Even During The Pandemic The USO Continues To Entertain Our Troops At Home And Abroad

Jeryl Brunner

In 2021, the USO is celebrating a big milestone. The organization known for entertaining our troops turned 80 this year.

Scarlett Johansson participated in several USO tours. She has visited with over 5,500 service members.Courtesy USO

For eight decades the USO has emboldened America's military service members and offered programs and services around the globe. At hundreds of locales worldwide, this private nonprofit organization helps to keep military service members connected to family and home.

Ever since their launch in 1941, the USO has joined forces with celebrities to supporting service members and boost morale through concerts and meet-and-greet events both at home and overseas.

“What began as six civilian organizations pooling their resources to entertain the troops during World War II has transformed into a community-driven nonprofit that continues to reinvent itself and find innovative ways to respond to service members’ emergent needs,” explains Jennifer Wahlquist, USO Senior Director, Global Entertainment. “Wherever members of the military are deployed—on the front lines overseas or on the front lines of the Covid-19 pandemic response at home—the USO stands by our heroes in uniform.”

Today on average the USO works with approximately 150-200 celebrities per year on a wide range of activities. “We are a unique non-profit in that we leverage talent for our programming but also many other initiatives across the organization, including fund-raising so we are constantly pitching talent on ways to partner with us.”

These days the events range from Sarah Silverman making a video call to a quarantined sailor in Naples, Italy to Scarlett Johansson and Chris Evans connecting with bases around the world to a customized military performance streamed over the holidays with Idina Menzel to an in-person tour to a deployed location with Olympian Shaun White. “We work tirelessly to provide as many channels of connection between celebrities & our Military community as possible,” says Wahlquist. 

Over those eight decades, many women have played an integral role in the history of the USO. According to the Library of Congress during WWII the first entertainer to visit rescued soldiers at Anzio was actress Marlene Dietrich. She then spent 11 months during her second tour entertaining service men and women in Germany and France.

As much of an impact the visits have on those in the military, the experience is as profound for the stars themselves. After Marilyn Monroe visited Korea in 1954 and entertained more than100,000 soldiers and marines, she told Modern Screen, “I never thought I had an effect on people until I was in Korea. It was the greatest thing that ever happened to me.”

Country music star Kellie Pickler, who has logged eight USO tours, including multiple trips to Middle East war zones, counts the experience as one of her greatest blessings. “It’s important that our service men and women and our veterans know that we love them and we do not take what they do for granted and I think it’s important that they know that,” Pickler told the USO. “I will continue to work with the USO as long as they’ll have me.”

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New York based journalist who has written for Forbes, Parade, InStyle, National Geographic Traveler, Travel + Leisure, and The Wall Street Journal. Author of the book "My City, My New York, Famous New Yorkers Share Their Favorite Places" and podcaster, ("When Lightning Strikes"). I cover the arts, theater, entertainment, food, travel and people who are motivated by their joy and passion.

New York City, NY

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