‘The Smiles Are Awesome’
Meet the USO Team Working Behind the Scenes to Entertain Thousands of Service Members and Military Families
By Chad Stewart
For as long as the USO has existed, it has entertained service members in an effort to connect them to the people, places and things they love.
And one of the things they love most is a good time. Ear-to-ear smiles brimming with joy and excitement are a recurring theme captured in thousands of USO tour photos dating back to 1941. And the stars the USO sends around the world to entertain service members are smiling with them.
If we could read their minds, both sides—the performers and the patrons—would probably share the same sentiment: “This is the most fun I’ve had in a long time.”
The stress of service and separation is unrelenting, but the USO works to relieve some of that tension by providing an outlet the military community can use to decompress. Cheering, screaming, laughing and singing, even if it’s only for an hour, makes the outside world disappear. A guitar riff, a side-splitting joke or an impromptu game of flag football can help distract service members and their families from the arduous lives they lead.
Thousands of performers have put smiles on millions of faces since the organization’s founding nearly 75 years ago. While they are just one of the many ways the USO supports the military, entertainment tours helped make the organization an American institution.
Somehow the USO has always made these intricate events look effortless, but it’s not an easy endeavor. The people working behind the scenes, meticulously planning each tour down to the smallest detail, help the organization support and entertain thousands of service members and military families every year.
Where It Begins
The USO’s success starts with recruiting. Talented performers are an essential part of the USO’s entertainment operation and the organization has a dedicated team that works directly with celebrities and their teams of managers, agents and publicists to create special events for service members and military families. They’re not just concerts, either. Movie premieres, author readings, autograph sessions, handshake tours—even cooking workshops—are on the USO’s entertainment menu.
Juliet Gilliam, the USO’s vice president of entertainment partnerships and talent relations, leads the group tasked with bringing celebrities to the table.
USO tours have a storied history and many entertainers are proud to add to the legacy of keeping service members connected to family, home and country. But even with the organization’s long track record, establishing new partnerships while maintaining existing relationships is vital. Like any professional relationship, open lines of communication are essential and preparation is key.
Long before a tour is booked or scheduled, Gilliam and Mari Villalobos, the USO’s manager of entertainment partnerships and talent relations, spend a lot of time on research. There are many variables to consider with each tour, and the recruiting team considers them all.
Who do service members want to see? Which entertainers have time to give? When will they be available? How do those stars like to give back? The duo knows what to ask before they reach out to managers, agents and publicists. It’s how professionals operate.
The people who represent high-profile celebrities are inundated with inquiries and pitched projects on a daily basis and they know the difference between a professional pitch and one that comes from an unseasoned amateur. When their caller IDs read “United Service Organizations,” they are met with someone who has done their homework.
Gilliam, who established ESPN’s philanthropic division before joining the USO more than three years ago, has 20-plus years of diverse experience in entertainment, media and talent management. She said her professional background allows her to “understand different perspectives and where people are coming from,” whether it’s building corporate partnerships or working with celebrities on entertainment tours.
Scheduling and planning these events is a lengthy process in most cases. Leah Kartun, the entertainment partnerships and talent relations coordinator, said the team balances multiple projects nearly every day. Sometimes all the pieces fall into place with relative ease, but the USO usually spends months preparing for a tour. Gilliam said she always aims to book tours at least three months in advance to give the operations team the time it needs to create a special event.
The planning process is not a one-sided affair, either. In most cases, it’s a collaborative effort between the USO and the teams of managers and publicists it works with. Gilliam and Villalobos bring a detailed proposal to the table, but they’re also willing to incorporate other ideas.
“We love it when our talent approaches us with ideas that they have,” Gilliam said.
It’s one of the many ways the USO delivers a personalized experience for the entertainers. If an NFL player or Olympian wants to work out alongside service members, the recruiting and operations teams work hard to accommodate those kinds of requests.
They are also flexible about scheduling. While other organizations might have specific timeframes they are unwilling to deviate from, the USO is willing to work around the obstacles. “We’re actually going to them and saying, ‘We’d love to have you and we will work around your schedule,’” Gilliam said.
That personal touch, along with the extensive planning and preparation, makes a huge difference.
The stars who donate their time and talents to the organization seem to come back again and again. More than 85 entertainers and celebrities toured for the USO in 2015 and many were on their second and third tours. They return year after year because they are motivated and inspired by people who are willing to risk their lives to defend their country.
In a way, the artists and athletes who tour for the USO are chosen by the troops, although service members aren’t active participants in the selection process. About 65 percent of the active-duty military population is under 30, according to the Defense Department. That huge group of more than 900,000 is the USO’s key demographic in many ways, so Gilliam and her team often look for performers who appeal to that constituency.
Although large, that group of young service members is not the only group the USO caters to. Villalobos said base commands sometimes ask for a specific type of entertainer that fits the demographics of the installation. For example, the Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families is a popular request for family-friendly installations, while bases inundated with young, single service members might prefer a musician, comedian, actor or athlete.
“I think it speaks volumes if we send out entertainment to them that’s relevant not only to the service members but to their peers,” she said. For the most part, selecting the right person for the right place falls to the USO’s recruiting team.
“Our team tries to stay on the pulse of what is appealing to the general public,” said Villalobos, a self-described Army brat whose father was a member of the 82nd Airborne Division and Special Forces. “We want to make sure those are the folks we send out to tour … because that’s the touch of home that service members are missing.”
Showing service members and military families a good time is paramount, but providing performers a rewarding, memorable experience is important, too. It’s another way the USO keeps entertainers coming back for subsequent tours. Sometimes they return home with great stories and are able to inspire others to join the USO’s entertainment roster.
It doesn’t happen all the time, but when it does, it’s a boon for the USO. Entire tours have been built based on the positive experiences of USO tour veterans. When reaching out to potential entertainment partners, it definitely pays to have good references.
“I think in those cases when it does happen, it gives the USO the leverage that we need to go to that manager or publicist about other clients who maybe aren’t familiar with the USO and haven’t gone on a tour,” said Villalobos, who understands how talent managers and their clients choose the charities and nonprofits they support. Before coming to the USO about three years ago, she represented athletes and their interests at Wasserman Media Group, a giant in sports marketing and talent representation.
“If entertainers have good experiences, they’re going to be more inclined to [tour] again or tell their friends.”
Then-Denver Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey autographs a football for a soldier stationed in the Middle East during a stop on a weeklong USO/NFL tour in March 2013.
Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt autographs a shirt for an injured soldier stationed in the Middle East during a 2013 USO/NFL tour.
U.S. Olympic swimmer Natalie Coughlin participates in a military training dog demonstration at Naval Station Rota during her USO tour to Spain in 2013.
Country music star Brantley Gilbert performs a USO show at Aviano Air Base in Italy in March 2013.
Musician Toby Keith flashes a smile as he takes a stab at understanding the navigation charts while touring the bridge of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln.
Multi-platinum recording artist Keyshia Cole performs for service members and their families during a USO show at Vogelweh Air Base in Germany in June 2013.
Country music star Kellie Pickler performs a USO concert for troops stationed at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan as part of a six-day, five-country USO holiday tour led by Army General Martin Dempsey in 2014.
Country musician Rodney Atkins poses for a photo with service members at Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak, Alaska, on September 17.
Author Stephen King kicks off his USO tour to Germany with a visit to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, where he personally thanked medical staff and walked from room-to-room visiting with troops and their families.
“The Big Bang Theory” star Johnny Galecki gets a preview the cockpit of an F-15 aircraft by Air Force 1st Lt. Jason Breazeale during a 2012 USO tour to the Pacific.
Military personnel and their families get to meet with “Toothless” the dragon following a special advance USO screening of the movie “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, in 2014.
Brandon Manns and his his three boys enjoy a performance of The Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families at Fort Benning, Georgia, in 2014.
The USO’s entertainment department is made up of two equally important parts—recruiting and operations—and they work together to form one cohesive unit. Rachel Tischler, the USO’s vice president of entertainment, and her team of three tour producers work behind the scenes, carefully orchestrating and executing each event. She has set a lofty objective for her group.
“What we strive for with every experience is [to create] the moments people will tell their family about for the rest of their lives,” she said. “That’s what we want to have happen on every single USO tour.”
To an outsider, it’s a complex process involving a labyrinth of moving parts. To the experienced staff assigned to navigate that maze, it’s just another day at the office. Entertainers who go on USO tours are taken care of from the time they leave their homes until the tour is complete. Everything that happens in between is the tour producer’s domain. The first step to any tour is figuring out where to go and how much time the talent has to give.
“Then it’s really nuts-and-bolts basics of getting information so we can get [security] clearances, plane tickets and everything that is needed to get them out the door to getting them home,” said Tischler, who worked on Broadway musicals as a general manager before joining the USO more than 11 years ago.
USO Tour Producer Jeremy Wilcox said the entire process hopefully starts by connecting with one member of the entertainer’s staff. The list of interested parties usually grows from there.
“Ideally, it’s one person we reach out to with a welcome packet of information they have to fill out,” he said. “Sometimes it’s multiple people—a publicist who wants to include the management, the tour manager, the production manager. So it could be four or five people on an email and we start the conversation.”
Ground service to the airport, visas and hotel arrangements are also handled by the USO. It seems simple enough, but planning two, three or four international tours at once can get complicated fast. Add in the military’s rigid guidelines and the process gets even tougher.
“The military crafts the itinerary for the day we’re on their base, but then we have to go through it to make sure it meets our needs and the talent’s needs,” Wilcox said. “Then we coordinate with numerous military personnel on a base and they have people they coordinate with because they have to run it up the chain of command.”
Once the schedule and travel arrangements are settled, the hard work of producing an event or coordinating a handshake tour takes center stage. For tours with production or other special needs, that means bringing in and operating stages, equipment, video monitors or anything else needed to create a lively atmosphere. The USO partners with vendors around the world to get the job done.
“We have a group of phenomenal production managers who are freelancers,” said Betty Naylor, who’s produced USO tours for more than 19 years. “They range from a young man who came from Seether, (a hard-rock band that has been on USO tours), to folks who have been in the business for 45 or 50 years.”
These are the people who operate the sophisticated audio and lighting equipment that gives the events the look and feel of a show you’d buy a ticket to see. There’s no money exchanged at the gates of USO shows—they’re all free to service members and their families—but that doesn’t mean troops don’t have to lift a finger, or 200-pound speakers.
Instead, the USO relies on the world’s most disciplined and physically fit roadies to get the gear off the truck and into the hands of the pros. Service members often volunteer to do the heavy lifting and the civilian production managers tell them what goes where. USO tour producers like Naylor and Wilcox are usually on site to watch everything come together, but they can’t be everywhere all the time. On average, the USO produces between 50 and 60 tours each year, which translates into 300 or 400 individual events.
The feedback the USO receives from its tour veterans is largely positive and Naylor said keeping the stars and their staffs informed throughout the process minimizes surprises.
“A major thing for all of our tours is managing expectations so [entertainers] understand that we are going to take the best possible care we can of these folks, but they may have to deviate from what their multipage rider says,” she said, referencing the lists of backstage items some performers request. The USO does the best it can to make the entertainers comfortable in what can often be an unfamiliar environment.
“They appreciate how well we’ve taken care of them, Wilcox said. “And how well we manage not only the itinerary, but bands thank us for the level of production we’re able to provide. … We go into the desert, but we still put on an amazing show with good equipment and production gear.”
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Complex, professionally staged performances are what the USO is known for crafting, but lower-profile handshake tours can be just as difficult to create. These types of daylong events, where an entertainer meets service members, signs autographs and takes pictures, seem low-key and straightforward. Tischler explained why they’re not.
“On a band tour, we create one big event,” she said. “You know you’ve delivered something for everyone who shows up.”
But on a handshake tour, the USO creates individual moments throughout an entire day, sometimes for several days. “We need to create multiple quality experiences time and time again.”
These types of tours are also a great opportunity for entertainers to connect with service members and see what they do every day. The organization works with the military to provide an array of behind-the-scenes experiences so the entertainers can come home and talk about their one-of-a-kind adventures with the USO.
Wilcox, who started his career as a stage manager at The Second City, a legendary improvisational comedy theater in Chicago, says the USO tour experience is a win-win situation for both sides. Service members and families have a chance to see or meet someone they admire and the same goes for the entertainers.
“The military audience is an appreciative audience, particularly when we go downrange or to a place where they are separated from their friends and families,” he said. “To see their reactions when I bring celebrities is very touching, moving and exciting. And then to hear the celebrity go through their day and then, in a private moment, talk about what an amazing day they had … it’s very rewarding to see that.”
“It’s definitely a collective effort,” Tischler said. “I applaud our producers because they manage a large team of people who don’t actually work for the USO, but we get them to all work together in harmony to deliver a wonderful experience for troops and families.”
The Last Frontier
In September, the USO and its partners at SiriusXM traveled to Alaska to deliver quality experiences to service members and military families stationed there.
USO tour veterans Storme Warren, Rodney Atkins and The Swon Brothers took a one-week swing through the state, stopping at Eielson Air Force Base, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson and U.S. Coast Guard Base Kodiak.
“We don’t get a lot out here in Kodiak,” said Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Keely Hansen, referring to the lack of entertainment options on the island installation 250 miles south of Anchorage. “It’s still in Alaska, but there’s not much here, so to have a big star come and put on a show for us is amazing.”
Eielson, just south of North Pole, Alaska, is one of the most isolated American air bases in the world. The average temperature barely touches 50 degrees in the early fall and the excruciating winter weather, which usually starts in October, can affect morale. It had been years since the base hosted a concert, so service members and their families were ready to let loose before the snow started flying.
“When these entertainers come out here, it is a huge boost in morale because they bring a little taste of home to us, especially [with] some of the songs they sing,” said Air Force Staff Sergeant Shawn Nickel. “It is important for families and military to unwind at USO events … because there are so many hidden stresses working for the military that people from the outside don’t see,” he said.
Country musicians Zach and Colton Swon were happy put the service members at ease. “We could never do what they (service members) do,” Colton said. “But we do know how to play music and if that will give anybody a little relaxation, or a little getaway for a night, we’re happy to do it.”
He said the best part of the entire tour was just meeting and shaking hands with the men and women who serve. “We get to do what we love to do because of them.”
Zach Swon volunteered to put on a padded suit used to train military working dogs just because he wanted to experience the rush of being mauled by what he called a “fur missile.”
“I immediately regretted that decision once the dog latched onto my arm,” he said. “You can feel it through the suit, but it was awesome.”
Atkins, a chart-topping country star, is as laid back as they come, but he was excited to talk about the incredible service members he met on his fourth USO tour.
“Somebody said to me today, ‘It’s so great you guys come up here and do this, and it makes us feel like somebody cares about us,’” he said. “That’s what these guys and gals are here for because … they care a whole lot about people that they don’t even know. … It gives me chills now just thinking about what they are doing.”
Atkins and Warren, a noted TV and radio personality who hosts The Highway on SiriusXM, sat in an F-16 at Eielson. The fighter jet stayed on the ground, but the crew fired up the engine to impress the stars. “To feel the wind come in and the thrust go out, you can’t match it, there’s nothing like it,” Warren said.
“This USO tour is exactly what I imagined it would be,” he said. “I always learn so much every time I go out with the USO and I always return home a different person, a better person. The work our troops and military families are doing … is as impressive as it is important.”
Tischler wasn’t on the Alaska trip, but she understands what Warren, Atkins and the Swons witnessed during their weeklong adventure. She’s seen it on the faces of thousands of service members over the years in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Downrange, you’ll sometimes see an 18-year-old kid and they sort of have that battle glaze and they are totally dazed, but they’ll watch someone sing or tell a joke and suddenly, for a moment, they are that 18-year-old kid from wherever they are from,” she said. “We give them a break from their routine, or whatever they are going through, and hopefully that refreshes them enough to go back and do their jobs.
“The smiles are awesome.”
—USO Communications Manager Oname Thompson contributed to this story. Chad Stewart is the senior editor of On Patrol. This story originally appeared in the Winter 2015-2016 issue of On Patrol, the magazine of the USO.
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