By By Spc. Amburr J. ReeseDecember 21, 2009
BAGHDAD (Dec. 21, 2009) -- Sgt. Maj. of the Army Kenneth O. Preston touched down in Balad, Iraq, Dec. 19, for the second leg of the Sergeant Major of the Army's Hope and Freedom Tour 2009.
The performers kicked off the tour in Kuwait playing for servicemembers at Camp Arifjan before heading to Balad.
Model and television personality Leeann Tweeden hosted the USO tour featuring country stars Mark Wills, and Keni Thomas, comedian Sheryl Underwood and up and coming rock-n-roll artist Alana Grace plus the U.S. Army Band "Downrange" and the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.
The tour was arranged by the Office of the Sergeant Major of the Army for servicemembers' entertainment during the holiday season.
"For the last eight years (we've) had the opportunity to sponsor a USO tour coming into theater," Preston said.
The USO holiday tour has been supported by the sergeant major of the Army since 2002 when Jack L. Tilley held the senior enlisted position.
"I am very honored to continue on that tradition," Preston said.
The tour in Iraq began in Balad when Preston, along with his entourage of celebrities, met up with servicemembers for a meet and greet, signing autographs and posing for photos.
While at Joint Base Balad the entertainers, along with Preston, were able to fly out to various forward operating bases where they were greeted warmly by troops.
After the FOB visits, the performers gathered and put on a show for JBB.
After three days in Balad, the tour headed for Victory Base Complex. They checked into the Joint Visitors Bureau and then headed to Al Faw Palace for another meet and greet with servicemembers.
"I got a lot of pictures with the artists and the cheerleaders. It's a really great feeling to know that you have met a famous person," said Spc. Denis J. Swan, who is from Moorpark, Calif.
All of the entertainers on the tour are volunteers.
"It is their contribution to make sure that all servicemembers over here know that America cares. We want to make sure we honor them and the families that are making the sacrifices," Preston said.
Mark Wills, a country star who has been volunteering with this tour since 2003, expressed his feelings about visiting troops during the holidays.
"We are here to support each and every man and woman that wears the uniform. This is about coming over and saying thank you. As long as we can come over here and continue to show our support and bring a little piece of home during the holidays, we will be back," Wills said.
Wills, joined by the rest of the cast, put on a show the last night they were in Iraq at the East Liberty Main Post Exchange stage.
The show went on well into the evening with Preston addressing servicemembers and the singers belting out cover tunes and original lyrics accompanied by the U.S. Army Band.The Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders performed while being cheered on by the hooting and hollering of the crowd. Underwood's raw sense of humor kept the troops laughing.
"After going to a show like this you always feel really good; it lets us know that the Army wants us to be positive and stay motivated," Swan said.
Swan added that knowing people care about what servicemembers are doing in Iraq is encouraging.
"This is a special time of year for all of the servicemembers that are deployed," Preston said. "I just want to say thanks very much for their contributions' and what they are doing right now and the sacrifices they make. I want to wish them all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year."
Preston said that he wanted to wish servicemembers a successful deployment and a safe trip back to their loved ones.
The tour is scheduled to finish up after performing in Afghanistan.