By Sandi Gohn
As the sun set over Hood Stadium in Fort Hood, Texas, on July 2, the stressors of the past year were the last thing on anyone’s mind.
Military children rushed to the blue-and-red-lit stage to wave at Miss America Camille Schrier. Giddy fans attempted to snap photos of actor Kyle Chandler. Soldiers, some in uniform and others in civilian clothes, laughed at comedian Taylor Williamson’s jokes. Military families of all colors, shapes and sizes swayed to the live music of LOCASH. Everyone, from the audience members to the entertainers and military leaders on stage, looked up in awe at the finale fireworks display.
After a year where everything was far from normal due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2021 USO Summer Tour was a breath of fresh air at Fort Hood and everywhere the tour went.
After a Year Hiatus from In-Person Shows, USO Tours Hit the Road Again
Led by the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Air Force Gen. John E. Hyten, the USO tour kicked off on June 27 with its only international stop in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, before traveling to seven continental U.S. locations over the following week. At many of the trip stops, the USO was the first live entertainment, or special visitors welcomed by the local community, in well over a year.
“People hadn’t experienced live music, they hadn’t experienced live entertainment, that joy that comes from being together [in a long time],” Hyten said.
“It was exciting to see it at every place we went. That’s why we did [the USO tour] inside the United States. It is so special to have that interaction once again.”
Everywhere the tour went, from Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, Washington, to Joint Base San Antonio, Texas, and more, the sentiment expressed by the local military communities was resoundingly the same — the USO tour was a needed and welcome morale boost after a year that was particularly challenging for the military community due to COVID-19.
“Being able to feel like a person again, and not like a prisoner to COVID, is unbelievable and to start it this way, absolutely amazing,” said Marine Lance Cpl. Emily Hunt at the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, California.
“Without the USO, this day would not have happened for me or anybody here.”
In addition to hosting the live USO show at each stop, the tour group participated in meet-and-greet unit visits at each location, signed autographs, took photographs with service members and military families and spent time learning about the military community.
“I feel really appreciated that some of these big names just came out to support and see what we do. It was awesome,” said Army Sgt. James Long, after spending time with the tour participants in Fort Hood, Texas.
A Star-Studded Line-Up of New and Veteran USO Entertainers
Joining Gen. Hyten on the trip was Senior Enlisted Advisor to the Chairman Ramon “CZ” Colon-Lopez, country duo LOCASH, Miss America Camille Schreir, comedian Taylor Williamson and DJ J Dayz.
“Just to see … one person smiling and the next thing you know, the whole crowd is just smiling [after] we’ve all been wearing masks [for so long], it’s cool to see everybody smiling again,” LOCASH’s Chris Lucas said. “And music bringing everybody together.”
“It just felt like we are back, not just us, but all of us,” LOCASH’s Preston Brust said.
While LOCASH and DJ J Dayz had traveled on USO tours before, this was the inaugural in-person USO tour for both Williamson and Schrier.
“I think military life, in a lot of ways, is very isolating to begin with, without COVID,” Schrier said. “So going out and being able to spread some cheer and some positivity to those families, and especially being able to see the military kids, was really exciting for me.”
“I think one of the highlights of this tour for me was getting to perform in Guantanamo Bay for all the families and service [members],” Williamson said. “Being told that we’re going to be the first visitors and entertainment they’ve had in over a year, that was such an honor and a privilege, and it was amazing. That was really special for me.”
Other stars made guest appearances along the way;
Former New Orleans Saints Hall of Famers champions Deuce McAllister and Michael Lewis in Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida; USO Global Ambassador, actor, advocate and producer Wilmer Valderrama along with Grammy-winning vocalist Lauren Daigle in Naval Base San Diego and Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, California; Actor and comedian Matt Walsh along with screenwriter Scot Armstrong in Naval Base San Diego; actor Kyle Chandler in Fort Hood, Texas; and others.
“The main thing that sticks out [to me after spending time on Fort Hood] is the professionalism of the guys and the girls [in uniform], and everyone that we met … how proficient, how knowledgeable [they were] and yet, they were very welcoming,” Chandler said.
Although the 2021 USO Summer Tour wrapped up with its final stop in Bethesda, Maryland – which included a visit to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center – the joy and positivity delivered through the whirlwind tour still lingers in the communities it visited.
“Meeting the youngest people, little kids, to the largest soldier that you could imagine, and seeing the joy in their faces, that’s a pretty cool thing,” Hyten said.
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