There have been many actors, musicians, athletes and entertainers who have joined the USO in entertaining American troops at home and abroad since the organization’s founding in 1941. The list includes everyone from Bing Crosby to Ann-Margret, and of course the indomitable Bob Hope, whose legacy still lives on at the USO.
Today, a new generation of entertainers has stepped up to provide service members with a touch of home, just when they need it most. Acting as a bridge between the military community and the American public, these USO entertainers not only express our nation’s gratitude for service members and their families, but also help raise awareness of the important USO mission of keeping service members connected to family, home and country, throughout their service to the nation.
Introducing our USO Global Ambassadors: award-winning country music singer and television host Kellie Pickler, and actor, producer and activist Wilmer Valderrama, who currently stars on “NCIS” for CBS and is the host of “Essential Voices with Wilmer Valderrama” on iHeartRadio.
Most people might recognize Kellie Pickler as an award-winning country music artist who jumpstarted her music and TV career on “American Idol.” But to the U.S. Armed Forces, she’s known for being a stalwart supporter of the military community.
Pickler’s first-ever USO tour was in 2007 to Iraq, and since then she has traveled on 10 other tours, entertaining nearly 50,000 service members and their families. She describes her experiences performing for troops overseas as “life-changing.”
“It really has opened my eyes. I have a greater appreciation,” Pickler said. “I’ve always had a great deal of respect for what it is that [service members and their families] do, but being a part of the USO has really enabled me to form my own opinion based on my own experiences traveling to Iraq and Afghanistan, Kuwait – all over the place, really.”
Pickler has several fond memories of her experiences on USO tours, but the ones that stand out the most have been when she has had the chance to speak one-on-one with service members.
In one particular instance, she ate lunch with service members at a forward operating base in the Middle East and bonded with one particular soldier over a shared love of music. Later that evening, when she was performing for a huge crowd of service members, Pickler invited that same service member up on stage to sing for his fellow troops, and it was an incredibly touching moment.
However, USO entertainers do so much more than simply entertaining service members – they also bridge the military-civilian divide, serving as a reminder to deployed troops or military families far from home that their sacrifices are acknowledged and appreciated. Bridging this divide is crucial to the military community’s morale and operational readiness, as, according to research, only 21% of military families feel that civilians in their local communities truly understand the sacrifices made by service members and their families. Meanwhile, only 27% of active-duty family respondents feel a sense of belonging to their local civilian community.
That’s why visits from USO entertainers like Pickler can make such an impact.
“I always enjoy when we are able to have breakfast and lunch and dinner with the men and women serving and sometimes their families as well. Just being able to sit around the table and share stories … we all have so much more in common I think than we realize.”
Pickler is excited to be a USO Global Ambassador, but especially to serve in this role alongside fellow USO Global Ambassador, Wilmer Valderrama.
“I’m so honored … to be a [USO] Global Ambassador with Wilmer,” Pickler said. “When he walks in a room, he lights it up and he really has a kind, beautiful soul … I’m blessed to be able to work alongside him.”
She recalled that when the pair was on tour with the USO, visiting service members all around the world, Valderrama “always took the time to look at people in their eyes and pay attention to them and what they’re saying – and let them know that they matter.”
In their roles as USO Global Ambassadors, Pickler and Valderrama will continue to dedicate time away from their own families to support service members all around the world and raise awareness around the USO’s programs and services for the military community. When asked why she “Gives More Than Thanks,” Pickler’s response was simple: “Why not?” she said. “Why not be a part of something that matters? Why not do the right thing?”
“It feels good to be a part of something that matters. It feels good to give back. It is a blessing to be able to partake on these tours and any time I’m flying around the country or around the globe and I can pop into one of the USO places in the airport, it’s amazing to go in there and greet service members and let them know that we don’t take what they do for granted and wish them well.”
“It’s something that I’ve been very blessed to be a part of and will continue to do so for as long as the USO will have me.”
As an actor, Wilmer Valderrama has been entertaining audiences for years – but his favorite audience is the American military.
Best known for his roles on “NCIS” and “That ‘70s Show,” Valderrama’s passion for giving back to the military community began at a young age. He recalled growing up in Venezuela, where he would often watch Bob Hope’s USO Christmas Shows on television.
“I dreamed of the day where I could pay it forward, like he did,” Valderrama said.
Years later, he would finally have the chance to do so through the USO.
Valderrama was first inspired to go on a USO tour in the early 2000s when he was approached by two service members at an airport who told him how much they enjoyed “That ‘70s Show.” They explained how watching the show on base when deployed to the Middle East helped them pass the time and stay entertained. Valderrama was moved and immediately began looking into how he could give back and visit troops overseas – and that’s how he found the USO. Only a little while later, he was on his first USO tour in 2007 alongside fellow USO Global Ambassador Kellie Pickler.
Valderrama was instantly hooked, and has now traveled on nine USO entertainment tours with more than 40 performances to his name, as well as hosted Backstage at the USO, an entertainment event for service members and USO supporters.
It was the small moments on his USO tours that impacted Valderrama the most. One of his favorite memories from a USO tour was when he was visiting injured, ill and wounded service members at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany alongside the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time. Service members in the hospital were both confused and incredibly amused to see the actor best known for the role of Fez from “That ‘70s Show” standing beside four-star generals, and Valderrama loved bringing smiles to these troops’ faces.
“In my many [USO] shows, meeting thousands of soldiers and hearing all of their stories … I really got to appreciate the type of individual that it takes to wear that uniform,” Valderrama said. “I was very humbled by the men and women, their bravery, their selflessness, the sacrifice. And that’s the thing that I’ll always remember.”
Valderrama also has fond memories of the other USO entertainers he’s gone on tour with, especially his fellow USO Global Ambassador Kellie Pickler.
“Touring with Kellie Pickler is amazing,” he said. “She just loves being on the stage for the reason that she’s on that stage … and she’ll do anything it takes to provide a smile, to warm a heart to have great conversations [with service members].”
Now, the two will take to the stage – literally and figuratively – once more to provide moments of levity and a touch of home to service members, as well as connect with the American public on issues facing today’s military.
“We’ve become very close [on tour], she’s like a sister now,” he said. “And the fact that we both can serve as USO Global Ambassadors of the USO is just unbelievable.”
Most importantly, for Valderrama, serving as a USO Global Ambassador and performing on USO tours all around the world is a way to give back to the country that has given so much to him.
“The USO has changed everything for me,” Valderrama said. “When I came to the United States with a dream as an immigrant, and I came to really appreciate the American flag and understand that anything can happen when you’re here, that the American dream is real. And I realized very quickly who was responsible for that.”
“I wanted to do anything possible in my life to pay it forward. So, the USO has created a vessel for me to continue to pay it forward to this beautiful country. And, you know, the least I can do is just show up and provide a smile – I mean, that is the most rewarding thing you can do as a performer.”
By showing up, Valderrama leads by example in an effort to “Give More Than Thanks” to our service members.
“I give more than thanks because I am so grateful to the men and women of our military. Thanks to you, we have a free country and also the greatest country in the world.”
More Stories Like This
Wilmer Valderrama Spends Christmas With the Troops on Chairman's 2018 USO Holiday Tour
Lead by Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, Jr., the 2018 USO Holiday Tour features Olympian Shaun White, NCIS star Wilmer Valderrama, singer and television host Kellie Pickler, comedian Jessimae Peluso,“This Is Us” star Milo Ventimiglia, three-time CrossFit champion Mat Fraser and DJ J.Dayz.
Meghan Markle, Dianna Agron and Kellie Pickler on 2014 Chairman's USO Holiday Tour
Country music artist Kellie Pickler, actress Dianna Agron, actress Meghan Markle, retired Chicago Bear middle linebacker Brian Urlacher, comedian Rob Riggle and Washington Nationals pitcher Doug Fister headed on the 2014 Chairman's USO Holiday Tour.
Backstage at the USO Honors Service Members and Military Supporters
The USO brought a night of laughter and entertainment to service members and supporters in Washington, D.C., at "Backstage at the USO," a variety show, starring actor Wilmer Valderrama, comedian Paula Poundstone and country star Brantley Gilbert.