By Samantha L. Quigley

He’s as good as he ever was and, as far as the troops are concerned, even better than he used to be.

Since 2002, Toby Keith has provided more than 250,000 troops with a touch of home through performances in 17 countries, including Iraq and Afghanistan, and several ships at sea.

The result? A little global “Shock ’N Y’all.”

Keith has been a favorite with the military community since the 2002 release of “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American).” Inspired by the death of his veteran father and the events of September 11, the strongly worded, patriotic song might have been controversial, but it also became an anthem for the troops who were deploying to the Middle East to preserve American freedom.

It was also 2002 when Keith began touring with the USO to entertain those troops who could use a boost from back home. With performances in Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia, he shortened the distance between more than 3,000 troops and their family and friends. In the following years, he’s performed nearly 300 shows from Afghanistan to Cuba, Djibouti, Guam, Iraq, Kyrgyzstan and points in between.

Toby Keith, center, poses for a group photo with with sailors on an aircraft carrier in 2012 during his 10th USO tour. | Photo credit USO photo by Dave Gatley

In 12 years, Keith and his USO tours have created memories that will last a lifetime for hundreds of thousands of men and women in uniform, and their families. His USO tours also have taken him into harm’s way more than once, something his family doesn’t get too excited about, but it’s all in a day’s work for the singer.

“I’ve got a family back home too, that starts to freak a bit when it gets to this time of year to come over here. Once we’re gone, we’re over here, even after seven years, you still have to get your mind set that you’re going to be in a chopper, in a war zone, you’re going to come under fire sometimes. You’re going to be involved in some stuff,” Keith told On Patrol in 2009 while on tour in Bagram, Afghanistan. “But the second that it gets too hot, I look up and here comes a Cobra or an Apache [helicopter] to take us on in. … You know they (the military) are going to make sure you’re taken care of.”

In recognition of Keith’s dedication, the USO surprised him with its Spirit of the USO Award in April. The musician thought his participation in the Academy of Country Music’s ACM Presents: An All-Star Salute to the Troops all-star concert was just another opportunity to entertain the community that has welcomed him. And really, it was. Keith closed the show with the song that earned the country singer rock star status with the military—American Soldier. That’s when retired Air Force Brigadier General John I. Pray, Jr., then-USO President and CEO, joined the country music superstar on stage.

“There is one individual the USO and ACM would like to honor tonight,” Pray said. “Toby’s impact stretches far beyond our troops and families. His humanitarian efforts have helped pediatric cancer patients and his Oklahoma community after a devastating tornado.

“On behalf of the USO and the Academy of Country Music, I am honored to present the Spirit of the USO Award tonight to Toby Keith, whose extraordinary passion for, and support of, our men and women in uniform and their families best exemplifies the ideals and mission of the USO by being ‘by their side wherever they serve.’”

Photo credit Getty Images photo by Kevin Winter

Country music star Toby Keith accepts the Spirit of the USO Award during the live taping of “ACM Presents: An All-Star Salute To The Troops” at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on April 7, 2014, in Las Vegas.

Keith handled the surprise honor with the same humor he takes on the road.

“That caught me off guard,” the singer said. “I saw a need and a void the great Bob Hope left behind, and no one was filling it, but as hard as Big Dog Daddy tried, I couldn’t bring Marilyn Monroe.”

“Toby believes the debt we owe our brave servicemen and women can never fully be repaid, and he captures his convictions in his classic song American Soldier,” Pray said during the presentation.

The award commemorating Keith’s dedicated service to our troops and involvement with the USO quotes a line from the chart-topping song: “And I will always do my duty, no matter what the price. I’ve counted up the cost, I know the sacrifice.”

– Samantha L. Quigley is the editor in chief of On Patrol.