Iraq Vet Remembers 2004 USO Visit with Robin Williams and John Elway

A football signed by John Elway and a handkerchief signed by Robin Williams are displayed in the home of Amanda Paquette (inset). Photo courtesy of Amanda Paquette

A football signed by John Elway and a handkerchief signed by Robin Williams are displayed in the home of Amanda Paquette (inset). Photos courtesy of Amanda Paquette

USO entertainment tours are often tightly scheduled affairs that still yield serendipitous moments. That was the case in 2004, when Amanda Paquette — who served in the Marines from 2003 to 2007, when she left as a sergeant — met Robin Williams and John Elway at Al Asad Airbase in Iraq during the USO Chairman’s Tour. Here’s her story.

My first tour in Iraq, Robin Williams and John Elway came to Al Asad. I was tasked to pick up the press.

John Elway autographs a football during a 2004 USO tour stop in Iraq. DOD photo

John Elway autographs a football during a 2004 USO tour stop in Iraq. DOD photo

Me and another lance corporal waited on the VIP pad. There was nothing other than high-ranking officials on the pad that day lined up to greet them. [I was] the only female Marine. As Robin came down the line of guys he saw me, stopped, took my hand, kissed it, and said ‘Oh my God! There are hot women here!’

Later at the show location, the seats had booked up. Me and the other lance corporal didn’t have a place to see the show. John and Robin then gave up their seats in the front. The show then started.

John made the comment to the troops ‘I don’t know what I’m doing here, I just know how to throw a football. I’m not funny like Robin!’ Then he threw footballs at us.

Robin Williams greets troops in Iraq during a 2004 USO tour. DOD photo

Robin Williams greets troops in Iraq during a 2004 USO tour stop. DOD photo

Robin then got up and put on a hell of a comedy show! After all was over I had to pack up the press so I didn’t have time to go to the meet and greet with either one.

[Later] John was on the side of the building and said ‘Are you not a fan of mine? I didn’t see you in line.’ I told him that I was a fan and apologized and told him I had to get the press packed. He then proceeded to get a football from the USO rep, signed it and threw it to me. I caught it! He smiled.

Then, instead of hopping in the VIP cars, he told the higher-ups he was riding back to the VIP pad on my bus with the press! Great, humble guy.

When we got to the VIP pad and John and Robin said their goodbyes. Robin came up to me, signed a USO handkerchief and gave me the biggest, warmest, fuzzy hug and said ‘Stay safe beautiful and thank you for all you do.’

When Robin passed it broke my heart. I’ll never forget the joy he and John brought that day.

EDITORS NOTE: Paquette’s quotes were lightly edited for style

There on the First Day: USO Expands its Mission to Military Entrance Processing Stations

The USO center inside the San Antonio Military Entrance Processing Center. USO photos

The USO center inside the San Antonio Military Entrance Processing Station. USO photos

A recruit’s first few days in the military can be tedious.

From the early morning moment they enter the Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS), most recruits sit through hours of aptitude testing, medical screening and job selection that set the path for their military careers. Between these steps, there’s little to do but sit around or read.

It’s a day begging for a distraction. So the USO is bringing some.

The USO is opening several new centers inside MEPS around the United States in 2015. It’s part of the organization’s commitment to support service members and their families through their military career – a career that often begins at a MEPS station. These new centers – which will feature entertainment like televisions and video games, snacks and support services – are aimed at comforting recruits and their families during the entrance process. They also introduce recruits and families to the services the USO offers.

USO_SanAntonio_MEPS“It’s a chance for us to provide some respite to the [recruits] and families who go to the MEPS and experience these long wait times,” USO Vice President of Field Operations Kristen Baxter said. “By placing ourselves in the Military Entrance Processing Stations across the U.S., we have an opportunity to … educate troops and families [about the USO].

“[We want to show them] how the USO can be a part of their life and help them through various phases.”

The USO plans to open eight centers inside MEPS this year in addition to the six that were already serving new recruits in Cleveland, Columbus, Ohio, Dallas, Houston, Milwaukee and Fort Lee, Virginia. USO San Antonio held a soft opening for its MEPS center earlier this month.

The majority of these centers will be near locations where the USO already has an established presence, like Nashville, where the MEPS center is slated to open in October.

“By having an official footprint inside of MEPS we are really able to take care of them in those hours [they’re] sitting become a new service member,” said USO Fort Campbell Center Director Kari Moore, who will oversee the USO Nashville MEPS center. “We get to let the new service members know how we can support them.”

USO Houston Operations Supervisor Sarah Parris said the USO volunteers are also on site at the MEPS centers to provide emotional support to family members of new recruits who might be upset, confused or worried about their relative going through the entrance process. Before the USO was on site, concerned relatives had to direct their questions to MEPS personnel who might not have been able to easily balance answering questions while doing their job.

“The employees of the MEPS building, they’re very excited to see us there because we help the family members cope through the process,” said Parris, who helps run the newly opened USO Houston MEPS center. “It’s a very emotional process that [the family members are] going through.

“A lot of times what our volunteers will do is just be there for a shoulder to lean on.”

Bruno Mars Plays USO Show for Military Families at the White House

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Grammy-winning recording artist Bruno Mars performed a USO show for hundreds of cheering troops, military family members and guests of the First Family on Saturday on the South Lawn of the White House.

The multi-platinum recording artist played a collection of hits as part of the USO’s seventh annual Salute to the Military USO concert. While storms cancelled the pre-show cookout festivities on the White House lawn, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama came out and addressed the crowd from the stage before Mars’ hour-long USO performance that led into a fireworks show on the National Mall.

“It was an honor to perform at the Fourth of July concert at the White House,” Mars said in a release. “It was incredible to stand with the First Family and the USO to recognize the service and sacrifice of our troops and military families.”

Helicopter Rides, Crazy Food Pairings and Troops: Steve Byrne and Roy Wood Jr. Talk About Their USO Travels

Comedians and USO tour veterans Steve Byrne and Roy Wood Jr. have dozens of great stories about traveling the world to entertain troops on USO tours.

At the beginning of May, the duo was part of the USO’s first entertainment tour to Iraq since 2011.

In this video, Byrne and Wood discuss the allure of riding in military helicopters, the wild world of DFACs (dining facilities) and why they keep going overseas to perform shows.

USO Entertainers Rake in Nominations and Statues at the ACM Awards and MTV Movie Awards

USO entertainers raked in nominations and wins at the 50th Annual ACM Awards last night and the MTV Movie Awards last weekend. Here’s a look at the USO performers and supporters who were recognized for their performance.

MTV Movie Awards

Actor Bradley Cooper greets a soldier at a remote forward operating base as part of a seven-day summer USO tour to the Persian Gulf to boost troop morale in 2009. (USO Photo by Fred Greaves)

Actor Bradley Cooper greets a soldier at a remote forward operating base during a 2009 USO tour. USO Photo by Fred Greaves

Bradley Cooper
Best Male Performance; Nominated and won

Bradley Cooper traveled to Cuba, Kuwait, Afghanistan for the USO and also took part in a seven-day USO tour with then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen in 2010.

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Channing Tatum
Best Comedic Performance; Nominated and won

Earlier this year, actors Channing Tatum, Adam Rodriguez and Nick Zano took a six-day USO handshake tour to visit troops in Afghanistan. During his inaugural visit,  Tatum visited seven bases and spent time with more than 1,500 troops, including these folks from Oregon.

“My trip with the USO was a once-in-a-lifetime window into the sacrifice and duty that these brave soldiers and their families devote every day to,” said Tatum, whose “Magic Mike XXL” will hit theaters this summer. “Thank you from the bottom of my heart for the experience. Safe travels home and until then, keep holding it down there and in every other place that flies the stars and stripes.”

Scarlett Johansson
Best Female Performance; Nominated
Best Kiss; Nominated

In 2008, Johansson visited troops during a USO tour to the Persian Gulf.

“This USO tour to the Gulf region truly means a lot,” Johansson said in a press release. “I’ve wanted to go over and visit for some time, and now my moment has arrived. It’s one thing to reply to a letter or extend your thanks to  service members in a speech, but it’s another thing to visit them and spend time with those that do so much for us back home.”

Robert Downey Jr.
Recipient of MTV Generation Award

After starring in Tropic Thunder, Downey visited Camp Pendleton, California, in 2008 for a special USO screening of the film with co-stars Ben Stiller and Jack Black.

50th Annual ACM Awards

Country music artist Dierks Bentley performs during the USO/ACM Lifting Lives concert at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas, NV, April 17, 2010. USO Photo by Fred Greaves

Country music artist Dierks Bentley performs during the USO/ACM Lifting Lives concert at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas, NV, April 17, 2010. USO Photo by Fred Greaves

Dierks Bentley
Male Vocalist of the Year; Nominated
Album of the Year (Riser); Nominated
Song of the Year (“I Hold On”); Nominated
Single Record of the Year (“Drunk on a Plane”); Nominated
Video of the Year (“Drunk on a Plane”); Nominated and won
Vocal Event of the Year (“The South” with Florida Georgia Line and Mike Eli); Nominated

Bentley performed for military families at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas in 2010 as part of the first USO/ACM Lifting Lives concert.

Luke Bryan
Entertainer of the Year; Nominated and won
Male Vocalist of the Year; Nominated
Song of the Year (“Drink a Beer”); Nominated
Vocal Event of the Year (“This Is How We Roll” with Florida Georgia Line); Nominated and won

In 2011, Bryan performed as part of a free concert for troops and their families hosted by The Academy of Country Music and the USO at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada.

Members of Little Big Town perform for fans at the second annual Academy of Country Music/USO concert event at Nellis Air Force Base April 2, 2011. USO Photo by Fred Greaves

Members of Little Big Town perform for fans at the second annual Academy of Country Music/USO concert event at Nellis Air Force Base April 2, 2011. USO Photo by Fred Greaves

Little Big Town
Vocal Group of the Year; Nominated
Album of the Year (Painkiller); Nominated
Best Country Duo/Group Performance (“Day Drinking”) ; Nominated

In 2014, Little Big Town performed for troops and the Virginia Beach, Virginia, community as part of the city’s Patriotic Festival, which coincided with the USO’s inaugural Warrior Week.

The group also performed for troops and their families at a free concert in 2011 hosted by The Academy of Country Music and the USO for military members and their families at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada.

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Brad Paisley
Male Vocalist of the Year; Nominated

Brad Paisley entertained over 1,200 troops and their families at the July 4, 2012, “Salute to the Military” event at the White House. Paisley has also spent time visiting wounded service members at hospitals and a burn unit at the San Antonio Military Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston in 2007.

“I’m a big believer in the power of motivation and I see the USO as something that has existed to boost the morale of our fighting men and women since before I was born,” Paisley said in a 2012 interview.

“We are talking about the people responsible for our freedom. And their job is VERY hard. So I think back to Bob Hope, telling jokes and adding sunshine in the middle of wartime devastation and it occurs to me that you can’t underestimate what that did for those brave souls.”

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Rascal Flatts
Vocal Group of the Year; Nominated

In August 2005, Rascal Flatts headed on a USO tour to entertain troops stationed in the Persian Gulf.  During their visit, the trio also signed autographs and took photographs with service members.

“We’re here because we want our service members to know we’re proud of what they are doing, and that we’re deeply grateful for their dedication and sacrifice,” said lead singer Gary LeVox in a 2005 interview with the Air Force. “We are offering our music as a way to show our gratitude for what they do.”

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Blake Shelton
Vocal Event of the Year (“Lonely Tonight” with Ashley Monroe); Nominated
Male Vocalist of the Year; Nominated

In 2014, Shelton helped kick off a new partnership between jcpenney‘s philanthropic arm, jcp cares, and the USO with a sold-out concert at the Watertown Fairgrounds Arena in Watertown, New York. Three hundred complimentary concert tickets were donated for troops and their families by jcpenney.

“Supporting the USO is second nature to me,” Shelton said in a 2012 interview. “My dad was a Korean War veteran. My brother was a veteran of the Army. It’s a charity that’s near and dear to my heart.”

The Band Perry
Vocal Group of the Year; Nominated

In 2014, The Band Perry performed at their first USO show at Royal Air Force Lakenheath in the United Kingdom, entertaining over 1,000 military family members.

“They were such a responsive audience, and that’s what we love most about playing shows, is whenever the crowds are crazy and are singing along,” Neil Perry said in a 2014 USO story. “It was just fun having all the families there.”

The Swon Brothers
Vocal Duo of the Year; Nominated

In 2014, the Swon Brothers, along with Jana Kramer, entertained troops at a special USO concert at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware.

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Carrie Underwood
Vocal Event of the Year (“Somethin’ Bad” with Miranda Lambert); Nominated
Female Vocalist of the Year; Nominated
Video of the Year (“Something’ Bad” with Miranda Lambert); Nominated

Carrie Underwood travelled overseas with the USO to entertain troops during the 2006 holiday season.

Country music singer Zac Brown gets up close and personal with troops during a USO show in Mosul, Iraq, on April 16, 2010. (USO Photo by Erick Anderson)

Zac Brown gets up close and personal with troops during a USO show in Mosul, Iraq, on April 16, 2010. USO Photo by Erick Anderson

Zac Brown Band
Vocal Group of the Year; Nominated

The Zac Brown Band is a long-time supporter of the USO.

In 2008, Brown traveled on his inaugural USO tour as part of the the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff USO Holiday tour. A year later, he performed with his band at the USO Fort Hood Community Strong event in 2009.

In 2010, the band traveled overseas to entertain troops in the Persian Gulf, where they also recorded their music video for their hit single, “Free.”

How Bob Hope Impacted Two Troops in Vietnam (Without Actually Seeing Them)

Bob Hope interviews a service member on stage in Vietnam in 1966. USO photo

Bob Hope interviews a service member on stage in Vietnam in 1966. USO photo

Bob Hope did more for American troops than he probably realized.

If you know the USO, you know about Hope’s decades entertaining troops. You’ve probably seen footage from his televised USO specials, too, where he entertained service members in dangerous spots around the world. But what you likely don’t know about is the personal impact he had on some of those troops — even those whose duties prevented them from attending the shows.

Here are two stories* sent to us by former service members who fought in Vietnam and were touched by Hope in unique ways without actually seeing him.

Donald Scott

I had been in country less than a month when Bob Hope and his crew visited Cam Ranh Bay Air Base, Vietnam, in December 1966. They did a show at South Beach for the Army and Navy and one at the air base.

Being new in country, I was on duty as an aerial port duty officer and did not get to attend a show. That evening, as they took off and were flying to their next destination, we called the plane (call sign Sky King) from our [airlift control element] and spoke to Bob. He summoned Anita Bryant to the [microphone] and she sang “Silent Night” to us as they flew through the dark, black skies of Vietnam.

I will never forget this little act of kindness for a small group of about five guys who could not attend the big show.

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Jerry Tobias

The U.S. Air Force Fairchild C-123K Provider was a tactical airlift workhorse during the Vietnam War. I flew the C-123 out of Phan Rang Air Base in Vietnam, and crisscrossed the length and breadth of the war zone on a regular basis. This gave me the opportunity to observe the realities of war and the impact of combat on the people involved.

One very noticeable constant was the resignation and despair that I saw on the faces of the battle- and boredom-weary soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen that shuffled on and off of my C-123 each day. The war and its painful byproducts seemed to erase all other expressions from the faces of most of them. It’s not hard to understand why. Most of these men … were not there because they wanted to be, but because they had to be. Many had also already known a buddy — or at least had been aware of someone — who had been killed in an ambush, maimed by a booby trap, or caught in the web of cheap and easily accessible drugs. Tragically, all of them were also aware of the loud and negative segment of the population back home that neither cared about them nor cared about what they were going through day after day.

Photo courtesy of Jerry Tobias

Photo courtesy of Jerry Tobias

Those facts all helped to make my flights on Dec. 24 and 25, 1971, even more significant.

My C-123 unit had asked for volunteers to fly troops to and from the Bob Hope USO shows in Bien Hoa those two days. I decided that, rather than sit in my room and be even lonelier on Christmas, flying in support of those shows would be a great alternative. So, I signed up to fly as many sorties as necessary. I eventually flew 13 sorties back and forth to Bien Hoa. Every flight was packed with as many troops as we could legally carry aboard the C-123. …

The flights to the shows were pretty much normal troop transport flights. The troops were still mostly expressionless; they were just glad to get a break from the war. But, each return flight from the shows was absolutely not normal. … The emotional weight of the airplane seemed to be thousands of pounds lighter. Also totally different was the restored expression of life on the troops’ faces. It was amazing. It was as though Bob Hope had turned the light back on in their souls. That, I believe, was not the result the men having been entertained, but of their having been appreciated. …

The very genuine care and appreciation that Bob Hope and the rest of his cast expressed to the troops in a couple of hours during each USO show was, therefore, probably quite literally more encouragement and support than many of these young men had experienced before, during or — sadly, in some cases — even after their tours of duty.

[Bob Hope] entertained, yes, but he also imparted sincere value and respect to men and women who had not received much of either for a long, long time. We, as a nation, owe him and those who have followed after him in USO endeavors more than we could ever repay.

My flying schedule did not allow me to attend a Bob Hope USO show myself … but that didn’t matter. What mattered was that I personally witnessed and will never forget the incredible impact that he and those with him had on the morale of the U.S. military. What also mattered was that I had the tremendous privilege of providing several hundred others with airlift to the appreciation that they desperately needed and so very richly deserved.

Editors Note: Stories have been edited slightly for length and style.