to a microphone stand.

Want to bring Christmas surprises to deployed National Guard members defending our freedom? Donate today.

Writing heartfelt songs and releasing chart-topping hits is what Morgan is known for, but it was not the future he had envisioned.

“I had no clue,” Morgan said when he was asked if becoming a country music star was a lifelong dream. He used to pretend it wasn’t that big of a deal to transition out of the military, but has realized he can help others by sharing his story.

Transitioning out of the military is something Morgan said he’s still working on, even though he separated from the Army years ago. He said ending his military career was the right decision, but the desire to go back is still present. He looks forward to any opportunity to connect with his military family and USO tours are a way to do that.

While feeling nostalgic about his military career, Morgan mentioned there were days that were not fun for a young soldier. But then his stance softened. “But even those bad days—when you leave and you go do something else — you remember the funny stuff about the bad days.”

Photo credit Army photo

Craig Morgan signs autographs after a 2008 USO show.

He’s never forgotten the soldiers he shared those bad days with, either. After a concert in Connecticut, Morgan caught up with two veterans he served with years earlier. The singer said he easily rattled off the complicated acronyms of the veterans’ old Army jobs, but had a hard time remembering his friends’ new careers. One is a nursing instructor and the other is a U.S. Marshal. Morgan also said some of his old Army buddies tease him about his new career, but it’s all in good fun.

“They make fun of me,” he said. “These guys who I used to serve with, they give me a lot of crap, but I love that. That means nothing’s changed. They don’t care about what it is that I’m doing now or who I’ve become in this entertainment industry. They still care about me as the sergeant they worked with.”

During a discussion about his life as a touring musician—a life Morgan called “tough” at times—he cracked a wry smile. It was the look of someone who remembers those “bad days” in the military and won’t ever forget those who are still going through them.

He performed with Sawyer Brown again later in his music career and asked the band members if they remembered their opening act during the USO tour in South Korea. Morgan said Mark Miller, the band’s lead vocalist, remembered a young soldier who sang great, but couldn’t play the guitar worth a damn. “That was me!” Morgan exclaimed. Miller’s reply: “Some things never change.”

But things have changed. Now it’s Morgan performing for the troops instead of listening from the crowd. It’s not a transition he planned, but one he has successfully navigated. Now he wants to be there for those who need the support he once enjoyed.

“There’s something rewarding about making people laugh and smile,” Morgan said. “It’s neat to know that something as simple as a song can make someone feel better or think differently. That’s a wonderful thing.”

Sarah Kemp is the USO’s manager of volunteer operations. USO Director of Story Development Eric Brandner contributed to this story.