By Joseph Andrew Lee

From cowboys to hillbillies, in farm towns and big cities …

There’s no doubt military fans of country rocker Brantley Gilbert are worldwide after his first USO tour.

In the spring of 2013, Gilbert embarked on an eight-day tour to entertain troops in Italy and Kuwait.Eleven-time USO tour veteran Toby Keith tried to prepare Gilbert for what to expect.

“We already knew about [the USO tour] when I was out touring with Toby, so we would talk and he would give me some pointers and get me all excited about what to expect,” Gilbert said.

“He told me it was gonna be a life-changing experience, but I wasn’t prepared for all of that, like hearing all the stories and meeting these people who protect our freedom every day.”

He and the band had wanted to go overseas to bring the troops a little piece of home for a long time, Gilbert said.

“They were so appreciative of us being there that we came back feeling like we were the lucky ones,” he said. “We felt lucky just to get the chance to do it.”

With two cousins serving and other family members who have served, Gilbert is no stranger to the sacrifice of service. Nor is he unfamiliar with being apart from family.

“I’m engaged now and even when I spend a month or two apart from her it seems like forever. It’s a huge deal and feels like an eternity,” he said. “These guys and gals spend nine months to a year away from their families and that just … blows me away. It’s a huge sacrifice, putting your neck out there like that and being willing to go somewhere you’re not familiar with to do a job. That is definitely something to be respected.”

His unique blend of country and hard rock has become a favorite among younger troops—particularly those from the South—who have presented him with their dog tags as thanks for the music that helped get them through their deployments. He often wears them as a tribute to his fans, and the dog tags have now become something of a trademark.

“I had two twins come up to me—two Marines—and they handed me their dog tags. Told me they knew I always wear one on my chain,” Gilbert said. “They had just got back from Afghanistan and they drove so many hours to come see me just to hand these tags to me and tell me it was my music that helped them get through their deployment.

“Stuff like that makes you speechless. It’s an awesome thing, and I make sure to rotate [the tags] out every night.”

As part of his USO tour, Gilbert visited troops at Italy’s Aviano Air Base before moving on to Kuwait, where stops included Camps Buehring and Arifjan.

“It was a little more real there for us [in Kuwait],” he said. “We were proud to be in Italy and proud to bring our music to the troops stationed there, but playing in Kuwait really felt a little closer to the action and closer to where you might imagine the need is.”

Just last year, Gilbert played for more than 500,000 fans while on the road with Keith and Eric Church. Since then, he has produced two number one hits—Country Must Be Country Wide and You Don’t Know Her Like I Do. Both went gold.

He also donated 10 tickets to troops stationed in the Manchester, England, area for his March 16 show at the Club Academy and made time to meet with them.

His experiences with the troops have definitely made a lasting impression.

“It was like nothing I’d ever done before,” Gilbert said. “Me and the band all talked about it and we agree. Across the board … they were—every single one of them—the most appreciative audiences we’ve ever played for, and we’ve played a lot of shows.

“I must tell you, honestly, I made friendships out there that I brought home with me,” Gilbert said. “Friendships I’ll have forever.”

You can send a message of support and thanks directly to service members via the USO’s Campaign to Connect. Your messages will appear on screens at USO locations around the world.