By Chelsea Place, Pentagram Staff WriterDecember 21, 2010
BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan -- The Sergeant Major of the Army's 2010 USO Hope and Freedom tour headed out for southwest Asia Dec. 14. In tow, they brought six country music stars, two Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders and 18 members of The U.S. Army Band.
''Being a part of the tour, taking the entertainers over there is very important. It reminds the troops over there that back home within America, there are people thinking about them," said Sgt. Maj. Kenneth O. Preston, the sergeant major of the Army.
Preston said even though he wasn't involved with planning the first couple of tours, he was in attendance while deployed.
''It may not have been my type of music or comedian [on former tours], but it was a mental break from work," he said.
''The overall goal is to bring morale during the holiday season," said Sgt. 1st Class Christal Rheams, a vocalist with the Army Band's contemporary music ensemble Downrange. ''When you're away from home [during the holidays] your morale tends to slide. That's everybody."
The tour, sponsored by the United Service Organizations, brings together celebrities and musicians from the Army to perform for men and women serving in Operation Enduring Freedom. The tour lasts about two weeks and returns shortly before Christmas.
The country music stars joining the tour this year are Leeann Tweeden, Keni Thomas, Alana Grace, Buddy Jewell and Emily West. They will be joined by Nicole Hamilton and Brandy Redmond of the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders and Chonda Pierce, a comedian.
''I'm so excited. I've dreamed of doing this for so long. My family and I really appreciate what the servicemembers do. For me it's a chance to go over and say thanks to hundreds at a time," said Jewell. ''It's an opportunity to see firsthand what the men and women have over there and what they live with on a daily basis. I know I'll come back with a deeper appreciation of what they do," he added.
''[The tour] began in 2002 with Sgt. Maj. of the Army Jack L. Tilley," explained Rheams. ''He kind of spearheaded the movement. He decided that there was such great music coming out of here [the Army Band] that it would be a great thing for the Soldiers deployed away from their Families to hear it."
Rheams added that the tour, if anything, has grown more over the years with the support from different organizations and the artists that join them. She said no tour is the same twice because there are so many variables.
There is no way to tell which bases will be visited, how long the shows will run or how long you'll stay at a base, she said. Even the transportation depends on what the base resources are.
''In my eight tours that I've done, I've made it to just about every major base in southwest Asia. As far as (foward) operating bases, I haven't seen as many as I would have liked," she said.
''We have artists that have come back from a forward operating base really emotional in mind [with] something they wanted to change or say," said Rheams.
It's these types of changes in the program that can extend a show from two to four-plus hours, she said.
''One time we were at this small base. We were getting gunned at, and the explosions were hitting closer. [The servicemembers] yelled at us to grab our gear, put it on, and we ran with them to the bunker," said Tweeden. ''It's something you know can happen going over, you don't want it to happen, but it can. It's more of a relief that you don't get hit than being scared."
Tweeden has been on 16 USO tours. She said when she went over with the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff she actually had the opportunity to see her [deployed] husband there twice. She saw him again on her last Sergeant Major of the Army tour.
''For someone that didn't serve in uniform this is my way of giving back to the servicemembers that fight for us," said Tweeden.
''It's such a huge honor to go over there and see the troops. I'm just real excited and can't wait to go," said Staff Sgt. Martha Krabill, Downrange vocalist.
''I'd like to make some type of difference to brighten their holiday," said Redmond. ''I left my husband and two-year-old at home. My sacrifice versus what these men and women do all year round is nothing," she added.
''I see many friends and people that I've served with in the past [on the tours]. I also make new friends. It's a wonderful experience," said Rheams.
Rheams shared a personal story about attending a friend's wedding. The best man approached her after the wedding and asked her if she had performed at his base. When she affirmed that she had, he said, ''I can't thank you enough for coming over and lifting our spirits the way you guys did during the holiday season. I really appreciate it, thank you."
''We were at Camp Phoenix in Afghanistan. It was freezing cold, the crowd was big and the performers did a four-hour show. Not one person left," said Jeff Thornton, USO tour manager.
The tour isn't all just performing. The entertainers also get to have fun.
''Last year I celebrated my birthday while on the tour. At Camp Victory [Kuwait} Mark Wills brought out a big cake and all the troops sang happy birthday to me," said Grace. ''It was great because it was all in unison they were all singing at the same pace."
''I don't think there's any better cause for me than to bring the morale up of those men and women that put their lives and their families on hold from day-to-day just so that I can be free," said Rheams. ''That's the reason I joined the Army. Every Christmas, I can't see myself anywhere else."