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Musicians, Comedian, Cheerleaders Perform at Balad

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By Sgt. Ryan Twist

JOINT BASE BALAD, Iraq – The Sergeant Major of the Army's Hope and Freedom Tour 2009, brought country music artists Mark Wills and Keni Thomas and four Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders to Sustainer Theater Dec. 19 at Joint Base Balad, Iraq.

The United Service Organization event also included host Leeann Tweeden, comedian Sheryl Underwood, singer, songwriter and actress Alana Grace, and the U.S. Army band, "Downrange," who traveled to Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan to support the troops during the holiday season.

The musicians held a concert and signed autographs after the show.

"For the last eight years, the office of the sergeant major of the Army has been sponsoring a USO show," said Sgt. Maj. of the Army Kenneth O. Preston, a Mount Savage, Md., native. "[I am] very honored and very humbled to have the opportunity to sponsor a USO trip."

Command Sgt. Maj. Mark D. Joseph with the 13th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary) out of Fort Hood, Texas, said the event brings morale to the installation and gives the troops an opportunity to see and visit with entertainers, comedians, cheerleaders and band members for free.

"During the holiday season, it is a hard time being separated from family, friends and loved ones," he said. "So this gives [the Army] the opportunity to bring a little bit of home to you here in Iraq."

Joseph said he is grateful the tour comes back annually to spend time with the troops. He said this is his third deployment and his third time seeing the Hope and Freedom tour.

Airman 1st Class Jami L. Welch, security forces officer with the 332nd Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron, said the event started well, and only got better as the night wore on.

Welch, a Vacaville, Calif., native, said the interaction between the performers and the crowd was amazing, especially when the cheerleaders came out and pulled service members on stage to help with the show. It helped get them out of their comfort zone and allowed them to forget about where they were for a moment and have some fun, she said.

Welch said she appreciated the fact that many of the performers had some kind of military affiliation. Some are currently serving, some are prior service, and some have family in the military, she said.

"That was cool, because they understand what we're going through," she said. "I'd definitely go back again [to see the show]."

Capt. Willie A. Williams, safety officer with the 13th ESC and a Chesterfield, Va., native, said these events get the troops away from their daily schedule and help boost morale.

"It gets people out of their rooms and, for a little while, gets them thinking about something else other than their jobs and what they have to do," he said.

If he had the opportunity, Williams said he would look forward to seeing the show again.

"I wouldn't miss it," he said.

Col. Frederick Brown, assistant chief of staff for operations with the 13th ESC, said the performers made everyone smile.

"I think each and every one of the performers tonight did a magnificent job," he said. "I think the [Hope and Freedom tour] is the best thing we could have here at JBB to entertain our soldiers."

The performers traveling with the tour sacrificed their time in the United States with their families, and took the time out of their busy holiday schedules to travel overseas and entertain service members, said Brown, a Naches, Miss., native.

Keni Thomas, a country music artist and a Gainesville, Fla., native, said the audience is appreciative of the USO tour.
"We're so happy to be here and they're happy to have us," Thomas said ... "We love it. It's the best show that we get to do."

Meagan Sharp, a Dallas Cowboy cheerleader and a Roanoke, Texas, native, said she was excited when she found out she would have the opportunity to come and perform for the troops.

"We're just really excited," said Sharp. "I think the moment it set in was whenever we were getting all our protective gear. We're just so excited to be here."

She said she appreciates what service members do, allowing everybody back home to do what they enjoy.

Alana Grace, a musician and Los Angeles native, said she had heard stories about entertaining here and was excited to come and interact with the troops.

"It's important to give back and it's important to boost morale over here," said Grace. "I can't imagine spending a long period of time out here, and seeing what you have to give up to do that, it's incredible."

Brown said events like these help show everybody why troops serve.

"We should continue to have these tours to motivate our soldiers," he said. "I would like to say this is why we as U.S. soldiers ... fight every day and defend our country. Because we love the USA and this is what it's all about."


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