Keni Thomas Reflects on USO Tour of Middle East

Singer-Songwriter Traveled With Craig Morgan, Mark Wills, Comic Al Franken

(Editor’s note: Singer-songwriter Keni Thomas, a former U.S. Army Ranger who served in the elite Task Force Ranger assault unit, got another taste of the military recently when he joined Craig Morgan for a USO tour of the Middle East. Thomas compiled this report exclusively for CMT.com.)

Did you know Mark Wills owns a bulletproof vest?

I suppose when you’ve done four USO tours to the Middle East, it makes sense to buy your own body armor. It comes in handy in a combat zone. You should see him play guitar in it. It’s not an easy thing to do. I know. I tried.

We were playing an impromptu performance at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq as part of the USO’s 2005 holiday tour. Craig Morgan found a beat-up guitar hanging on a wall somewhere in the prison. This is Craig’s third time going over, so I think he knows where to look. We each took turns playing a song for the troops who gathered around in full combat gear, rifles at the ready. They were an audience of serious people with a serious job. But for a moment, they let down their guard just enough for us to see them smile. And smiles are a valuable commodity in a war zone. In fact, I’m pretty sure seeing smiles on the faces of our military is what keeps Mark and Craig coming back.

Kenneth O. Preston is sergeant major of the Army. Every year around Christmas, he takes a USO tour over to “the sandbox” to perform for the troops. The holidays are difficult for those deployed overseas because it’s a time that should be spent at home with loved ones and family. Unfortunately, due to world circumstances, there were a lot of families with empty seats at the dinner table this past year. America has more than 125,000 service personnel deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait. Our USO mission was to try and visit as many of them as we could in 10 days.

Our group was a big one. In addition to the sergeant major of the Army, there was Sgt. Major of the Marine Corps John L. Estrada, a proud man who epitomizes the standard bearer of the Corps. We also had Michele S. Jones, the command sergeant major of the Army Reserves, a wonderfully strong woman who loves her soldiers.

The Army’s premier performance band backed us all up. There was room for me to bring along two members of my band — Mike Wilkes and Shevy Smith. Shevy is a pretty girl, and pretty girls are always a hit with the boys. Additionally, the tour included an incredible R&B act called SoulJahz, actress Traylor Howard, two Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders and comedian and political commentator Al Franken. This is Al’s fourth time hosting the show. He may not be the biggest fan of the war, but, boy, does he appreciate the troops. I was glad Al was there. You could always count on him to keep people laughing. And like I said, laughs are a valuable commodity over there.

The schedule was crazy and, at times, exhausting. Days and nights were spent traveling in C-17s, C-130s, Blackhawks, Humvees, Rhinos and body armor. Upon arrival, we immediately began meeting, greeting and touring the base facilities, breaking only to eat with the troops in the chow halls. By the time we took the stage for the evening show, most of us were running on little or no sleep. It seemed a silly thing to complain about considering our audience and all they are asked to endure. So I’m proud to say, everyone cowboyed up and pulled together to make every show a winner. Like the time I busted a guitar string in the middle of a song, Craig walked out on stage, gave me his own guitar, plugged me back in and did it all while singing harmonies to my song. You should have heard the crowd go nuts. There aren’t many artists in Nashville who would do that for the opening act. Buddies we had all become, inspired by the men and woman who cheered us on. Even when the last song of the night had been sung, there was still more to do.

Oh, the autograph lines! This was my favorite part: “Where are you from? What’s your job? How long have you been here? You’re damn right I’ll take a picture with you!” The lines would last well past midnight. It always amazed me. Soldiers, Marines, sailors, airmen, civilians and even locals would stand there and wait in the cold for two hours just for their chance to say thank you. They were telling us thank you. Imagine that. It was a humbling experience. Craig and I figured that between the meet and greets and the autograph sessions we shook more than 10,000 hands. Roughly 1,000 a day. So many troops. Not nearly enough time.

The sergeant major’s USO tour should have been called the Cheers, Tears and No Beers tour. Every night was a standing ovation. Every night I found tears of pride running down my face as we all sang “proud to be an American” just as loud as we could. We were brought together for a common goal: to entertain the troops and help them forget, for a moment, where they were and what they were being called upon to do. And most of all, to let them know America is proud of them and appreciates their sacrifice. I’m positive we accomplished our mission.

We showed up as individuals, but we left as a team. As a performer, I can think of no other place I would have rather spent my holidays. The friends I made, the sites I saw and the faces I thanked will be memories to last a lifetime. We owe those men and women so much.

And I owe Mark Wills a deep debt of gratitude for recommending me for the tour. In fact, I’m gonna have to call Mark up and ask him where he got his body armor. It can come in handy over there — and I plan on going back for as long as they’ll let me.