Civilian and military Washingtonians of all stripes — and quite a few with stars on their shoulders — donned their best clothes and most impressive uniforms to journey to the Walter E. Washington Convention Center last Tuesday night for the 2015 USO Gala. Centers run by the USO (formally known as the United Services Organization) offer a bit of home, both stateside and overseas, to service members who are separated from friends and family. The 35,000 volunteers who help run those centers allow the USO to supports members of the military all over the world, and have done so for nearly 75 years. In the words of Dr. J.D. Crouch, CEO of the USO, “Our mission is connecting the 99% of our people who are not in the military with the 1% who are.”
The esteem in which members of the military hold the USO was evidenced by the presence of the some the U.S. military’s highest ranking officers at the gala. These included the nation’s second-highest-ranking military officer, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Paul Selva, U.S. Air Force; America’s top Marine, Commandant of the Marine Corps General Robert Neller, U.S. Marine Corps; the first woman ever to achieve four-star rank, Vice Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Michelle Howard, U.S. Navy; the nation’s highest-ranking Soldier, General Mark Milley, U.S. Army; and the Air Force’s second highest-ranking officer, Vice Chief of Staff General David Goldfein, U.S. Air Force. The Vice Commandant of the Coast Guard, Vice Admiral Charles Michel, U.S. Coast Guard, and the Chief of the U.S. National Guard Bureau, General Frank Grass, U.S. Army National Guard, were also in attendance.
Notable civilians came out support the USO as well, including such Washington power players as Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island, Congressman Jeff Miller of Florida, and Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James. On the non-government side, famed movie and television actor Robert Patrick served as Master of Ceremonies, three-time Grammy Award winner Michael W. Smith provided musical entertainment, and Food Network Chef Robert Irvine (who began his culinary career as a cook in the Royal Navy) supervised the incredible dinner that included a main course of Beef Short Rib Bourguignon, Maryland Crab Cakes, and Butternut Squash, followed by a phenomenal Italian Meringue Dome with Branded Cherry Mascarpone Mousse for dessert.
But the true stars of the night were neither Hollywood celebrities nor high-ranking military officers and civilian officials. The focus instead was on the rank-and-file USO volunteers who received awards for their sterling service to the USO, and the military enlisted personnel who received awards for their bravery in uniform and in combat (which ranged from saving the lives of wounded comrades in Afghanistan to running into a burning building to save a senior citizen while off-duty in Norfolk, Virginia). These honorees included USO Volunteer of the Year, Overseas Airman First Class Eric Chun, U.S. Air Force; USO Volunteer of the Year, U.S. Richard “Dick” Anderson; USO Soldier of the Year Specialist Christian Sheers, U.S. Army; USO Marine of the Year Staff Sergeant Joseph Bednarik, U.S. Marine Corps; USO Sailor of the Year Petty Officer Second Class Jessica Jusino, U.S. Navy, USO Airman of the Year Senior Airman TJ Brantley, U.S. Air Force, USO Coast Guardsman of the Year Petty Officer Angel Leott, U.S. Coast Guard; and USO National Guardsman of the Year Sergeant Aaron Burdash, U.S. Army National Guard.
While none of these young men and women were as famous, rich, or powerful as many of the other attendees, they were the true, unquestioned heroes of the night, and each of them received standing ovations when they received their awards from the high-ranking and high-society attendees who were there to honor them. In the words of Senator Reed, “The men and women who wear the uniforms of the United States military are our greatest heroes,” and the gala was truly about them.
*Images courtesy USO