By Latayne C. Scott
A comedian cracks jokes but shows tenderness toward the battle-weary. The worldly-wise actress puts her arm around a wounded servicemember’s shoulder. A musician sings of yearning toward a distant wife and child, yet unseen, born after a tour of duty began. An athlete bends six-pack muscles to the task of maneuvering a wheelchair for a combat-disabled man.
Celebrities, from all walks of fame, use their star status to encourage and fundraise for servicemembers. For instance, did you know the curled-tongue rock band KISS donated $1 from every ticket sold on their summer 2011 North American tour to an organization for those injured in combat? Or boxing greats like Oscar De La Hoya and others went to Kuwait and Iraq to encourage troops?
“We have many celebrities that help, from Bill O’Reilly [and] Trace Adkins [to] The Sopranos stars,” says Becky Melvin of the Wounded Warrior Project, a Florida-based organization that conducts events and fundraisers for wounded servicemembers and their families. One recent event brought together Chicago’s professional sports teams — the Bulls, Bears, Blackhawks, Cubs, and White Sox — for a meal, bowling, and bocce ball with servicemembers and their families.
Performing for troops
Often events for the troops involve performances, notably through the USO. Gary Sinese’s “The Lt. Dan Band” and Toby Keith both are on the road many weekends a year performing for servicemembers. A touring Sesame Street troupe — financed by children’s book author and illustrator Trevor Romain — recently brought old favorites like Cookie Monster and Grover as well as a new military child puppet character, Katie, to bases all over the Pacific and Europe. And Chelsie Hightower and others quick-stepped Dancing with the Stars all the way to bases in Germany.
Grammy-winner, Grand Ole Opry member, and multiply-awarded fiddler Charlie Daniels, famous for “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” has for more than 20 years performed all over the world on military bases, even in hot spots such as Sarajevo and Bosnia
He recalls one hair-raising experience in Iraq. “One night we were coming back from a base in a helicopter and got shot at over Baghdad,” Daniels says. “They were shooting off flares. I thought it was a maneuver and was surprised that it actually was live fire.”
Some performers involve their military audience in unique ways. Former Lance Cpl. Josh Gracin, USMC, a singer who first achieved fame on the second season of American Idol while serving in the Marine Corps, went on to record top singles including “Nothin’ to Lose.”
Working alongside the Sears Holdings Corp. Heroes at Home program, which supports the rehabilitation of homes for veterans and military families, Gracin composed a song, “Can’t Say Goodbye,” based on the winning personal story in the Portraits of Heroes competition. The story was written by young widow Seana Arrechaga as a tribute to her fallen husband, Army Sgt. 1st Class Ofren “AC” Arrechaga. “Can’t Say Goodbye” officially was unveiled in a special performance in Wheaton, Ill.
Other non-performing celebrities go on “handshake tours.” They include Miss USA, Miss Teen USA, and Urban Meyer, head football coach at The Ohio State University and a network sports commentator. Meyer sees his visits overseas as part of a team effort to “support one another and count on one another.”
Mixed martial arts hall of famer Tito Ortiz is a longtime supporter of the troops. In addition to his multiple visits to military installations in Iraq and other places worldwide, he spent a week in July 2011 doing rehab training with veterans at the Punishment Training Center in Huntington Beach, Calif. The training was part of Pro vs. G.I. Joe: Rehabbing with the Troops, a program that invites veterans to take on intense mental and physical challenges as a means of rehabilitation.
Former Philadelphia Eagles tight end Chad Lewis not only has toured with the USO, but in May 2011, he also climbed with retired New England Patriots star linebacker Tedy Bruschi, ex-Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher, and four wounded warriors to attempt the ascent of Mount Kilimanjaro.
“Two of the guys had lower right leg amputations, one Marine lost her eye in Iraq, and one Marine suffered from PTSD,” says Lewis. “We started at ground zero in New York and flew to Tanzania. We spent 12 days total and seven days on the mountain getting to the top. Two of the warriors were able to summit and two had to be taken down the mountain by stretcher because of altitude-related problems. We got to know them very well, and we will be connected forever.”
Some celebrities and public figures go beyond visits. The Sopranos’ James Gandolfini auctioned off his wardrobe from the show to benefit the Wounded Warrior Project. Former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and her retired astronaut husband Mark Kelly served Thanksgiving dinner to active duty and retired servicemembers in Giffords’ home state of Arizona.
And although Chip Davis and his iconic Mannheim Steamroller often perform their music on tour both overseas and domestically for military audiences, Davis always is looking for other ways to help out. He received the Office of the Secretary of Defense Exceptional Public Service award in 2008, a year in which he donated more than 1 million CDs of his music to troops. He also has provided both complimentary and deeply discounted Christmas CDs to the VFW, performed free concerts, and developed and donated a patent-pending ambient therapy system that is used in hospitals such as Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.; on the USS Nebraska (SSBN-739); and in Fisher House facilities. This audio system plays a soundtrack of nature sounds intended to alleviate anxiety associated with being in confined spaces.
Davis treasures the letters he gets from recipients of his generosity, especially those from servicemembers deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. “No matter how many I get, they always stop me in my tracks,” he says.
Will the withdrawal from current conflicts mean celebrity star power won’t be needed as much? Jonathan Sullivan, executive vice president of development for the Wounded Warrior Project, doesn’t think so. He is looking for creative strategies to reach the American public and generate awareness about needs.
“The injuries to our wounded warriors are lifelong and affect not only themselves but [also] their families and loved ones,” Sullivan says. “Obviously, when a celebrity lends his or her voice … it has a positive impact and usually draws media attention, so we can continue to tell empowering stories.”