USO Gala Honors Troops, Sacrifices
(October 13, 2009)
WASHINGTON, Oct. 8, 2009 – It was a tough act for Hollywood
at the annual USO Gala here last night.|
The stars were out at the black-tie event held in a posh
hotel in the popular Adams Morgan area. More than 800
actors, musicians, models, football stars and top
politicians mingled over drinks and dinner.
But it wasn't the stars or famous athletes who stole the
At the night's start, emcee and comedian Lewis Black
received a few chuckles and some polite applause; Miss
U.S.A. Kristen Dalton drew a warm, but reserved welcome; and
even award-winning country music star Trace Adkins'
commanding stage presence and deep baritone vocals failed to
bring the audience to their feet.
That honor was reserved for the relative unknowns in the
crowd who might have otherwise gone unnoticed, except for
their starched military uniforms and the badges of courage
pinned to their chests.
|U.S. Army Spc.
Michael D. Carter, U.S. Marine Sgt. Mark A.
Robinson, U.S. Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class
William S. Stevens, U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt.
Zachary J. Rhyner, and U.S. Coast Guard Petty
Officer 2nd Class Abram H. Heller display the
awards they received as Servicemembers of the
Year for their individual branches at the 2009
USO Gala, Washington, D.C., Oct. 7, 2009.
DoD photo by U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class
Chad J. McNeeley
Despite the shine put on the event, war wounds showed
through: one soldier limped toward the escalator using a
prosthetic leg, while another picked at his salad with a
prosthetic hand. Some bore the cost of war on their faces,
but, for the night, smiles cut through the scars of combat
as U.S. servicemembers took center stage. |
“Americans may debate and at times disagree over matters of
national security, but on one matter there is no debate.
When our nation sends our military men and women into harm's
way, we all come together as Americans to support our
troops,” declared Deputy Defense Secretary William J. Lynn,
The nation's top military officer, Navy Adm. Mike Mullen,
recently returned from his fifth USO tour overseas.
“Tonight as we celebrate, please take some time to remember
the thousands of young men and women who are out there right
now, serving on point and standing watch in [forward
operating bases], posts and ships around the globe,” Mullen
On stage, USO President Sloan Gibson recalled his first
visit to Walter Reed Army Medical Center here.
“Everywhere you looked, there were men and women missing
arms, missing legs, engaged in the toughest, most vigorous
physical activity, working out hard,” he said. “I can
remember my first thought was, there are so many.”
Gibson went on to travel to several other military
hospitals, talking to troops and families. He asked a
handful to join him at the gala -- a Navy SEAL, an Army
captain and sergeant, and a Marine sergeant.
“I have been inspired by their spirit, humbled by their
drive and determination to overcome every obstacle, awed by
their accomplishments in spite of the odds, and moved by the
love and support of their families,” Gibson said.
The USO's guests of honor were five servicemembers, one from
each of the services, selected for their bravery. As each
took the stage to standing ovations, the stories of courage
and valor seemed almost made for television.
The USO's soldier of the year, Spc. Michael Carter,
volunteered for one final mission in Afghanistan before
heading home. On that mission, though, Carter's unit was
attacked and outnumbered. Carter fought back, exposing
himself to a hail of enemy gunfire to rescue a fellow
soldier in need of life-saving first aid.
Airman of the year, Staff Sgt. Zachary Rhyner, put himself
between his comrades and the enemy after his team was
attacked in Afghanistan. The battle lasted more than six
hours as sniper and machine-gun fire and rocket-propelled
grenades rained on their location. Rhyner managed to call in
50 close-air strikes on the enemy, after being shot twice in
the chest and once in the leg. His protective vest saved his
The Marine of the year, Sgt. Mark Robinson, single-handedly
held off Taliban fighters with gunfire and hand grenades so
his fellow troops could escape the attack.
The sailor of the year, Petty Officer 2nd Class William
Stevens, a naval aviator, stopped a band of pirates that had
attacked a civilian cargo ship in the Gulf of Aden.
And the Coast Guardsman of the year, Petty Officer 3rd Class
Abram Heller, rescued eight people from freezing and
drowning in the icy waters of the Bering Sea off the coast
National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell summed
it up simply. “What our men and women do around the world is
extraordinary,” he said.
Even Lewis Black joked about his performance being relegated
as he took the stage after the awardees.
“After you hear all of these stories of courage, I'm trying
to think what have I ever done that was courageous. The
closest I've come is appearing in front of drunks at comedy
clubs,” Black said. “I find myself in these positions
sometimes when I do benefits. These extraordinary stories
are told and now ‘Here's Lewis Black, or Smuckey the
Two volunteers were recognized as well. One was Army Sgt.
Timothy Donovan. Despite his active-duty responsibilities,
Donovan devotes his free time to volunteering at the USO in
Vicenza, Italy. It doesn't matter what the job is, really.
He works the front desk or cleans the center before it
closes. He has worked every USO event there since July 2008.
Compared to taking bullets for your buddies, that may not
seem like much. But Mullen thanked him by name.
USOs provide a “home away from home” for troops serving
around the world, he said, and it is the thousands of
volunteers such as Donovan who make that possible.
“That's what tonight is all about -- honoring people around
the world who do more than just volunteer to support our
troops,” he said.
Musician and actor Gary Sinise was the only non-servicemember
called to the stage to accept an award – and the only non-servicemember
to take the stage and receive a standing ovation.
The USO honored Sinise this year with its Spirit of the USO
award. Sinise took his first USO trip in 2003 and has since
traveled the world stopping at bases and posts, entertaining
and talking to troops. He has trained with Special Forces,
flown in a fighter jet, landed on an aircraft carrier and
has frequented military hospitals visiting recovering
Sinise has never worn the uniform, but has seen things that
the average American hasn't, he said.
“They defend this nation. And if we as a nation are going to
make a commitment to send our men and women into combat,
then we as a nation must be prepared to give them all of our
support and everything they need to succeed in that mission
and come home safely,” Sinise said. “And once they are home,
and reunited with their families, we should be mindful that
there are other needs that need to be met as they all too
often bring the battle home with them.
“They serve us, and we must in turn serve them back,” he
But in the end, it wasn't the words in Sinise's speech that
summed up the evening's focus. It was pared down to a few
words in a simple, unscripted exchange.
As Sinise stepped behind the podium to accept his award, a
troop from the crowd called out “Thank you.”
Sinise squinted against the lights to see the uniform,
pointed back into the crowd and said, “No, thank you.”
photo by Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
Reprinted from American Forces Press Service / DoD
Comment on this article