By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
Oct. 8, 2009 - It was a tough act for Hollywood at the annual USO Gala here last night. The stars were out at the black-tie event held in a posh hotel in the popular Adams Morgan area. More than 800 actors, musicians, models, football stars and top politicians mingled over drinks and dinner. But it wasn't the stars or famous athletes who stole the spotlight.
At the night's start, emcee and comedian Lewis Black received a few chuckles and some polite applause; Miss U.S.A. Kristen Dalton drew a warm, but reserved welcome; and even award-winning country music star Trace Adkins' commanding stage presence and deep baritone vocals failed to bring the audience to their feet.
That honor was reserved for the relative unknowns in the crowd who might have otherwise gone unnoticed -- except for their starched military uniforms and the badges of courage pinned to their chests.
Despite the shine put on the event, war wounds showed through: one soldier limped toward the escalator using a prosthetic leg, while another picked at his salad with a prosthetic hand. Some bore the cost of war on their faces, but, for the night, smiles cut through the scars of combat as U.S. servicemembers took center stage.
"Americans may debate and at times disagree over matters of national security, but on one matter there is no debate. When our nation sends our military men and women into harm's way, we all come together as Americans to support our troops," declared Deputy Defense Secretary William J. Lynn, III.
The nation's top military officer, Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, recently returned from his fifth USO tour overseas.
"Tonight as we celebrate, please take some time to remember the thousands of young men and women who are out there right now, serving on point and standing watch in [forward operating bases], posts and ships around the globe," Mullen said.
On stage, USO President Sloan Gibson recalled his first visit to Walter Reed Army Medical Center here.
"Everywhere you looked, there were men and women missing arms, missing legs, engaged in the toughest, most vigorous physical activity, working out hard," he said. "I can remember my first thought was, there are so many."
Gibson went on to travel to several other military hospitals, talking to troops and families. He asked a handful to join him at the gala -- a Navy SEAL, an Army captain and sergeant, and a Marine sergeant.
"I have been inspired by their spirit, humbled by their drive and determination to overcome every obstacle, awed by their accomplishments in spite of the odds, and moved by the love and support of their families," Gibson said.
The USO's guests of honor were five servicemembers, one from each of the services, selected for their bravery. As each took the stage to standing ovations, the stories of courage and valor seemed almost made for television.
The USO's soldier of the year, Spc. Michael Carter, volunteered for one final mission in Afghanistan before heading home. On that mission, though, Carter's unit was attacked and outnumbered. Carter fought back, exposing himself to a hail of enemy gunfire to rescue a fellow soldier in need of life-saving first aid.
Airman of the year, Staff Sgt. Zachary Rhyner, put himself between his comrades and the enemy after his team was attacked in Afghanistan. The battle lasted more than six hours as sniper and machine-gun fire and rocket-propelled grenades rained on their location. Rhyner managed to call in 50 close-air strikes on the enemy, after being shot twice in the chest and once in the leg. His protective vest saved his life.
The Marine of the year, Sgt. Mark Robinson, single-handedly held off Taliban fighters with gunfire and hand grenades so his fellow troops could escape the attack.
The sailor of the year, Airman 2nd Class William Stevens, stopped a band of pirates that had attacked a civilian cargo ship in the Gulf of Aden.
And the Coast Guardsman of the year, Petty Officer 3rd Class Abram Heller, rescued eight people from freezing and drowning in the icy waters of the Bering Sea off the coast of Alaska.
National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell summed it up simply. "What our men and women do around the world is extraordinary," he said.
Even Lewis Black joked about his performance being relegated as he took the stage after the awardees.
"After you hear all of these stories of courage, I'm trying to think what have I ever done that was courageous. The closest I've come is appearing in front of drunks at comedy clubs," Black said. "I find myself in these positions sometimes when I do benefits. These extraordinary stories are told and now 'Here's Lewis Black, or Smuckey the Clown.'"
Two volunteers were recognized as well. One was Army Sgt. Timothy Donovan. Despite his active-duty responsibilities, Donovan devotes his free time to volunteering at the USO in Vicenza, Italy. It doesn't matter what the job is, really. He works the front desk or cleans the center before it closes. He has worked every USO event there since July 2008.
Compared to taking bullets for your buddies, that may not seem like much. But Mullen thanked him by name.
USOs provide a "home away from home" for troops serving around the world, he said, and it is the thousands of volunteers such as Donovan who make that possible.
"That's what tonight is all about -- honoring people around the world who do more than just volunteer to support our troops," he said.
Musician and actor Gary Sinise was the only non-servicemember called to the stage to accept an award – and the only non-servicemember to take the stage and receive a standing ovation.
The USO honored Sinise this year with its Spirit of the USO award. Sinise took his first USO trip in 2003 and has since traveled the world stopping at bases and posts, entertaining and talking to troops. He has trained with Special Forces, flown in a fighter jet, landed on an aircraft carrier and has frequented military hospitals visiting recovering troops.
Sinise has never worn the uniform, but has seen things that the average American hasn't, he said.
"They defend this nation. And if we as a nation are going to make a commitment to send our men and women into combat, then we as a nation must be prepared to give them all of our support and everything they need to succeed in that mission and come home safely," Sinise said. "And once they are home, and reunited with their families, we should be mindful that there are other needs that need to be met as they all too often bring the battle home with them.
"They serve us, and we must in turn serve them back," he said.
But in the end, it wasn't the words in Sinise's speech that summed up the evening's focus. It was pared down to a few words in a simple, unscripted exchange.
As Sinise stepped behind the podium to accept his award, a troop from the crowd called out "Thank you."
Sinise squinted against the lights to see the uniform, pointed back into the crowd and said, "No, thank you."