The year was 1987. I was the command chaplain for the USS White Plains, a supply ship home ported in Guam.
As a supply ship, our mission was to be a sort of “floating grocery store,” if you will. We carried everything from aviation fuel to ice cream. We would rendezvous with our war ships at sea to deliver the goods so they could avoid the time and expense of having to always pull into the nearest port to resupply.
There we were sailing into a tiny island atoll in the middle of the Indian Ocean called Diego Garcia, or D-Gar for short. It was the morning of December 24. We looked forward to a brief respite on this mini-island before sailing to the African continent. What we didn’t know was that the USO was also at D-Gar. That evening in one of the warehouses on the pier next to our chip, Bob Hope and a cast of stars and entertainers put on a show for us! Mr. Hope was well into his 80s yet continued to perform as he always had, telling jokes and bantering with the audience. We loved him for all this, but more so because he loved us. One other highlight of that Christmas Eve performance was when Lee Greenwood sang, “God Bless the U.S.A.” Now that was a moment to remember!
The USO, an acronym for United Service Organization, was started in 1941 to provide a bit of home and comfort for our troops. World War II veterans will remember the USO tents set up serving free coffee and doughnuts. Entertainment quickly became a staple of the USO enlisting the services of no less a celebrity than Bob Hope. For those of us who have served in our nations wars since WWII it is a source of pride to say you attended one of Bob Hope’s USO shows.
I also met the man who would succeed Bob Hope as the personality associated with the USO. Earlier in 1987 another USO group was brought to our ship somewhere in the China Sea. This band of entertainers, led by Wayne Newton, spent a few days with us, giving us a wonderful program on the helo deck, what we euphemistically refer to as “Steel Beach.”
Fast forward to 2003. I find myself in Kuwait. Who shows up at Camp Commando where I am? The USO show with Wayne Newton and an amazing array of entertainers, among which were sports figures, the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders, rock stars, comedians, etc. My brother, John, had been a board member for the USO for a number of years. The President of the USO, Ned Powell, knew I was in theater so encouraged my brother to make the trip. What a surprise that was to see my brother walk into my tent! We had a great time, and I enjoyed meeting many of the troupe that came along for this show, including getting reacquainted with Wayne Newton. He is a warm and gracious gentleman. When I mentioned having met him sixteen years earlier he told me how he had been thrown out of his bunk on the USS White Plains when we encountered some rough seas one night.
Later in 2003 I was serving as command chaplain for our base in Djibouti, Africa. Word came that the USO troupe was coming. I think every person on the base that could be spared attended that open-air show! I located Ned Powell to say hi and thank him and the USO for bringing such a welcomed gift to our men and women in uniform. We promised to connect later back in the States.
This past Thursday night was our reunion of sorts. Earlier in the year I had received an invitation to offer the invocation for the USO World Gala, a dinner in honor of the USO’s 65 years of serving our military. I can tell you it was a great privilege to offer a prayer for the USO and to do so before so august an assembly of dignitaries and luminaries there in Washington D.C. There were members of congress, athletes, entertainers (Sinbad was fabulous!), the highest ranking officers in our military and hundreds of folks who love and support our military. This was a formal black tie affair, or for those of us in the military we wore our mess dress uniforms. We even had a video from President Bush congratulating the USO for their many years of faithful service. But all this paled when compared to the tributes made to five honorees. A service member from each branch of the military was brought up on stage to be recognized for their service. They walked a line of senior military members, including the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine General Peter Pace, to receive personal congratulations for their heroics. Their stories were read, specifically detailing their acts of bravery. We all sat in awe as these young people received much deserved thanks.
Let me tell you of three of the honorees. The honoree from the Army was a woman. While on patrol in Iraq, she and her soldiers were ambushed by insurgents. Outnumbered 5 to 1, she took charge, directing return fire. But that wasn’t all. She then organized her troops and attacked the enemy, routing them from their hiding places, thus eliminating the threat.
The honoree from the Coast Guard was recognized for his participation during Hurricane Katrina. This man personally rescued 181 people from the flood waters. One lady was entangled by a hose and was being pulled under water. This petty officer dove into the toxic waters to free her from certain drowning.
You need to know about the Navy corpsman. Traveling in a Humvee, he and a couple of Marines were hit with and IED. His leg was seriously injured. After tying a tourniquet on his leg, he dragged himself to his wounded Marines where he tended to their wounds, saving their lives. His own wounds were so severe that he would later lose his leg.
So, remember these who were honored for their service. And if you’d like to help our military, make a generous contribution to the USO.
After all, the USO knows how to put on quite a show!