Written by Jacie
USO Tour 2014 – 78th USO Tour
I remember my first USO Tour.
Walking into the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport on the Christmas Eve of 2012 with pink luggage in tow, excitement in my eyes, and the anxiety of getting off on the wrong foot with our front man, Dan Devens. It was our 75th USO Tour, and we were headed to the Middle East to spread Christmas cheer to our military men, women and their families.
The experiences, the people, their stories and the impact that it all had on me have yet to leave my memory. It was truly unforgettable.
Now, fast forward to the morning of Dec. 7th, 2014. The United Airlines counter at DFW is abuzz as 11 Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders prepare to embark on their annual holiday trip overseas. Of those 11, six had that same muddle of rookie excitement and anxiety that I felt just over two years ago. Their first USO Tour was just hours away.
This trip marked the 78th USO Tour for the DCC, a tradition that began on the Christmas of 1979 in Korea. This year's holiday tour brought us to the Pacific Coast, specifically Japan, Guam and Hawaii, led by Dan Devens, USO Tour Producer Betty Naylor, and veteran tour members, Sydney Durso and Emma Mary.
Our main goal on tour is to help boost the morale of service members and their families through visits with them, signing photos, seeing a little of what they do on a daily and performing a few sideline routines here and there. Last year, with the help of Cowboys Youth Camp Coordinator Matt Stamm, we introduced a new dynamic to our format that shifted more attention to the kids on base. We incorporated youth programs that paired health and wellness with dance and football to deliver messages of team building and character building.
This year, we raised the bar even more. Retired Army Drill Sergeant (and our official trainer) Jay Johnson joined us on tour to introduce "Cheers to Fitness," a program that combined Johnson's boot camp moves, Zumba and elements from our previous camps to create two hours of kid-friendly fun. It was a fresh concept that would, in essence, deliver a positive message to the youth outside of boosting morale.
We all knew that our work would be cut out for us. We all understood the gravity of this opportunity. But, what the tour rookies couldn't see straightaway was the impact that this trip would have on them in the end. Each one of their experiences would be different from the other.
And so, it began. First stop: Japan.
Near 20 hours later, on two flights, and a 2-hour bus ride through Tokyo with a stop at a local mall for some very local cuisine, we arrived at Kanto Lodge on Yokota Air Base. Just in time for a quick brief and a quick night's sleep.
As a rookie on tour, you quickly learn the true meaning of hitting the ground running. Second year DCC and first year tour goer Jennifer Kathryne came to this realization in her first morning on tour. She walked into the lobby for coffee and right in to a few airman and base children who immediately recognized the bedazzled, navy warm-up.
"Basically right from the start of tour, we were acting out our purpose." Jennifer said.
Talk about setting the tone, right?
Our morning was full of unit visits. We met the men and women at the 374th Security Forces Squadron where we saw jail cells and service dogs, the Yokota Air Base Fire Department that housed trucks holding hundreds of gallons of water, and the 374th AMXS, also known as the Aircraft Maintenance Squadron.
For lunch, we dined at a dining facility (DFAC). Lunch is perhaps one of the best opportunities to actually sit and connect with service members. We make it a point to split up, sit at separate tables and enjoy the company.
By the afternoon, we were hanging with 374th Operations Support Squadron and the 374th Maintenance Group, followed by a lively radio interview with the Armed Forces Network and our first youth program of the USO Tour.
"I think my favorite memory from Yokota would have to be the first Cheers to Fitness camp," Jennifer said. "The kids were far more energetic and excited than I anticipated them being. Honestly, the camp was athletically challenging for us, and the kid's hung in there better than we did!"
Jinelle, a second-year veteran and tour rookie, admitted that she was even overwhelmed by the response. She's previously spent the summer doing Camp DCC with hundreds of kids in both AT&T Stadium and Valley Ranch. So, she's had a small dose of this. On tour, she led the initial Zumba warm up to "Cotton Eyed Joe," a fan favorite. But, she felt the real stars of the show were Jay and Matt.
"The energy that Jay and Matt brought to the table was unparalleled," Jinelle said. "They just commanded the room! All of the kids wanted to listen and do what they said. The energy was great."
A solid finish to our day at the air force base.
For Jennifer K., Yokota was a unique experience because it gave her some insight into what her grandfather did. Papa, as she calls him, was an air force pilot for 32 years and retired as a Lieutenant Pilot. He was based at one of the most senior bases in the world.
"Everyone, regardless of branch affiliation, was so impressed by his ranking and tenure," she said. "It also gave me an opportunity to see how my dad was raised. He lived on bases from the time he was born until he was 20-year-old. All of the personnel were helpful in giving me insight into his childhood and teen years."
Jennifer K. discovered that the impact of tour isn't one-sided. She made a lasting impression on one of the airman earlier that morning, just as an airman gave her a better understanding of her father's upbringing and an appreciation for her Papa's dedication and integrity.
Just one day after arriving in Japan, we were on to the next. A three and a half hour flight brought us into new territory… and new climate.
"My first impression was, 'wow! It's hot!'" laughed Jenna Lene, a third year member and tour rookie. "I definitely wasn't expecting it to be as humid as it was!"
Jenna later found out that approximately 99.9% of the military personnel or relatives that she came in contact with would say the same thing.
Our first night in Guam was spent taking in the beautiful sights on the beach. (Dan made it very clear to us that this was NOT a typical USO Tour moment, but our schedule had some leeway. So, yay!) After a few hours of picture taking on the beach and a delicious dinner, we were briefed on the upcoming events.
We spent two days in Guam. One day at the Andersen Air Force Base and the second at Naval Base Guam, with a youth clinic at each. Our first stop at Andersen introduced our newer tour members to a tradition that we all look forward to: Challenge coin exchanges.
Challenge coins are military coins carried by service members bearing a unit's individually designed emblem. Commanders present these coins to those whose actions merit special recognition. The commander of the base introduced himself, thanked us for our service, and gave us a military coin through a firm handshake.
The day carried on with meet and greets at different locations, including one at the Base Exchange. The Base Exchange is similar to a mall. It was full of civilians and service men and women, alike. It was one of those moments where we just signed photos, took pictures, and had casual conversation with whomever we came in contact with.
Kinzie Ryanne, a third year veteran, had a particular exchange that struck a chord within her. Two words that she had been saying to those she came in contact with were said back to her: Thank you.
"I met a woman in the Air Force, and she thanked me for coming all this way," Kinzie said. "It's easy to get caught up in the exhaustion of our busy lives as DCC, and the USO Tour is a perfect reminder of why we do what we do."
Day two at Naval Base Guam had a similar agenda to the previous day. We kicked off the day with a meet and great with NBG Commander and his staff and proceeded to meet the sailors. Half of the group went to tour the USS Frank Cable, a submarine tender for Los Angeles-class submarines. The captain gave us a tour of the massive ship and informed us that hundreds of sailors were aboard.
"It was lunch time when we boarded the ship, "Kinzie explained. "We walked into the cafeteria and literally hundreds of sailors were seated with smiles on their faces. They were all genuinely so thrilled to meet us!"
It was a moment similar to our typical DFAC visits, but times 100!
The other half of the group toured the USS Chicago, a Los Angeles-class submarine and the fourth ship of the U.S. Navy to be named for the city of Chicago, Illinois. Jenna had a hard time initially grasping the thought of being on a submarine!
"I mean, it's not a casual thing you stumble upon, you know?" said Jenna. "I had the opportunity to look through the periscope and learn how to work the buttons. We also had a tour of where the torpedoes are held and how they can be launched out from the ship."
Our visit at NBG concluded with our final youth program that incorporated Jay and Matt. These programs had become a highlight for Jenna. Not only because she loved being with the children on base, but also because she was once in their shoes.
"I know first hand what it's like being a military dependent living far from home, and let me tell you. It's not easy," Jenna said. "Being able to interact with the kids and showing them how they can have fun working out and dancing through 'Cheers to Fitness' was so rewarding."
Jenna was a high school student stationed in South Korea the first time she saw the DCC. She participated in a Camp DCC, saw the girls perform, and even chatted with a few afterwards. She was in awe of how beautiful, articulate and smart the girls were. She knew then and there. That was her path. And my, has it come full circle.
"I'm now seeing things from the other side," Jenna said. "I'm the cheerleader looking into a little girl's eyes hopefully inspiring her to follow her dreams, as well."
Our trek to Hawaii marked the final stretch of our tour. We left Guam on a Saturday morning and arrived in Honolulu on a Friday evening. (We all made a note to add time traveling to our resumes.)
We were fortunate to have time to take in the beautiful scenery of Honolulu. From the beaches, to the sunsets, to the dynamics of the Kalakaua strip at night. Paradise was the word we all used on more than one occasion to describe it.
As we soaked in "Paradise" and met the amazing people that made it even better, a NFC East showdown was brewing. Our Boys were preparing to take on the Eagles in Philadelphia, a game that would mark a pivotal moment in our season. On that Sunday, we found ourselves in a rather unique position.
"We got to watch Sunday Night Football with some of the guys and civilians at Pinky's, a grill just off the marine base," Jinelle said. "It seemed like everyone that we met were actually Cowboys fans. They really are America's team and it really warmed my heart to actually see that the fans are made up of people from all over!"
Though there were a few Eagles fans sprinkled in the mix, they weren't too vocal.
We'd just left the Marine Corps Base at Kaneohe Bay (K-Bay) and only missed a few minutes of the first half. Sure, it was different from how we spent our normal Sundays, but we were still with Cowboys Nation.
"I think it was a special experience for them to have us there," Jinelle said. "But it was cool for us, as well, because we got to bring a part of the game day experience to them. It's really cool to keep reminding myself that I get to be a part of that."
And the Cowboys win was the cherry on top.
The next day we split up to take on our final day of tour. Half of the group went to see Pearl Harbor and the other half took a military flight to Barking Sands, Kauai, a remote island with just about 75 on active duty.
Jinelle was in the half that took the C-26 Navy plane, which is a rather small aircraft designed for short-haul passenger and cargo carry. This was quite the memory for Jinelle.
Fun Fact: She's claustrophobic.
"I was really nervous! When we got in the air I think we were all pretty nervous," laughed Jinelle. "It was pretty shaky on the way up, but we all grabbed hands and it was kind of a bonding moment for us! Once it settled a bit, it was like wow, we're in a navy plane. This is real. I'm the luckiest girl in the world."
The trip to Barking Sands, despite the bumpy start, turned out to be a moving experience for our Aussie. Barking Sands is a Pacific Missile Range Facility, and we were able to hear how things operate on the island. She even met a few servicemen who spent some time in Australia.
"It made me tingle because I understand that Australia and America are really strong allies," Jinelle said. "With everything that was going on at the time concerning the hostage situation, it made me feel really special to know that our countries are joined. Just getting to meet them and thank them for their service, that was something money can't buy."
Jinelle admitted that she was worried that while on this tour she'd be viewed oddly because she is an Aussie amongst a group known as "America's Sweethearts." Meeting those servicemen and women assuaged that feeling. And as she learned more about how our military system worked, she grew even more proud.
"I met one man going to a remote island off the coast of Africa, and he had to spend a year without his wife, mobile, anything to communicate," Jinelle said. "It blew me away that people do that for their country. When you have the heart for something and go after it, you can do anything you want. It was a true learning experience, and it was so inspiring."
I remember how I felt when I returned from my first USO Tour, recapping every moment and replaying conversations in my head, just as these four did with me.
I could write out every single event from our itineraries and share, word for word, the stories from each of the rookies regarding all of their experiences, and that still wouldn't amount to the true honor of it all.
Everyone's story is different. Everyone's experience is different. But one constant is that they all returned home with a real appreciation and love for what our military men and women do for our country and the sacrifices they've made. That's something they will have forever.
Love and Cheers.