2020 in Review: How the USO Entertained the Military Through the Pandemic

By Danielle DeSimone

Since 1941, the USO has delivered live shows and some of the world’s best entertainers right to the front lines, boosting service members’ morale and assuring them that no matter where they are in the world, they are not forgotten.

Whether it was Bob Hope dancing and singing on the bed of a truck in World War II or Robin Williams cracking jokes in Iraq or Scarlett Johannson sharing martial arts tips with soldiers in Afghanistan, our troops know that they can always turn to the USO for entertainment and a connection to home.

Then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Suddenly, our nation’s military had to quickly pivot and adjust to new health and safety measures – and the USO pivoted right along with them, ensuring that even in the midst of a global pandemic, service members still had the support they needed. This included the launch of USO Military Virtual Programming (MVP) – a series of virtual, streamed events in which service members got to speak directly to entertainers through a computer or phone screen and discuss everything from deployments to what it’s like on a movie set.

Here is a roundup of highlights from this year’s USO MVP events:

1. “SEAL Team” Actor David Boreanaz Chats with Deployed Service Members in Iraq

Just about two weeks into the U.S.’ response to the coronavirus pandemic in late March, the USO and “SEAL Team” actor David Boreanaz quickly teamed up to boost the spirits of service members in Iraq – the first-ever USO MVP event.

David Boreanaz talks via video chat with service members in Iraq. | Photo credit USO Al Asad

Boreanaz dialed in directly to USO Al Asad, Iraq, just before the center closed due to COVID-19 restrictions. Here, during the cozy virtual chat, Boreanaz spoke with about 10 service members from various Army and Air Force units at Al Asad Air Base. These one-on-one conversations were unique experiences for both the service members and the actor.

“One of the guys was a New York Rangers fan and I’m a Philadelphia Flyers fan, so we’d banter back and forth,” Boreanaz said on an April 8 episode of CBS’ “The Talk.”

“…just to tap into them and see them and give them some love from over here and thank them was a terrific experience.”

2. Martha Stewart Bakes Cookies with Military Families

Martha Stewart – an American icon of cooking, entertaining and homemaking – joined military families and the USO for a virtual baking class this spring to bolster military spouses, children and service members who were under quarantine or COVID-19 restrictions.

Martha Stewart joined the USO for a Facebook Live video, in which she showed military families how to make rainbow sugar cookies. | Photo credit USO Photo

In this Facebook live video event, Stewart guided viewers through the process of creating her signature sugar cookies, but with a rainbow twist. Rainbows have become a symbol of hope throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, especially for children, who have been decorating posters with rainbows and hanging them on windows and balconies all around the world to encourage neighbors and frontline workers.

Throughout the live baking class, Stewart answered questions from viewers in military communities all over the world, advising them on everything from frosting to how to stay optimistic and resilient during lockdowns.

“Be proud of the work you do as mothers, fathers and educators of children. That work is very important,” Stewart said. “Make the best of your time at home together … it’s a real hard time for all of us but make the best of it.”

3. Military Children, Spouses and Service Members are Surprised by Ne-Yo

On Kadena Air Base on the island of Okinawa, Japan, the U.S. military community is far from home and loved ones – which can be especially difficult during the pandemic. As strict health and safety restrictions led to school closures and canceled plans, Kadena High School students who perform on the school cheerleading squad and step teams were surprised by a special video call from none other than Ne-Yo.

These students and their coaches thought they were simply doing a video call interview with the USO when suddenly Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter, actor, producer and dancer Ne-Yo appeared on-screen.

The military children and spouses were shocked and overjoyed when they first realized who they were talking to. The small group got to speak directly with Ne-Yo and ask him questions about his career and the entertainment industry. These members of the military community sacrifice so much on a daily basis alongside their service members. Having this moment of connection with Ne-Yo was a way to express gratitude for their role in the military community, and an assurance that their efforts are appreciated back home.

4. Craig Robinson Delivers Laughter and Levity to Deployed Troops

Service members were excited to see a familiar face when Craig Robinson – the actor, comedian and musician best known for his roles as Darryl Philbin on “The Office” and Doug Judy on “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” – appeared on their screens in Iraq. The entertainer, who is also a USO tour veteran, happily chatted with soldiers deployed to Al Asad Air Base.

Photo credit USO Photo

Craig Robinson talked to service members deployed to the Middle East via a USO Virtual Tour, in an effort to boost morale.

As he shared stories from his time on sets of television shows and films, Robinson also kept the energy high by cracking jokes, and his effect on the service members’ morale was undeniable. Each service member who called in from the USO center (wearing masks and maintaining six feet of distance) was visibly delighted to speak with him, and he had the entire group roaring with laughter – a welcome distraction from the challenges of deployment and quarantines.

“It’s a beautiful thing, man – to chit chat [with service members]; and if my appearance can lift somebody up, especially if you’re away from your family for God knows how long, then yeah I’m down to do that,” Robinson said. “Thank you for your questions, thank you for your service and thank you for allowing me to be here.”

5. Kristen Bell Sings “Frozen” Songs with a Superfan in Hawaii

As an actress, singer, producer and star of Hollywood successes like “Veronica Mars,” “Gossip Girl” and Disney’s “Frozen,” Kristen Bell has a busy schedule. However, Bell happily took time out of her day to speak directly with military spouses stationed all around the world, chatting via video calls as part of the USO MVP Series.

Throughout the hour, Bell – a mother of two – commiserated and laughed with other mothers who have been struggling to adjust their parenting throughout the pandemic. She shared advice on how she stays resilient when balancing family life becomes challenging, what her daughters think of her role as Anna in Disney’s “Frozen” movies and what her favorite meal is to cook for dinner.

However, perhaps the most touching moment was when one military spouse’s daughter, Riley, began spontaneously singing “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” from “Frozen” during her mother’s Q&A with Bell. Without hesitation, Bell joined Riley in the duet, singing the beloved tune together. As a huge “Frozen” and Kristen Bell fan, this was a one-of-a-kind experience for Riley, and it shows just how much these USO MVP video chats can boost the morale of military spouses and children alike.

6. Bill Nye Talks Science with Middle School Classrooms Across the Pacific

The one and only Bill Nye, dressed in his signature bowtie, called middle school classrooms at Department of Defense schools on bases in Japan, Guam and South Korea to chat directly with military children. Best known as “Bill Nye the Science Guy,” Nye has been a leading figure in children’s science education since his popular PBS show by the same name in the 1990s.

Nye fielded questions from the students in these classrooms on everything from the science behind video calls, to what Nye planned to dress up as for Halloween, to how they could get started on their own science careers. In true Nye fashion, he also used plenty of props and humor, explaining even the most complicated scientific hypothesis in an accessible and entertaining way. Without fail, no matter the subject, Nye assured each young student with the same parting line: “Thank you, that was a great question!”

As the youngest members of the military community, military children must deal with a great deal of stress and instability with constant moves to new duty stations and the deployments of their family members. Being stationed at a location overseas has its own, additional challenges of being far from home while adjusting to a new way of living. That’s why providing programs and events specifically for military children, such as a one-on-one conversation with Bill Nye the Science Guy, is so important to give back to military children and remind them that they are not forgotten.

7. Hoda Kotb Speaks with Military Moms and Military Spouses

Americans all around the world are used to waking up and seeing Hoda Kotb’s face on their television screens every morning as the co-anchor on the “Today Show,” but this year, military spouses and military moms got to see Kotb’s face on their computer and phone screens as they chatted with her directly.

Calling in from all over the world, these members of the military community got to ask Kotb their own questions. As she discussed the joys and challenges of motherhood, adoption and family life, she also provided viewers with a behind-the-scenes look at her dressing room on-set of the “Today Show,” where she was calling from.

However, throughout the call, the main focus of discussion was resiliency and optimism. Kotb shared her own methods and approaches to life and simple things such as how she makes her own home a “sanctuary” for herself and her family – and how important that has been throughout the pandemic.

“[As moms] we can’t control what happens when our loved ones walk out the door, but when they’re in our place, we can make it the perfect spot for them to feel safe and loved,” Kotb said. “And I know that’s what you guys do, and that’s what I hope to do.”

Kotb also acknowledged the unique challenges military spouses and moms must tackle during their time in the military, and how grateful she is for the sacrifices they and their families make every day.

“I don’t even know how to put it into words. Just … thank you,” Kotb said. “It’s a privilege and an honor for me to be sitting here … and but there are millions of people thinking about you and cheering you on every single day.”

8. Scarlett Johansson and Chris Evans (Virtually) Visit Troops in Turkey

USO tour veterans and Marvel Universe’s Scarlett Johansson and Chris Evans have been to Turkey with the USO before – but this year, the two actors visited service members stationed there virtually via video calls during the USO’s inaugural USO MVP Con. This event, in the same vein as other Comic-Con-style events and an extension of the USO MVP series, featured video discussions with some of the leading actors, artists, writers and more of science fiction and fantasy film, comics and television.

Photo credit USO Photo

In 2016, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford teamed with the USO to bring actors Scarlett Johansson and Chris Evans, retired NBA star Ray Allen, Olympic gold medalist swimmer Maya DiRado, country star Craig Campbell and mentalist and tour emcee Jim Karol to troops overseas.

Johansson and Evans chatted with service members stationed in Turkey, as well as others stationed everywhere from Europe to the Southwest Asia region. They discussed what it was like behind-the-scenes on some of the Marvel Universe films and answered questions such as which Marvel superhero is their favorite, or what careers they would have chosen if they hadn’t gotten into acting.

As USO tour veterans, both Johansson and Evans have been able to meet service members on the front lines and see the realities and challenges of their service there, making their expressions of gratitude during the discussion especially warm and genuine.

“Thank you from the bottom of my heart,” Johansson said. “It’s absolutely a pleasure to be able to connect with you all in this way, and to show our appreciation.”

9. Military Children Sing Holiday Songs with Idina Menzel

For 40 years, Bob Hope and the USO became synonymous with the star-studded Christmas shows that were performed right on the front lines. That tradition carries on today, with holiday USO tours traveling the globe every year to reach our service members during a holiday season when they’re far from home and loved ones. However, this year, COVID-19 has restricted the USO from providing its traditional holiday entertainment tour.

That’s where the USO MVP Holiday Special came in.

Streamed from all around the world, this holiday show featured virtual visits from Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley, Tampa Bay Buccaneers tight end and Super Bowl Champion Rob Gronkowski, NFL Hall of Famer and Super Bowl Champion Terry Bradshaw, UFC Hall of Famer Royce Gracie and other pro-athletes. The show also included special appearances by Kristen Bell, Norman Reedus, Al Roker, Garth Brooks and Gal Gadot.

Headlining the show was Tony Award-winning star of both stage and film Idina Menzel. Menzel entertained viewers with renditions of classic and modern holiday songs, but perhaps her most touching tune was a performance of “White Christmas,” sung virtually alongside military children stationed all around the world with their families. Menzel specifically dedicated the song to service members currently deployed to the Middle East, many of whom have had deployments extended due to COVID-19 and were apart from their loved ones this holiday season.

10. Charlize Theron and Kiki Layne Discuss “The Old Guard” and Realities of Military Life with Service Members

Academy Award-winning actress Charlize Theron and her co-star Kiki Layne reached out to service members deployed to Erbil, Iraq, via a virtual USO tour, as part of the USO MVP Series. The pair most recently appeared together in Netflix’s new film “The Old Guard,” and they had to undergo intense martial arts training for their roles, as the movie characters both had military backgrounds, giving them an even deeper appreciation for the military.

Photo credit USO Photo

Charlize Theron and costar Kiki Layne of Netflix’s new film, “The Old Guard,” joined a Virtual USO tour and talked directly with service members and military families to boost morale.

“We talked a lot about the incredible work that you guys do,” Theron said. “[We’re] very grateful, and just know that you had a huge creative influence on this film, and we thank you for that.”

Understanding the challenges of service and what it means to be an American service member today was especially important to Layne, as she played a U.S. Marine in the film. Layne discussed how stepping into a Marine’s shoes – or rather, boots – required just as much internal preparation as it did physical training.

“I had to carry myself differently,” Layne said. “That was one of the things that the Marine advisor made very clear: there’s just a certain strength, inherent dignity and pride that – once you tap into it – seriously, it just changes you from the inside.”

Getting to speak one-on-one with these actors was an incredible boost for these deployed service members. Soldiers who appeared on screen to ask the actors about their training for the film thanked Theron and Layne for taking the time to speak to them, but the actors responded by instead thanking the service members.

“For me, playing a Marine in this film … I’m very, very grateful to be here and to speak with you all,” Layne said. “Thank you for the real work that you do … I stepped into just a quarter of your shoes for these couple of months while shooting and it made me even more appreciative of what it is that you do.”

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As the COVID-19 outbreak is evolving, the USO has pivoted resources across the entire global enterprise in an approach that helps care for military members and their families.

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