CAMP LEMMONIER, Djibouti – A six-nation USO Tour hosted by the chief of the National Guard Bureau brought a touch of home to troops over the long July 4th holiday.
Each of the seven entertainers who gave up their holidays, left their families and donated their talents and time on the tour led by Air Force Gen. Joseph Lengyel said they didn’t just give of themselves – they also grew from the experience.
“While we have a lot of stars coming to the stage, it is you who are the real stars,” Lengyel told troops, while introducing the performers: Mayim Bialik, whose most recent television credit is a lead role in The Big Bang Theory; Laura Bryna, all-around entertainer; Miss America 2019 Nia Franklin; Anjelah Johnson, comedian; Cassadee Pope, singer; Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, MMA fighter and actor; and Toni Trucks, currently starring on CBS’ SEAL Team.
It wasn’t any one big thing so much as a series of moments that the performers said left them profoundly affected during stops in Germany, Kosovo, Jordan, Kuwait, Djibouti and Spain.
Looking around a dining hall in Kosovo, Jackson was struck by the variety of uniforms, representing not only the jointness of America’s Armed Forces but also the depth of America’s alliances with other nations which contribute troops to multinational missions.
A conversation with a senior officer at one of the stops left a deep impression on Johnson as she realized he viewed his job as not only leading troops but also acting in loco parentis, helping those entrusted to him to maintain physical, spiritual and mental health and fostering their resilience.
The wide variety of vocations within the Armed Forces and the diversity of specialties it takes to sustain the force were a revelation to Franklin. “When I think of the military, I think of fighting and combat, but there are so many more things that go into that,” she said. “If we didn’t have people working on security, working on planes, fixing things, we wouldn’t be able to have the strong military that we do, we wouldn’t be the greatest country in the world. It takes a village, and it’s made up by a strong team of people.”
The sheer environmental challenges at some stops surprised Bialik.
“When the temperature hit somewhere around 110 degrees, I was asking myself, ‘What possessed me to leave my family the week of July 4th and come here?’,” she said. “Much as it was astonishing to be in some of the climates we were in, I really tried not to over-emphasize that, even in my head, because the Soldiers … live there, and this is their life. This is what they have to physiologically acclimate to. This is where they live. This is what it feels like. This is where they eat. Experiencing all of those things in all of these places I would never get to go was one of the most memorable things.”
They often are labeled by the latest show in which they’ve starred or song released, but – just like the troops they were visiting – the entertainers have multiple dimensions to their lives and many talents beyond their fame.
On stage, they sang, performed skits, called on audience volunteers to take part in face-offs or push-up contests, danced, improvised and shared comedy routines for more than an hour before meeting and greeting long lines of troops.
“When we get shows like this, we take advantage of them,” said Army Spc. Esdras Guzman, a New Jersey Guardsman serving on a Quick Reaction Force in Djibouti. “It brings enjoyment to the deployment.”
Offstage, the performers spent hours with troops – Jackson, for example, missed multiple meals in order to pose for selfies, engage in face-offs and sign autographs – and hours taking a deep dive in what troops do and how they live.
The troupe didn’t just visit aviation units – they sat in helicopters, stood on a fighter jet wing, explored a military transport aircraft. They didn’t just hear what explosive ordnance disposal technicians do – they donned heavy protective gear and experienced what it’s like to move around in it in hot weather. They didn’t just watch military working dogs train – they wore padding and felt what it’s like to be apprehended by a dog.
Army Capt. Ryan Smith said the New Jersey Guard members serving with him in Djibouti relish the opportunity to tell visitors about their vocation. “They’re really proud of what they do,” Smith said. “They’re really good at what they do. When they get a chance to show people like a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff or these VIPs, it’s great, because they can show what they do on a day-to-day basis. They get to tell, they get to show, they get to explain. It means a lot to them.
“It shows everyone here that we have the support of the people back home: That people are willing to take time off, take time away from their families – especially at this time of the year – to come see us shows that people at home support us and what we’re doing.”
Army Sgt. Muslim Ortiz, New Jersey Guard, hoped the USO troupe would leave knowing that, like many service members, “I joined the military because I love my country, and I enjoy serving every day with these great men and women who are in my unit.”
When not on duty with the Guard, Guzman is a window installer in his civilian life. Smith and Ortiz are both police officers. Some of the celebrities said their time around Guard members gave them a new appreciation for the sacrifices involved in juggling military duties, civilian careers and family responsibilities.
“I am left feeling so grateful for what these men and women do,” Johnson said. “Being away from their families, and being in hot conditions, 120 degrees, and sleeping on a cot, and eating the same food in rotation, and I can only imagine what it’s like: I was there for two days, and I can’t imagine what it’s like being there for nine months at a time.”
Trucks said the ongoing education in all things military necessitated by her current role in SEAL Team was greatly boosted by the USO Tour. Her highlights included running a July 4th 5K with troops in Kosovo, challenging audience members in five shows to last longer than her doing a plank (she only lost once) and the conversations she had with troops during unit visits.
“This has been an unbelievable experience,” Lengyel said. “The performers, the cast, every single one of them are here because they want to make things a little bit better and are genuinely appreciative for what these Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines … are doing in these deployed locations, away from their families, and to be out here with them on the 4th of July has been a fantastic experience for all of us.”
The USO is a 78-year-old tradition. In addition to entertaining troops, the tour also gave Lengyel and Army Command Sgt. Maj. Christopher Kepner, senior enlisted advisor, an opportunity to conduct unit visits and assess morale and performance.
“I can’t think of a better place to spend Independence Day than with the men and women who are preserving our freedom – not just now, but into the future,” Kepner said. “It’s easy to think that the rest of the nation forgets about us whenever we’re overseas for long periods of time. The USO brings a piece of home to all of our service members who are deployed, and it’s really a reminder to them that back home in the United States we care about what they’re doing and we appreciate what they’re doing.”
Three of the stops were in countries active in the National Guard State Partnership Program: Kosovo, paired with the Iowa National Guard; Jordan, with the Colorado Guard; and Djibouti, with Kentucky.
“One of the most enlightening parts of the trip was learning about the cooperation the Guard has all over the world and, in particular, seeing that the kind of childlike picture that I had of the military as trying to do good all over the world, meeting people all over the world, and working with other countries to maintain peace and security actually exists, in a very sophisticated way,” Bialik said.
“I think that was kind of comforting, that I had this dream as a second- generation American that we should be able to be friends and help do good and the fact is – on a very sophisticated, complicated level – that is what we got to see in action.”
The tour, which ended Tuesday, was only the second hosted by the National Guard’s most senior general: the first was hosted by Lengyel’s predecessor, retired Army Gen. Frank Grass, in 2016.
“I think next July 4th,” Bialik said, “I’m going to kind of wonder, ‘Why am I not in Kosovo?’”