Photograph by Rena Schild
What: 2011 USO Gala
Where: Marriott Wardman Park Hotel
When: October 6, 2011
Who: Miss USA Alyssa Campanella, who had just seen the Washington Monument and Capital Hill for the first time, graced the red carpet in a fire-engine red gown. Several press photographers left after she gave sultry over-the-shoulder poses, snubbing comedian and emcee Carlos Mencia and NBA Hall-of-Famer Karl Malone, who just got back from a USO tour. At six-foot-nine, Malone was taller than the photo backdrop. The definitive darling of the red carpet was 4-year-old Elaine Bixler, Corporal David J. Bixler’s daughter, who stole the show in a satin pink rosette dress.
There night was packed with military leaders, most notably General Martin Dempsey, the newly appointed Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; former deputy secretary of defense William J. Lynn III; former national security advisor General James Jones; General Raymond Odierno, chief of staff of the Army; General Norton Schwartz, chief of staff of the US Air Force; and Admiral Robert J. Papp Jr., commandant of the Coast Guard.
Food and drink: The culinary highlight came from Wonderland Custom Cakes, the LA-based winner of Food Network’s Cupcake Wars, in the form of 1,000 USO-themed cupcakes. Our favorite was a chocolate-bourbon truffle cupcake with bourbon-vanilla frosting. Oddly, the cupcakes were served before dinner, so only the most sweet-toothed and cupcake-obsessed of the guests ate them.
While a jazz trio played at the pre-dinner reception, VIPs were treated to an open bar with standard rail drinks like Canadian Club whisky and Gordon’s gin. The meal started out with a Chesapeake wedge salad with lump crab and bacon, followed by a blood-orange sorbet intermezzo course, then braised beef short rib with mashed potatoes, and chocolate pave for dessert.
Scene: In the expansive Marriott ballroom, Malone gave a heartfelt speech honoring military heroes. The 48-year-old athlete teared up when telling a story of meeting a seviceman who had just lost two legs and an arm. Mencia kept the guests laughing by comparing Malone’s speech to the last two minutes of an NBA game—in that it actually dragged on for 15 minutes—and thanking the Italian ambassador, Giulio Terzi di Sant’Agata, for soccer and Chef Boyardee.
A parade of military leaders, with the help of Miss USA, presented awards to the USO honorees. Corporal David Bixler, who lost both legs to an IED in Kandahar, Afghanistan, was named Soldier of the Year. Sergeant Lucas J. Chaffins was honored as Marine of the Year for his leadership, heroism, and courage while serving as a reconnaissance Marine in Afghanistan. Sailor of the Year Chad R. Regelin, who had personally located and destroyed 24 IEDs, couldn’t attend the gala because he had volunteered to go back to Afghanistan. His parents accepted his award on his behalf. James A. Baynard was named Airman of the Year for his service in Operation Iraqi Freedom, where he protected thousands of personnel and billions of dollars in military assets. Christopher R. Austin, who saved a fisherman’s life off the coast of Washington, was honored as Coast Guardsman of the Year. Sergeant Milfred Shane Williams, who spends weekends volunteering at the USO Kaiserslautern’s Warrior Center in Germany, was named the USO Volunteer of the Year.
After the awards, country icon Randy Travis, decked out in a sequined blazer and slicked-back cowboy hair, performed “Forever and Ever, Amen” and a song he wrote a few days after September 11, 2001: “America Will Always Stand.” Travis performs regularly for troops overseas during the holidays.
The gala and entertainment was streamed live online, so that soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan could watch. It was almost sunrise there.
Boldface names: Any lineup that includes military heroes gets a 5 out of 5 in my book.
Swankiness: 3 out of 5
Food and drink: 4 out of 5
Exclusivity: 4.5 out of 5
Total: 16.5 out of 20