By Katie Lange
Being stationed in the Washington, D.C., area has its perks, especially when the USO comes to town.
The USO took over The Wharf along D.C.’s waterfront Nov. 14, 2019, to host a show while hundreds of people passing by filled care packages with candy, toiletries and other goods to ship to troops serving overseas. A band entertained the crowd, UFC superstar Julianna Pena mingled, and various contests kept the public’s attention focused on the event and not the unseasonably cold temperatures.
After that, about 1,000 service members and their families filtered into the music venue The Anthem for the Backstage at the USO show, featuring entertainment from actor and longtime USO showman Wilmer Valderama, comedienne Paula Poundstone and country music star Brantley Gilbert.
Valderrama kicked off the night by shouting out all of the services one by one, with the most rousing response coming from the Marine Corps contingency. Valderrama also joked about shouting out the military’s soon-to-be sixth branch, the Space Force.
Valderrama started entertaining troops nearly two decades ago after meeting some service members in an airport who told him they passed “That 70’s Show” DVDs around to get through deployment (Valderrama played the loveable character Fez). He joined a USO tour the next week and has been doing it ever since.
“It’s honestly the proudest work I’ve ever done. To be able to thank you for the fact that my family can wake up to the American dream is literally the least contribution that we as entertainers can do,” he said.
During Thursday’s show, Valderrama introduced Army Command Sgt. Maj. Christopher Kepner, the senior enlisted advisor to the National Guard Bureau chief; Gen. James C. McConville, chief of staff of the Army; and Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David H. Berger also took the stage to greet service men and women.
Retired Gen. George Casey Jr., the 36th Army chief of staff, came on stage to explain just how integral the USO has been for troops over the past several decades. He and USO creator Bob Hope’s daughter, Linda Hope, gave out the first Bob Hope Legacy Award. It went to famed actress and singer Ann-Margret, who got flustered by the crowd’s enthusiasm for her, despite having entertained troops at USO shows for 60 years.
Poundstone performed next, and she got the crowd laughing. She questioned several service members in the crowd, chatting with them and pointing out her lack of military knowledge.
“Bombs?! You do bombs?” she asked one service member after the crowd had to dumb down for her what an explosive ordnance disposal technician did. She then asked a Navy diver if he practiced for work by diving for toys in the bathtub.
Soon, it was time for the night’s big finale. Gilbert, an award-winning artist with several country albums and No. 1 hits to his name, took the stage and brought down the house with a set that got the whole crowd on their feet.
Gilbert, whose band traveled to Italy and Kuwait with the USO in 2013, said it was an honor to be there.
“These active-duty guys and girls and veterans all the same are the most appreciative crowd I’ve ever played for, and we play a lot of shows,” Gilbert said.
Gilbert, a father of two, said the hardest part about his job is being away from home; however, his absences are nothing like what military families have to endure.
“I remember meeting people [overseas] who were doing 12-month tours, and I was like, ‘Man, this isn’t something I can ever relate to or understand.’ It just made me appreciate things a lot more,” he said.
Meanwhile, Valderrama said outside of USO shows, his role as Agent Nick Torres on the hit TV show NCIS has helped him learn a lot about the military mindset.
“There’s a great deal of selflessness. There’s a great deal of humor as well. If you love what you do, you’ve got to find the humor in the chaos,” he said. “That’s one thing I’ve learned – how to react to high-frequency situations and what you do in the face of that. I think that’s helped me become a better man, for sure.”
Thanks, USO, for continuing the legacy of bringing our troops a little piece of home!
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