Defense Secretary Hagel and General Dempsey Join the 2014 USO Gala and Honor Six Service Heroes for Acts of Valor

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The star-spangled affair also recognized two USO Volunteers of the Year and highlighted Spirit of the USO recipient superstar Toby Keith, included a performance by country music sensation Kellie Pickler and was emceed by actress/comedian Aisha Tyler

USO Service Member Honorees pose for a photo with their awards

In times of war and in times of peace, your USO has been a constant reminder to generations of troops and military families, that their country supports them. - USO President and CEO Dr. J.D. Crouch II

Addressing more than 1,000 guests at the annual USO Gala, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel spoke of the many challenges and adversities that face America as a country. Hagel urged the audience of Washington dignitaries, corporate sponsors and Americans - who gathered in the ballroom at the Washington Hilton - to do their part to keep troops and their families strong. The senior leader also encouraged attendees to continue to support the good work of the USO.

“I am very proud that I have had a small part to play in helping continue to build this institution, many years ago,” said Hagel. “And I have been a strong supporter, not just as the Secretary of Defense but as a former soldier but probably more importantly as an American.”

Dr. J.D. Crouch II, USO President and CEO thanked the group for their support and reflected on his time as an American Ambassador and at the White House as Deputy National Security Advisor, where he was able to witness first-hand the bravery of our men and women in uniform. It was that bravery that inspired Crouch to join the USO in its mission to support troops and military families. Crouch promised to continue the work of those who preceded him, and to sustain the USO as the “national treasure” it has become and to be always by the side of our troops.

“We say at the USO, we will be “Always by their side,” said Crouch. “What does that mean? In times of war and in times of peace, your USO has been a constant reminder to generations of troops and military families, that their country supports them. From the day they join the military, through numerous deployments and moves around the world, to going in harm’s way and transitioning home for what comes next in their lives – the USO is there.”

The annual event is more than an opportunity to honor our troops for their bravery. It is also a time to recognize those who have helped and supported them along their journey. The USO operates with the help of some tens of thousands of volunteers worldwide, who offer a warm hug when our troops feel far from home, a cup of coffee on an early morning and a reminder that no matter where they serve they are not alone. USO Chairman of the Board General Richard B. Myers acknowledged the great good that volunteers deliver on a daily basis through their selfless acts of giving and presented the first awards of the evening, the USO Volunteer of the Year Award. Previously awarded to one outstanding volunteer of the year, this year the USO recognized one stateside volunteer and one overseas volunteer for their exemplary service.

USO of Bay Area’s LeAnn Thornton was recognized for her dependability, ingenuity and unwavering support of troops and their families. Army Sergeant Geraldin “Thibaut” Lenkoue was presented the award for the countless manpower hours he has committed to the USO Warrior Center in Germany as well as for his charismatic personality and can-do attitude which helps to keep spirits high at the center frequented by troops recovering at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center.

In keeping with the night of recognition, USO Executive Vice President and Chief of Staff John I. Pray Jr. reflected on Spirit of the USO Award recipient country music megastar Toby Keith’s loyal and continuing support of troops and military families. Keith was presented the award in April at the 2014 American Country Music Awards in recognition of his extraordinary support of service men and women, and for exemplifying the ideals and mission of the USO.

Country music sensation and seven-time USO tour veteran Kellie Pickler captivated the crowd with renditions of some of her most popular hits, including “Tough,” “Someone Somewhere,” and “Red High Heels.” Never one to shy away from showing her support, last year the country music star hosted a special Valentine’s Day event for female troops in Afghanistan and Kuwait – shipping some of her favorite pampering products overseas and Skyping in to wish the ladies a very happy Valentine’s Day. Later that same year, Pickler set out on her seventh USO tour and celebrated the Christmas holiday with troops in the Middle East. Additionally, this year Pickler signed on as an official ambassador of the USO’s Every Moment Counts campaign, a national campaign to rally Americans to show their support for troops and their families.

“Because of our servicemen and women…we get to wake up in the morning and be whoever we want to be. That’s something we should not take for granted.”

Actress and comedian Aisha Tyler emceed the evening with grace and style, and kept the audience smiling with her comedic timing. A first-timer to the USO stage, Tyler was quick to recognize the sacrifices made by troops and military families during their service.

“As someone with a deep and abiding respect for our servicemen and women,” said Tyler, “And the sacrifices that they and their families make every day on behalf of our country, it is an incredible joy for me to share this evening with you.”

Celebrity chef Robert Irvine designed the evening’s menu, which featured some of his classic fall recipes.

As the evening drew to a close, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey took the stage to address the audience and present the USO Service Member of the Year Awards. Each year the USO works with military senior leadership to recognize the bravery, loyalty and heroism of an enlisted service hero from each branch of the military. Dempsey remarked on the bravery and selflessness demonstrated in the acts of valor of each service member being honored at the 2014 gala.

“The pride of the men and women who serve is just absolutely inspiring,” said Dempsey. “And that’s why all of you who serve with the USO do what you do because you want to match their pride with your commitment.”

The 2014 USO Service Member of the Year Honorees:

  • USO Soldier of the Year: Sergeant Andrew J. Mahoney, Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division (Fort Carson, CO)
  • USO Marine of the Year: Sergeant Matthew E. Belleci, Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 365, Marine Corps Air Station New River (Jacksonville, NC)
  • USO Sailor of the Year: Petty Officer 1st Class Troy A. Cromer, Explosive Ordinance Disposal Mobile Unit 12, Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek – Fort Story (Virginia Beach, VA)
  • USO Airman of the Year: Senior Airman John C. Hamilton, 23rd Special Tactics Squadron, 720th Special Tactics Group, 24th Special Operations Wing (Hurlburt Field, FL)
  • USO Coast Guardsman of the Year: Petty Officer 3rd Class Brett R. Bates, Coast Guard Air Station Houston (Houston, TX)
  • USO National Guardsman of the Year: Sergeant Andrew J. Mehltretter, 1163rd Area Support Medical Company, Kentucky Army National Guard (Shelbyville, KY)

The USO is the only non-profit organization that supports troops throughout their entire journey of service, from the moment they join, while in recovery and as they transition back to their communities. For more than 70 years the USO has been hard at work helping to keep deployed troops connected to home, bringing laughter and a much-needed break to servicemen and women and their families around the world as well as providing crucial programs and services for our wounded, ill and injured troops and their caregivers, troops in transition and families of the fallen. This year, the USO extends a special thank you to our 2014 Gala sponsors:

  • Chairman Sponsor: Northrop Grumman Corporation
  • Vice Chairman Sponsors: | Monster and Proctor & Gamble
  • Four Star Sponsors: Chevron, Express Scripts Federal Pharmacy Services, Huntington Ingalls Industries, NewDay USA and UnitedHealthcare Military & Veterans
  • Three Star Sponsors: Altria, AT&T, The Coca-Cola Company, DynCorp International, Jeep, Johnson & Johnson, Lockheed Martin Corporation and Worth Linen Associates

Additionally, as part of the evening’s program the USO remembered longtime friend, USO celebrity volunteer and military supporter Academy Award-winning actor Robin Williams with a photo montage from his six USO tours.

To obtain USO photos and video of tonight’s event visit

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About the USO
The USO lifts the spirits of America’s troops and their families millions of times each year at hundreds of places worldwide. We provide a touch of home through centers at airports and military bases in the U.S. and abroad, top quality entertainment and innovative programs and services. We also provide critical support to those who need us most, including forward-deployed troops, military families, wounded warriors, troops in transition and families of the fallen. The USO is a private, non-profit organization, not a government agency. Our programs and services are made possible by the American people, support of our corporate partners and the dedication of our volunteers and staff.

In addition to individual donors and corporate sponsors, the USO is supported by President’s Circle Partners: American Airlines, AT&T, BNSF Railway, Clark Construction Group, LLC, The Coca-Cola Company, Grand Canyon University, JCPenney, Jeep, Johnson & Johnson, Kroger, Northrop Grumman Corporation and TriWest Healthcare Alliance and Worldwide Strategic Partners: BAE Systems, BIC, The Boeing Company, ConAgra Foods, FedEx, Lockheed Martin, Microsoft Corporation, Procter & Gamble, TKS Telepost Kabel-Service Kaiserslautern GmbH & Co. KG and Wawa Inc. We are also supported through the United Way and Combined Federal Campaign (CFC-11381). To join us in this important mission, and to learn more about the USO, please visit

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Gayle Fishel
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