By Chad Stewart
When three stars from Fox’s hit series “Empire” embarked on a USO tour to Japan last year to entertain service members and military families, it didn’t feel like foreign territory.
Taraji P. Henson, Jussie Smollett and Bryshere Y. Gray all have family ties to the military. Henson, the Oscar- and Emmy-nominated actress who won a Golden Globe for her role as Cookie Lyon, hails from a family that understands what it means to serve.
“My dad was a Vietnam vet, I have an uncle who’s a Vietnam vet and I have another uncle who served in the Army,” she said. “My grandfather was in World War II and I have a [first] cousin who’s in the Navy and we never get to see him, so I understand the sacrifice.”
Taraji P. Henson from Fox’s “Empire” poses for a photo during a USO entertainment tour to Japan.
Service members cheer and take photos as cast members from “Empire” visit Misawa Air Base in Japan during a USO tour.
“Empire” star Jussie Smollett performs for fans during a USO show at Yokota Air Base, Japan, in December 2015.
“Empire’s” Bryshere Y. Gray performs at a USO show at Yokota Air Base, Japan, in December 15.
Taraji P. Henson talks with the audience before introducing “Empire” co-stars Jussie Smollett and Bryshere Y. Gray, who performed songs from the hit TV show at Misawa Air Base, Japan, in December.
Taraji P. Henson, left, Jussie Smollett, center, and Bryshere Y. Gray check out the controls inside an F-16 during a stop at Misawa Air Base, Japan, last year.
Jussie Smollett, Bryshere Gray and Taraji P. Henson visited service members and military families during a USO tour stop at Misawa Air Base, Japan, in December.
But her military ties don’t end with her immediate family. While she was attending Howard University in Washington, she worked at the Pentagon as a receptionist and her desk was near the office of then-Army General Colin Powell, the Joint Chiefs chairman at the time. They never crossed paths, but Henson “was very proud of that, even though my position at the Pentagon held no weight at all.”
Henson and “the boys,” as she calls them, went on the USO tour to bring some holiday cheer to service members and to let them know that their service is appreciated. She knows what it’s like to miss a family member because they are serving in the military.
“I want to see my cousin. I want him home and I want to look him in his eyes make sure he’s healthy and he’s OK,” she said. “I don’t get a chance to do that because he made a promise to this country and so as a family, we sacrifice.”
During their weeklong USO tour, Henson, Smollett and Gray visited hundreds of sailors, airmen and military families at Naval Air Facility Atsugi, Yokota Air Base and Misawa Air Base. Smollett and Gray, who play brothers and rival musicians on “Empire,” performed songs from the show’s chart-topping soundtrack for their loyal fans.
“They were huge fans of the show. They were crazy and loud … and having a great time,” said Smollett, who plays middle son Jamal Lyon on the show. Henson hosted the concerts and was struck by the ages of some of the service members she met on the tour.
“I remember leaving the first interaction with the [service members] and my heart dropped and sank. I was like, ‘my God, they’re babies,’” she said, adding that many of the young men and women she met were still in their teens. “That’s all I saw was a lot of babies, like 19 – younger than my son – and as a mother, I couldn’t imagine my child being in another country at that age.”
She held lots of military babies – infants, not teenage service members – and handed out hundreds of hugs at each stop to show her heartfelt gratitude for their service.
“I met them and it touched me, because I shared my story about my cousin. … We had an understanding. I wasn’t just there as a celebrity, they saw me as a human.”
Between signing autographs and taking photos with fans, the trio met with base leaders, tried on military gear and dined with service members in the mess hall. Gray – who plays Cookie’s youngest son, Hakeem, on the show – has two uncles who serve in the military and said his first trip to Japan was life-changing.
“Just coming here … was very powerful. I have a lot of respect for the military,” he said in a press release.
Smollett, whose uncle served in Vietnam, remembers his mother sharing stories about the war and how the family was worried when his uncle was missing in action. Fortunately, his uncle came home while many of his friends didn’t. For Smollett, it was important to make sure service members and their families “know just how loved they are.”
While the actor, singer and photographer was new to USO tours, the organization was not new to Smollett. He grew up watching classic films and listed off Hollywood stars who toured with the USO. Icons like Bob Hope, Marilyn Monroe and Betty Grabel were a few names he mentioned before explaining how proud he is to be a USO tour veteran. When he found out about the opportunity, his first phone call was to his mom, who sparked his love for acting and helped him understand the sacrifices military families make every day.
While in Japan, he let the men and women of our armed forces know exactly how he feels about them.
“I told them, ‘I came all the way from the United States just to tell you that I love you and to say thank you.’”
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.