During his 10 years of active duty with the United States Army, Craig Morgan was often stationed far from home. More than the threat of combat, he and his fellow soldiers often found that distance from the ones they loved the toughest part of their assignment.
"You're just run down, mentally and physically," he recalls. "That's why we always loved it when a USO tour visited us. It just gave us a few minutes of feeling American again. It gave us a lot of energy and made us feel really good and proud."
Morgan never forgot that feeling, which is why it has been a priority for him to sign up as a performer for USO tours himself — seven of them, to be exact, counting his eight-day swing in March through seven countries with Miss America 2016 Betty Cantrell, Carolina Panthers cornerback Charles Tillman and UFC warriors Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone and Anthony Pettis.
This most recent trip proved especially memorable, for several reasons. For one, it commemorated the USO's 75th anniversary. Secondly, its itinerary would take him around the world for the first time. And finally, General Paul J. Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, traveled with the troupe to mark this milestone.
"Working with the general was great," Morgan says. "He and his wife are absolutely beautiful people. She would go out of her way to talk to the spouses and the women who are serving and ask, 'What can we do to help?' And they weren't just asking. He's a good man as well as a soldier's soldier. And he's learning to play the guitar! One night we found the time to sit around and pick a little bit."
Although the company would debut on March 11th at Alaska's Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, the travelers' adventure started when they assembled for the first time. "Cowboy Cerrone, Anthony Pettis and Miss America had never been on one of these tours, so they were extremely anxious. All they knew was what they'd seen on TV, so they had these visions of going in and getting shot at," Morgan recalls. "But we promised them that Japan's not like that anymore."
Camp Hansen and Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan would be the second stop on their itinerary, followed by Camp Arifjan in Kuwait, the Baghdad Diplomatic Support Center in Iraq, Naval Support Activity Souda Bay in Greece, the Royal Air Force station at Lakenheath in the United Kingdom and Lajes Field in Portugal. For security reasons, there is no advance public announcement of the schedule and in several cases the performance was kept secret on the base until shortly before it began.
"It's absolutely flabbergasting how much effort goes into bringing entertainment to the men and women who are serving overseas, even in areas that aren't considered hostile but more so when we went into Kuwait and in particular Iraq," Morgan says. "The tension in Iraq was worse than I've ever seen it. I think that's due to the fact that ISIS is deploying up north right now."
He pauses before continuing. "I spent some time there with a couple of Marines. Since we returned, I found out that one of those Marines was killed in a missile attack. I've been thinking about that since then, knowing that the last music that guy heard was from us. But it wasn't just the singing. We talked and had dinner with them. That breaks my heart."
In danger zones as well as relatively benign areas, Morgan drew from his own overseas experience when interacting with service members. "Some of the places we went to weren't [enduring] hardship at all, for example Japan or Greece," he says. "Many of the folks there have their families with them. But it's still not America. They don't have the same daily activities that we do. The places they live are their sanctuaries, their little America. But when they walk out that door, it's not like being in Dickson, Tennessee.
"The key is to give them a sense of getting out of their isolation," he continues. "Sitting down at lunches, breakfasts and dinners with them is probably more important than entertaining. You'd be amazed what it's like to have someone from home come over and talk with you about current events, or even about a cheeseburger from a fast-food joint. I mean, the meat is different over there!"
By the time their journey ended, Morgan and his new friends had bonded. "You never lose that excitement and pride you had when you started out," he remembers. "I will say that as you go through it, the energy does start to dwindle. But the humility increases. By the end, the feeling is warm but also sad. You feel like you'd just gotten there. It's amazing: You can be three days into the tour and feel like you've been out there for a month. Then when you get home, you feel like you've just left. So we had our long goodbyes on the plane and swapped information and details to stay in touch."
For Morgan, who is already planning his next USO jaunt for 2017, these tours are almost as therapeutic for him as they are for the audiences he meets overseas. "As a civilian, I have to say that the transition for me has been difficult," he admits. "I'm still working on it. But I take great comfort in knowing that I get to do a lot more for these men and women now than I did as a soldier."