By Danielle DeSimone
The USO returned to the stage in Washington, D.C. to host Backstage at the USO, an event full of laughter, entertainment and immense gratitude for USO supporters – and most importantly – service members who sacrifice so much every day.
For over 78 years, the USO has been the nation’s leading military support organization, serving our men and women in uniform by keeping them connected to family, home and country. Last night we were able to bring that mission to life for D.C.-area service members and their families as well as USO donors, corporate partners and military supporters just like you.
The evening kicked off at The Anthem, a state-of-the-art music venue in Washington, with the evening’s host: “NCIS” star and former “That 70’s Show” actor Wilmer Valderrama. Valderrama is a seasoned USO tour veteran, having joined seven entertainment tours over the years and most recently traveled with the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph F. Dunford on the Chairman’s 2018 USO Holiday Tour, where he visited troops stationed throughout Europe and the Middle East.
Valderrama explained that his memories from that tour have stayed with him, recalling one particular moment that stood out while performing for a crowd of service members.
“To have everybody, men and women, hold each other in the audience and wave back and forth, singing ‘White Christmas’…it was one of those moments I’ll never forget,” he said. “Because in that spirit, everyone was one, and in that spirit, everyone celebrated the holidays away from home.”
Last night’s crowd included mostly local service members and their families, and Valderrama welcomed them in particular.
“I am grateful to the USO for inviting me to be here tonight. Every time I stand in front of a crowd of servicemen and women, it makes me proud to be an American. Thank you for your service. And thank you for being such an inspiration.”
“NCIS” star Wilmer Valderrama entertains the crowd at Backstage at the USO.
USO CEO and President J.D. Crouch II welcomes the crowd of service members, military families and USO supporters.
Actor Wilmer Valderrama and USO CEO and President J.D. Crouch II share a fun moment onstage at Backstage at the USO.
Paula Poundstone opens up the night of entertainment with a hilarious comedy set.
He then introduced USO CEO and President J.D. Crouch II, who thanked the USO’s volunteers, donors and corporate sponsors for making it possible for the USO to carry its mission forward of connecting service members to family, home and country.
Crouch then introduced several U.S. military leaders in attendance, who also gave remarks, including Command Sgt. Major Christopher Kepner, Senior Enlisted Advisor to the Chief; National Guard Bureau; General James C. McConville, Chief of Staff of the Army; General David H. Berger, Commandant of the Marine Corps; and – of course – retired Gen. George W. Casey, Chairman of the USO Board of Governors and 36th Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army.
Later, Paula Poundstone, a comedian best known for her stand-up comedy work and appearances on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” and NPR’s “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me,” kicked off the show with a hilarious performance with plenty of audience participation.
A Performance Played Close to Heart
One lucky service member had the opportunity to introduce country star Brantley Gilbert to the stage, but it was Gilbert who felt that he was the lucky one.
“Members of our military sacrifice their time – and sometimes their lives – and their families sacrifice as well, and so I’m just so thankful for each and every one of them,” Gilbert said. “It’s just an honor to be here.”
The country music star is a longtime supporter of the military, so this performance was an especially personal one. Gilbert’s grandfather, several uncles and friends have all served in the Armed Forces and he works closely with Disabled American Veterans to provide service dogs to veterans in need. In 2013, Gilbert participated in a week-long USO entertainment tour through Europe and the Middle East, where he performed for service members and got to meet with them one-on-one.
Brantley Gilbert rocks on stage at Backstage at the USO in Washington, D.C.
The crowd cheers on during Brantley Gilbert’s performance at Backstage at the USO.
Brantley Gilbert, a longtime supporter of the Armed Forces and a USO tour veteran, joins the USO once again to perform for an audience of service members and their families.
Brantley Gilbert sings to a crowd of service members and military families during the Backstage at the USO event.
Gilbert’s passion for supporting our nation’s military came through last night in his performance, which paid tribute to both the service members and their families in attendance, as well as those who could not be there because they were deployed and busy “fightin the good fight,” as he sang in his military-dedicated song “One Hell of an Amen.”
Gilbert explained that playing for a military audience is a completely different experience from his usual shows.
“When we went on the USO tour in Italy and Kuwait, it made a difference because they were so excited that we were bringing a piece of home to them,” he said.
“I play a lot of shows, and this is the most appreciative group of people I’ve ever played for or done anything for in my entire life…so it’s always an honor to do whatever we can to hopefully make a difference or just put a smile on somebody’s face.”
Last night’s performance was personal for Valderrama as well.
“[Working with the USO] is honestly the proudest work I’ve ever done,” he said. “To be able to say thank you for the fact that my family can wake up to an American dream is literally the least contribution that we as entertainers can do.”
Honoring a Legacy
Backstage at the USO also allowed for the recognition of two legacies in USO entertainment – the iconic Bob Hope and the award-winning actress, singer and dancer Ann-Margret Olsson, best known for her roles on “Bye Bye Birdie” and “Viva las Vegas.”
Linda Hope, Bob Hope’s daughter, the Chair and CEO of the Bob & Dolores Hope Foundation and an avid USO supporter had the honor of presenting the inaugural Bob Hope Legacy Award to Ann-Margret. The award recognizes a USO entertainer’s dedication to supporting our service members through advocacy and entertainment, much like its namesake, Bob Hope.
Ann-Margret has spent the past six decades entertaining our troops and even participated in the famous Bob Hope USO Tours to Vietnam, so it was especially touching for her to receive the first-ever award in his name from his daughter.
From the Stage to the Field
When one hears “USO,” many people immediately think of the entertainment tours that travel all around the world to boost the morale of troops stationed overseas. However, Backstage at the USO was more than a USO concert and comedy show – it was an opportunity to show the impact of USO programs among service members and military families.
Volunteers stuff care packages at The Wharf before the show. These care packages will be sent to troops deployed overseas during the 2019 holiday season.
Monte Durham from TLC’s “Say Yes to the Dress” stuffs care packages with service members and USO supporters. Durham’s father and husband both served in the Armed Forces.
Ann-Margret joined other guests in wring a message to a service member, which will be sent to troops deployed overseas this holiday season.
A guest takes part in a USO Holidays interactive display.
Guests got to explore a mock USO location that a service member might experience while stationed on the front lines.
Just before doors opened to the event, celebrities and civilians worked side-by-side outside at The Wharf to stuff more than 1,000 care packages, which will be sent to service members overseas this holiday season. Throughout the event, guests could also “go backstage” and see what makes the organization tick by exploring interactive displays of the many other programs the USO provides to support our military community. To showcase the USO’s Campaign to Connect, guests were invited to write and share their words of gratitude to service members on postcards, which were displayed along the wall and will later be sent to service members overseas.
To get to the heart of the USO’s mission of connecting service members to family, home and country, guests were also welcomed into the “living room” of USO Holidays, where they could write messages of encouragement and comfort to troops stationed overseas and far from home during the holidays. Guests could also experience the USO Wishbook firsthand and see the comforts of home that the USO provides to service members and their families during deployment over the holidays. Thanks to generous donors who purchase these gifts from our USO Wishbook, service members can enjoy important moments such as Long Distance Bedtime Stories via the USO Bob Hope Legacy Reading Program, even when far from home.
The USO is committed to supporting our entire military community, which is why guests were additionally able to explore the USO’s Coffee Connection program for military spouses in real time at the event. Much like the networking program that encourages friendship and support among milspouses, guests were able to share a coffee at the café, settle into the iconic couch from Central Perk in Warner Bros.’ “Friends,” and bond over a mutual appreciation for the sacrifices our military families make every day alongside their service members.
There was even a mock-USO center set up in an expeditionary tent for guests to explore! Guests were able to walk around a tent set up with a USO2GO kit and other classic USO amenities so they could experience what a typical service member might while stationed downrange.
Since World War II, the USO has been supporting service members and their families just when they need it most. Whether it be through entertainment tours and care packages or phone calls home and military spouse programs, we have continued our mission of always being by their side. Last night, at Backstage at the USO, we carried that mission forward by building connections between our nation’s military and the places and people they call home, showing gratitude for those who stand beside us as a Force Behind the Forces® and – most importantly – giving back to our service members who sacrifice so much for our freedoms.
A Thank You to Our Partners
The USO thanks all of its partners who helped make the evening possible: Altria, The Boeing Company, The Coca-Cola Company, FTD, Huntington Ingalls, Lockheed Martin, Lyft, Mission BBQ, Northrop Grumman, Oath Inc., Old Camp Whiskey, Sandboxx, United Airlines, USAA and Wawa Foundation.
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