After a week of visiting military bases across the US (and one in Cuba), the 2021 Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff USO Tour ended with a bang, or rather, with 20 minutes of bangs in the form of an extended fireworks display. The grand conclusion of the whirlwind USO tour took place Friday at the US Army’s Fort Hood in front of a crowd of roughly 3,000 soldiers and their families.
The vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. John E. Hyten, and the top noncommissioned officer in the armed forces, Senior Enlisted Adviser to the Chairman Ramon Colon-Lopez, led the team of service members, USO staff, and celebrity entertainers across one of the most populous military bases in the world.
The tour members’ first stop on Fort Hood was at the home of the 1st Cavalry Division, where they visited the Army’s Horse Cavalry Detachment. Clad in thick, wool uniforms like those worn by the cavalrymen of the 1800s, the soldiers demonstrated a series of equine skills, saber techniques, and horseback marksmanship. The Horse Cavalry soldiers, who operate on horseback with Springfield “trapdoor” rifles, preserve the cavalry’s heritage and aid in recruiting, said Sgt. Natalie Ramirez, an infantry soldier from the first integrated class of 11 Bravos.
“Our whole purpose is to keep tradition alive and recruit more soldiers,” Spc. Peyton Dale told Coffee or Die Magazine. “I wasn’t going to reenlist, and then I came here and refound my love for the Army.”
Following the demonstration, members of the Horse Cavalry Detachment mingled with the tour’s celebrity talent. Miss America Camille Schrier brought smiles to the soldiers’ faces as she toured the unit’s stables and shops.
The Horse Cavalry Detachment is nearly 100% self-reliant. Soldiers build their own saddles and maintain their historical equipment in the unit’s leather shop.
Country duo LoCash bonded with many of the cavalrymen over their shared love of all things cowboy.
“When I was in Kuwait, the USO put up a volleyball league I played in,” Spc. Ari Alexander told Coffee or Die after sharing lunch with the celebrities. “It’s cool to have them out here doing things again after COVID.”
The tour then visited soldiers of “Warhorse,” the 3rd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, where they climbed aboard some of the Army’s newest tanks. The Abrams M1A2 SEPV3 is the latest in main battle tanks. While some experts have voiced concerns over the increased weight of the new tanks, the soldiers of Warhorse told Coffee or Die the new tanks had not sacrificed speed or mobility for the heavy upgrades. The tankers said they believed the updated armor and power systems would allow the tanks to dominate America’s peer and near-peer adversaries in future tank warfare.
“China and Russia are still operating under a three-man crew mindset and maintaining an auto-loader system,” Sgt. Emmett Fulgham, a tank gunner, told Coffee or Die. “We have a four-man crew with an actual human loader. Most loaders can do their job in five seconds on a bad day but usually in under four. Russian tanks still take 10 seconds to load, if not longer, so for every round they get off, we can fire two or three times.”
With the tank’s speed reaching more than 40 mph, the tankers of 3-8 CAV aren’t worried about being too slow to crush a modern, armored enemy.
The tour then moved on to the Warrior Skills Training Center, where infantrymen demonstrated marksmanship techniques, battle drills, and convoy operations. Soldiers were eager to lend Friday Night Lights actor Kyle Chandler their body armor and send him through a simulator, where he cleared rooms of virtual enemy combatants. The infantrymen got a kick out of “Coach” (as the soldiers called him) kicking the door in and clearing the rooms with enthusiasm.
Following the tour of the base, the entertainers prepared to put on the biggest show of the weeklong tour. They took the stage in front of a crowd of more than 3,000 people and performed an extended set list as part of Fort Hood’s Independence Day celebration.
Comedian Taylor Williamson performed a stand-up routine, pulling laughs from the crowd with ease.
“You know we’ve been visiting military bases all over the country, and I’ve got to say, the Navy bases were the dirtiest. They were disgusting,” Williamson joked to open his set. “There was seaman everywhere!”
The crowd roared with laughter.
DJ J.Dayz brought the crowd to its feet before Miss America Camille Schrier introduced LoCash.
Sporting a cowboy hat alongside his denim-clad friend on the Texas base that’s home to around 40,000 soldiers, LoCash fan Pfc. John Emerson, a military police officer with the 89th MP Brigade, said, “We’re probably the biggest country fans you’ll find on Fort Hood.”
The country duo opened with their energetic No. 1 single: “I Know Somebody.” From the opener to the encore, the crowd never stopped dancing. Even when the music stopped and the lengthy fireworks display ended, the crowd lingered.
“Ever since COVID hit, we’ve been so isolated. This has been a much-needed break,” Pfc. Marcus Henricksen told Coffee or Die. “I deal with depression, so being stuck in the barracks for so long hurt me. Things like the USO show really help with that.”
A string of suicides prompted Henrickson’s command to make mental health a top priority, he said.
“Now, my entire chain of command is checking on everyone constantly,” he said.
At every base the USO tour visited, residents reiterated the same sentiment: COVID-19 and the resulting isolation had very negative impacts on troop welfare. A visit from Hyten and the USO was a welcome change to the “new normal” of virtual events. From Florida up to Washington and California and down to Texas, service members were extremely grateful for the free, in-person entertainment the USO provided.
The USO plans to continue in-person events with a 2021 Chairman’s Tour this fall.