The USO rallied star power this month to celebrate service members and honor a Hollywood icon.
“Backstage at the USO” kicked off in November with a massive care package event aimed at giving the public an opportunity to say ‘thank you for your service’ to the nation’s military. NCIS actor Wilmer Valderrama, comedian Paula Poundstone, and country superstar Brantley Gilbert were among those in Washington, D.C. to entertain attendees. The night also paid tribute to a force behind the force who has supported troops in her role as a USO tour veteran.
Actress and singer Ann-Margret stood teary-eyed at the podium as she accepted the inaugural Bob Hope Legacy Award, which was presented to her by Linda Hope, daughter of the late entertainer.
Among applauds and cheers roaring from the crowd mostly made of active-duty military representing every branch, veterans and military families, Ann-Margret recalled 1966 when she toured Vietnam after receiving a petition signed by 3,000 service members who were stationed there. During the 15-day tour — which she referred to as “a moral responsibility” — in the war-torn country, she and three other band members sang for crowds, trying their hardest to make the troops forget, even if for just a few hours, that they were fighting in combat.
“You guys,” she spoke softly as she brought both hands to her heart and looked around the fully-filled auditorium, which invited another roar from a loving crowd. “I wanted to be glamorous, so I applied two sets of eye lashes and used some of the glue to stick two spit curls right here,” she touched her cheeks and a black-and-white photo of a young Ann-Margret appeared on the big screen behind her, depicting her on stage while a clearly appreciative crowd of military members enjoyed the show.
“God bless the USO, and God bless America!” Ann-Margret said before concluding her acceptance speech.
Patriotism was on full display throughout the event, with respect for the military and an appreciation for what military families endure, at the centerpiece of the night’s purpose. As the sun was still high in the clear sky, hundreds of people lined up outside The Anthem to help the USO fill care packages, while being entertained by live music, including the USO Show Troupe.
As each person placed toiletries, candy, pens, and many more items in the beige-colored USO bags, they had the opportunity to also interact with VIP guests, like Monte Durham, star of the TLC’s show “Say Yes to the Dress” who exclusively told Military Families Magazine that he was there to support the troops, not only because he comes from a military family, but also because “I know what it feels like to be isolated, and I don’t want our military to feel that way.”
Julianna “The Venezuelan Vixen” Peña, UFC superstar, was also there braving the cold.
“I just want to be a good American and show my support to the troops,” she said.
When the care package event concluded and crowds began filling the auditorium, host Wilmer Valderrama, who started touring with the USO two decades ago after learning of deployed service members watching episodes of “That 70’s Show” in which he played the memorable character of Fez, said, aside from having many friends who have served in the military, he genuinely wants to show the troops and their families how much he appreciates what they go through to keep the country safe.
As the show began, Valderrama quickly involved the crowds with shout outs to all branches of the military, although the biggest response undeniably came from the Marine Corps, who made sure their presence was heard with a loud “Oorah!”
Valderrama then went on to recall the many ways the USO has been supporting the troops and their families for over 70 years — from airport lounges to live entertainment in over 230 locations all over the world — and concluded with wondering if the USO will soon have locations on the International Space Station to support the sixth branch: the Space Force.
The event concluded with performances by comedian Paula Poundstone and country music superstar Brantley Gilbert.
To one woman in the crowd, however, this event was even more special. Jocelyn Reyes, a Filipino American woman, revealed how the USO personally impacted her family.
“My dad came to this country from the Philippines after he joined the Navy,” she said, visibly emotional as she closed her eyes to recall details of her story. “He asked my mother out on a date and he took her to a USO event. I grew up watching the many USO shows on TV, starring Ann-Margret. To us, the USO is family.”
Moments before Reyes told us her story, she spoke with the famous actress, who glanced at Reyes’ husband standing in the background, and winked at him as she whispered, “You picked a good one!” Reyes’s husband, a service member, agreed with a shy smile that spoke volumes to the love he has for his wife.