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Patriotic Article
Noble Efforts

By Army Pfc. Emily Walter

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The USO Hope and Freedom Tour
(December 24, 2010)

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JOINT BASE BALAD, Iraq (12/20/2010) - The Army chief of staff's personal advisor, a supermodel, NFL cheerleaders, a comedian, and a few musical performers. It seems an unlikely combination, but for the United Services Organization and Sgt. Maj. of the Army Kenneth Preston, the personal advisor to the Army chief of staff on all enlisted-related matters, it was the perfect crew to go on a morale-boosting holiday tour in Iraq and Afghanistan, which included a stop at the Sustainer Theater Dec. 19 at Joint Base Balad, Iraq. 
Comedian Chonda Pierce and Supermodel Leeann Tweeden entertain the crowd of service members during the Hope and Freedom Tour at Sustainer Theater, Dec. 19, 2010 at Joint Base Balad, Iraq. Sgt. Maj. of the Army Kenneth Preston, the personal advisor to the Army chief of staff on all enlisted-related matters, coordinated with the United Services Organization and several entertainers to plan the yearly holiday tour for deployed service members throughout Iraq and Afghanistan.
Comedian Chonda Pierce and Supermodel Leeann Tweeden entertain the crowd of service members during the Hope and Freedom Tour at Sustainer Theater, Dec. 19, 2010 at Joint Base Balad, Iraq.
 The Army chief of staff's personal advisor, a supermodel, NFL cheerleaders, a comedian, and a few musical performers. It seems an unlikely combination, but for the United Services Organization and Sgt. Maj. of the Army Kenneth Preston, the personal advisor to the Army chief of staff on all enlisted-related matters, it was the perfect crew to go on a morale-boosting holiday tour in Iraq and Afghanistan, which included a stop at the Sustainer Theater Dec. 19 at Joint Base Balad, Iraq.

Preston arrived with the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders, the Army Band “Pershing's Own,” supermodel Leeann Tweeden, comedian Chonda Pierce and several other entertainers to meet with service members at JBB during the day. When darkness fell in the evening, the entertainers lit up the stage at the theater during a lengthy procession of performances that left service members laughing, dancing and chatting in
high spirits. 
First to take the stage was Preston himself, who has helped organize the Hope and Freedom Tour each holiday season for the past several years in a continuous effort to improve deployed troops' morale and welfare. He reiterated the fact that all of the entertainers volunteered to partake in the tour, and that it was their way of thanking service members.

“When you look at the entertainment industry, and whether you are an actor, a musician, a model, a cheerleader, or a comedian, the holiday season is usually a time when you're spending time with your family,” said Preston in his opening remarks. “...But these entertainers in here have come over here to say thanks. This is their opportunity to give back.”

Following Preston's introduction, the Army Band started the show strong with the Army's signature tune, “Army Strong”, and then transitioned to a wide range of genres, including classic rock, modern rock and pop. Songs included Bon Jovi's “Livin' on a Prayer,” Katy Perry's “California Gurls,” and Jason DeRulo's “In My Head.” Amidst complex guitar riffs, a trumpet-trombone-saxophone trio and intense drum beats, the singers frequently interacted with audience members up and down the aisles for the duration of their performance.

“I will tell you, the world-famous United States Army Band is second to none,” said Preston prior to the band's set. He added that the band members are “world-class” musicians, especially because they provided backup for every other musical performer at the concert, with little practice beforehand.

Leeann Tweeden was the master of ceremonies who introduced each performer throughout the concert. She has been on several USO tours prior to this one.

“She has a big heart,” said Preston of Tweeden. “She's been over here many, many times. In fact, she's been over here in this theater [approximately] 14 times, and she continues to volunteer to come back with me year after year.”

Tweeden introduced herself and described her father's military service in Vietnam, her husband's service in the Air Force, and how she made USO handshake tours a part of her career. She also emphasized the importance of service members' families during the difficult times of deployment.

“Thank your family members for us—for me, personally,” she said. “Thank you very much for what you do, and your families who sacrifice everything. We [entertainers] love you so much and we will tell your story...So, again, from the bottom of my heart, and from everyone here who will tell you their story tonight, thank you for your service. You make me proud to be an American, and we're so privileged to be here with you tonight.” 
Country musician Keni Thomas performs for a crowd of service members during the Hope and Freedom Tour at Sustainer Theater, Dec. 19, 2010 at Joint Base Balad, Iraq.
Country musician Keni Thomas performs for a crowd of service members during the Hope and Freedom Tour at Sustainer Theater, Dec. 19, 2010 at Joint Base Balad, Iraq.
 As Tweeden suggested, each entertainer told his or her own story about why they wanted to take part in the holiday tour for deployed service members. For country musician Keni Thomas, who performed with his band Cornbread, it was partly because of his own military service in Somalia. He said he felt that every service member has a story that needs to be told, and that the rest of the world is interested in these stories. A couple of the band's songs reflected Thomas's military experiences.

“[Military service is] a family business,” said Thomas. “We're a very small community, and there are stories that need to be told...You gotta get out there and you gotta talk about the people on your left and the people on your right, because the rest of the world [appreciates] you, but they don't understand it. But they do want to hear about it.”

Following Cornbread's performance, Pierce evoked uproarious laughter with her dry, sarcastic sense of humor and jokes directed toward specific audience members. She had participated in USO tours before, and said that visiting service members overseas was always on her list of things to do.

Up next were singer/songwriter Alana Grace and her guitarist Jon Ketchum, two young musicians who performed in last year's Hope and Freedom Tour, and enjoyed it so much that they were eager to do it again. Their stop at JBB marked Grace's 23rd birthday, and she said she was more than happy to spend it overseas with troops.

“Every time I'm here with you, my respect level goes up tenfold,” said Grace. “What you do here is really amazing, so thank you.”
Finally, country musician Buddy Jewell and his fellow guitarist Joe Cook performed their closing set of song, two of which were specifically related to service members and Veterans. Jewell, who was the first winner of the Nashville Star competition, echoed the sentiments off all the other performers, conveying his gratitude for the troops overseas.

“We're here to bring you a little piece of home and to tell you guys and gals we appreciate you being out here for us, and what a blessing you are for us and our families back home,” he said.

At the end of the show, every performer, including Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders Nicole Hamilton and Brandy Redmond, came out on stage and joined the audience in singing “Stand By Me.” The finale left the audience with a palpable sense of hope and reassurance that every performer truly did care about deployed troops during this holiday season.

Several service members expressed their gratitude for the performers coming to entertain in Iraq, far away from their families during the holidays.

“You respect them [the entertainers] as much as they respect you,” said Spc. Charles Dickman, a protocol specialist with the 3rd Battalion, 116th Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Sustainment Brigade, 103rd Sustainment Command (Expeditionary), and a Pocatello, Idaho, native. “It's a very commendable thing that a lot of performers don't do, and it makes you feel good.”

Pfc. Shane Thome, a paralegal specialist with the 3rd Sust. Bde., 103rd ESC, and a Mount Joy, Pa., native, had only been in country for a couple hours before going to the show.

“When you first get here [to Iraq], you feel a little bit homesick,” he said as he stood in line for an autograph from the entertainers. “But the concert was awesome, and it's helping me adjust.”

A line of service members snaking longer than the length of the theater's aisles awaited autographs and handshakes from the performers. Although that marked the end of this stop on the Hope and Freedom Tour, the performers quickly packed all their gear up to fly out of JBB for a future performance in Afghanistan, to spread their star-studded holiday cheer to another crowd of troops. 
Article and photos by Army Pfc. Emily Walter
103rd Expeditionary Sustainment Command
Copyright 2010

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