Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders Deliver Support and Cheer to U.S. Military Communities in South Korea on the Team’s 85th USO Tour

By Danielle DeSimone

They are known all around the world for their talents on the field, their presence on stage, their popularity among fans and their beloved reputation as “America’s Sweethearts.” But to American service members and military families across the globe, they are known best for their unwavering support of our nation’s Armed Forces.

In February 2024, the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders (also known as “the DCC”) traveled on their 85th USO Entertainment Tour to visit American service members, military spouses and military children in South Korea, continuing their 44-year legacy. With them, they brought a morale boost and a crucial connection to home for the people who serve there, and are far from everything familiar.

Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders Prepare for Their 85th USO Tour

Kelli Finglass, longstanding director of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders and a former member herself, explained that participating in a USO tour is “something you want to do if you make this squad. It was the biggest honor to be selected for the USO tour,” she said.

“It is a tradition and an honor to be selected to represent our entire team, our entire organization, and wonderful to able to – in an entertainer’s way – support our service members and their families. It’s obviously a very unique experience and very important to us.”

In fact, for McKenzie, a current first group leader of the DCC team, it was this tradition of giving back to the military community that piqued her interest in joining the DCC four years ago.

McKenzie meets with a service member at USO Camp Casey, South Korea. | Photo credit Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders (DCC)

“When I was debating auditioning for the Cowboys years ago, one of the big draws was the military involvement and the USO tours,” she said. “Of course, performing is so rewarding and important, but fan engagement and all of the personal relationships built from being part of the organization is definitely where my passion lies. I’ve always loved dance, but I love people too.”

McKenzie, who is originally from Hanover, Pennsylvania, earned a degree from the University of Alabama. There, she grew her love for football and her passion for sports, but also for performing on a football field. A few years after graduating, she decided to move to Texas and pursue her dream of joining the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders; she made the team in 2020 and has been performing ever since.

While a member of the team, she also has participated in the DCC’s many philanthropic efforts, including a stateside USO tour. Although this tour was in the United States and not an overseas USO tour, it was still very impactful for McKenzie.

“It was truly such a humbling, life-changing experience. I came back and had such a greater appreciation for the military and the selflessness that the service members have. Obviously, I’ve always appreciated the sacrifices they’ve made, but just being there and seeing it was next level,” McKenzie said.

“We can watch movies, we can read about it, but there’s nothing like learning from people that are actually there and living that life, and I just have so much appreciation for what they’re doing.”

However, this upcoming USO tour was going to be completely different, as the DCC team members would be traveling to four bases throughout South Korea. In these locations, service members - and in some cases, military spouses and children - are far from home, far from loved ones, far from everything familiar – so having a touch of home arrive via a USO DCC tour can make all the difference in morale.

Photo credit USO Photo

The DCC have a long legacy of supporting the people who serve in the U.S. military – including on 85 USO tours over the past 44 years.

Kelli noted that while South Korea is a beautiful country, many American service members who are stationed there are mere miles away from North Korea. And as tensions continue to rise in the region, the severity of the situation is not lost on the DCC team.

“Just to know that the conflict is still an active one, that there was never a cease to the war – it is unique, and I think that’s not going to be lost on these ladies and understanding the gravity of the roles that these service members have connected with their jobs,” Kelli said.

For Shelly Roper-McCaslin, this trip to South Korea was going to be an especially poignant one. Today, she works as the special projects coordinator and recruiter for the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, but she also was previously a member of the team herself, and traveled on a USO tour to South Korea during several holiday seasons in the 90s. Now, she would be returning to South Korea alongside McKenzie and the other DCC members in 2024 in a different role, but in a full-circle moment all the same, which brought up many fond memories.

“I remember being at Camp Casey on Christmas Eve and we were in the chapel, holding candles and singing ‘Silent Night,’ and it was snowing outside. It was so special, because we were in a circle with service members and all far from home, but on that night, feeling very connected So, to go back to Camp Casey is deeply meaningful to me,” Shelly said.

Photo credit USO Photo

The DCC team members prioritized speaking with service members one-on-one throughout the tour, so that they could talk not only about a shared love of football, but also the realities of military life in South Korea.

As an experienced member of the DCC organization, Shelly was also excited to see this USO tour through the eyes of the current DCC members participating on the tour, as none of them had been on an overseas USO tour yet.

“The military is the most appreciative, vocal, fun and just celebratory audience that Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders ever get to perform for,” Shelly said. “It’s hard to compare a civilian audience to a military one that is far from home.”

And so as the DCC team members prepared to board the plane to South Korea, they also prepared to join a long legacy of Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders who have participated in the USO’s mission of strengthening the well-being of the people who serve and their military families for generations.

The Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders’ Legacy of Supporting the Military Through the USO

The Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders’ first USO tour was in 1979, during which they traveled to South Korea. Since then, members of the team have participated in 85 USO tours to 42 different countries around the globe, as well as stateside locations, traveling everywhere from Greenland and Iraq to Kosovo and Japan. They have participated in peacetime and during conflicts, on flight decks and base stages, for service members on the front lines and for military families back home.

Photo credit Department of Defense (DOD)

The Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders perform on the USS Bainbridge in 1983.

But regardless of the location or circumstance, the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders have remained committed to boosting the morale of the service members and military families that they visit on these USO tours, which have become an ingrained tradition in DCC team culture.

When discussing the DCC’s history of military support, Kelli described it simply and succinctly: “There are two words that come to mind: tradition and honor.”

Giving back to the U.S. military is as much a part of Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders culture as high kicks, and through the USO, they have done just that.

“Within our organization, there’s the honor of making the team, and there are the football games and there’s even glamorous photoshoots and maybe a Super Bowl every now and then,” Kelli said. “But to really make it, you have to be selected and invited on a USO tour. And that is the biggest honor in our legacy.”

Photo credit U.S. Marine Corps/Cpl. Alejandro Pena

The Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders speak to service members at Camp Leatherneck in the Helmand province of Afghanistan in 2013.

This legacy joins another – that is, the legacy of the USO’s own entertainment tours. Since the USO’s founding just before World War II, our organization has been delivering entertainment to the front lines. In an effort to boost the morale of the people who serve, the USO in 1941 teamed up with some of our country’s brightest stars to produce concerts, meet-and-greets and other interactive events for our service members at home and overseas. That tradition continues today in USO Entertainment Tours around the globe, as well as through our online USO MVP events.

“We are excited to continue the 44-year partnership with the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders touring South Korea, the site of the first Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders tour in 1979,” said Jennifer Wahlquist, vice president of the USO’s Global Entertainment Division. “This tour allows us to show those on the front lines of freedom how much their service and sacrifice means to us back home. We are honored to be able to help strengthen the well-being of those serving in our military and their families in Korea where service members are either separated from their families, or, if accompanied, are a long way from home.”

For many service members who attend the performances on these tours, seeing the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders arrive on their remote outposts around the world can almost be surreal – here they are, thousands of miles away from home, and it’s suddenly as if they have been transported back to their family’s couch, watching the Sunday football game with their loved ones.

“The NFL itself is a part of home for these Americans stationed overseas,” Shelly said. “It’s connectivity - and especially today, that’s important. [On our USO tours], you see instantly that global familiarity and their reaction of ‘Wow, I missed home, but home came to me today.’”

Photo credit USO Photo

Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders speak to service members one-on-one while on a USO tour in 2004.

Kelli believes that these USO DCC tours are also important because they have an effect on the participating DCC team members as well. Seeing the realities of military life can change their perspectives and have a ripple effect within their own civilian communities.

“They gain appreciation of the sacrifice and the commitment that our military families endure. So, for [the DCC members], they learn and grow to appreciate,” she said. “In our organization as a whole, we consider it an honor to be able to somehow serve in a different way and contribute in some way to the real American heroes.”

“I think people need to be more grateful for the work of others and our service members are at the top of the list of those to be grateful for,” Kelli added.

McKenzie and the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders Bring a Little Home to U.S. Service Members in South Korea

When McKenzie, Shelly and the other Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders arrived in South Korea on their USO tour this February, they hit the ground running. McKenzie explained that their tour was “jam-packed, but busy in the best way.”

The DCC team members visited as many places and military community members as they could throughout their time in South Korea, prioritizing – as McKenzie put it – “sharing a little bit of home and bringing a piece of that to as many people as we could.”

Photo credit Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders (DCC)

DCC members meet with service members in a hangar at Camp Humphreys, South Korea.

Throughout their tour, the DCC team visited four bases: Camp Walker, Camp Humphreys, Camp Casey and Camp Bonifas – the last being a United Nations Command military post located less than a quarter of a mile from the boundary of South Korea’s Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), with North Korea just on the other side.

From location to location, the DCC members met with the people who serve throughout these bases in South Korea, interacting with service members, military spouses and military kids one-on-one.

Photo credit USO Photo

“We had the energy and the time to really get into those deeper conversations,” McKenzie said. “Everyone knows the Cowboys’ star when you walk in and you’re wearing it, but it’s truly just the beginning of an interaction with these people, so it breaks the ice. It creates some conversation, but we just had the ability to go so much deeper.”

“We start with the common ground of sports and then you get into other conversations about family and what these people have maybe done for work or how they began serving, and you just hear these amazing stories,” McKenzie said. “There’s so much wisdom and it’s funny how they end up giving us life advice because they’re so in touch with what’s important. So, I feel like we all get something out of it, which is an amazing thing.”

Aside from visiting service members, the DCC team also hosted a youth dance and cheer camp, where military children could develop technical and performance skills alongside the cheerleaders.

Photo credit Department of Defense (DOD)

Military children stationed with their families in South Korea had the chance to participate in a youth cheer camp with the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, where they could learn dance skills.

They also attended a USO Coffee Connections event – intended to promote community-building among MilSpouses – and surprised attendees with a hair and makeup class. McKenzie enjoyed “filling the cups” of the military spouses at this event and giving back to this part of the military community, specifically.

“We were pouring into [the military spouses], because we know they often have an unseen but important role in the military community,” McKenzie said. “I think we did a good job of really focusing on them that afternoon. It was cool to hear from different perspectives on what it’s like to live with their families over there.”

Through these visits and interactions, McKenzie and the other DCC members got to see a glimpse of the realities of military life overseas for these families, and it was in fact the presence of so many military families stationed in South Korea that stood out to McKenzie.

“I think the biggest thing that stood out to me was the family involvement over in South Korea, and how many families and children actually move and stay there with their spouse or parent as they dedicate this chapter of their lives to serving their country in South Korea,” she said.

Photo credit Department of Defense (DOD)

Dallas Cowboys fans – many of them accompanied by their military children – came to meet the DCC team during their USO tour to South Korea.

Notably, she was struck by the positive, can-do attitudes of many of these family members, and how dedicated they were to being by their service members’ side overseas and embracing life in South Korea.

The Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders also performed their signature DCC show, but this time with routines specially curated just for this USO tour. McKenzie especially loved the team’s final performance, as it was at Camp Casey, a base only a few miles from the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that borders North Korea, where predominantly unaccompanied soldiers are located. Due to the high-pressure nature of locations such as Camp Casey and Camp Bonifas, the service members who are sent to these locations are considered to be “deployed” and not simply “stationed” in South Korea, as is the case with other locations throughout the country. Because of this, their families cannot move with them, so they must be apart from their loved ones for several months or years.

“To be on the DMZ where there is a lot of tension and to know that there’s some levity provided by our football team, and, of course, by the DCC and USO visit, it’s truly awesome,” Shelly said.

Photo credit Department of Defense (DOD)

The Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders performed their signature show with a routine curated specifically for this USO entertainment tour.

McKenzie explained that when they performed for these unaccompanied service members, it was a much more energetic crowd, and they could tell the service members were excited to have them visit.

“They scream, they clap, they’re excited. Some may love the Cowboys, others may be fans of other football teams, but they love the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders,” Shelly joked.

But aside from the buzz of excitement, the sacrifices of these military members were never far from mind for the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders performing.

“That performance was extra special because going out there on stage and having in the back of your mind that these people don’t have families here, that this is the camp where they are making even greater sacrifices,” McKenzie said.

Photo credit Department of Defense (DOD)

The Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders were especially moved when performing for unaccompanied service members who were deployed mere miles – or less – from the North Korea border.

“Maybe they’re trying to navigate times to communicate with their family and they haven’t seen them in the whole nine months or more since they’ve been there. We had that little extra push to say, okay, these people haven’t had a piece of home in a while. They don’t have their families here, so let’s make it a great show.”

After their performances, the DCC team made time – as they always do – to meet one-on-one with the service members in the crowd. Many would arrive wearing football jerseys – whether they were rooting for the Dallas Cowboys or not – and carrying posters and flags to be signed. They would ask for photos – for themselves, or for their loved ones back home – and chat with the DCC members about sports, their hometowns, or even their lives there in South Korea.

Photo credit USO Photo

DCC team group leader McKenzie was excited that this USO tour gave them time to speak with service members, military spouses and military children about their experiences with life in the military.

The DCC team also would visit the dining facilities on base and share meals with the service members, giving them even more time to speak one-on-one with individuals serving in these locations. McKenzie was especially excited that this USO tour allowed them to not only perform for service members, but also connect with them on a personal level.

“We had the energy and the time to really get into those deeper conversations,” she said. “Everyone knows the Cowboys’ star when you walk in and you’re wearing it, but it’s truly just the beginning of an interaction with these people, so it breaks the ice. It creates some conversation, but we just had the ability to go so much deeper.”

One service member they chatted with and bonded over shared hometowns spontaneously and somewhat shyly asked if the DCC team would be interested in sticking around for a few minutes – he was about to have his reenlistment ceremony and wanted to have them there as his guests. The team immediately said yes, and were honored to support him as he recommitted to serving in the U.S. Army.

Photo credit Department of Defense (DOD)

A highlight of this USO tour was when a service member asked the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders if they would attend his reenlistment ceremony as his guests.

Through it all, McKenzie and the others were able to connect and bond with service members and military families first and foremost through a love of football.

“I loved seeing, when you’re in other parts of the world, how sports bring people together. Even if it’s casual banter because the Cowboys aren’t their team, it’s really fun. If the Cowboys are their team, then great – we get very excited and we love it. Regardless, it’s amazing to see just what the NFL, or even sports in general, can do to bring people who are in all areas of walks of life together,“ McKenzie said.

As Kelli predicted, this USO DCC tour not only brought a positive force to the people who serve and their families in South Korea, it also had a profound impact on the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders as well.

Photo credit USO Photo

DCC team members made time to speak individually with service members while on tour. Many arrived wearing their Cowboys jerseys to show off their team pride.

Shelly, in fact, got to return to the chapel at Camp Casey that she sang in alongside service members and her fellow DCC members, all those Christmases ago.

“It was just as I remembered it. There’s something magical in my memory of being there, and to know that it still offers some peace and serenity right there on the base is quite wonderful,” she said.

And for McKenzie, the USO tour experience was especially impactful.

“We had the most amazing time. It’s something I know that I will remember and cherish forever,” she said. “I think it’s a hard thing to understand exactly what they’re going through, because like most Americans, we don’t see the sacrifices and we don’t see what they are going through to protect us and to protect our country.”

“Providing the morale boost with the smiles and positivity that we’re bringing is important, but for us to go and see what these people are doing in their work is just extremely humbling and rewarding. It definitely makes you come back and have an elevated view of the life that they are living in order to protect us all.”

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