On Friday, November 2, the USO put on its annual gala, which honors servicemen and women, with dinner and entertainment by pop singer and actress Jordin Sparks. Speaking at the event, among others, were Sloan D. Gibson, president and CEO of USO; General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff; and Leon Panetta, Secretary of Defense.
The dinner also included other notables, such as the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, NFL hall of famer Kellen Winslow Sr. (who, before the event, said he was “trying to get Jordin Sparks’s autograph”), and winner of Fox’s MasterChef, Jennifer Behm.
At the reception preceding the event, patrons jammed into a lobby at the Washington Hilton in Dupont Circle, where they hit the open bar or snapped pictures in the photo booth, which encouraged participants to offer kind words to the troops via cardboard signs. Two women, armed with glasses of wine and sign-up sheets, stood behind a booth covered with the cardboard signs and Party City-like patriotic memorabilia (glittery red, white, and blue bowler hats common at Fourth of July keg parties).
The open bars shut down promptly at 7:15, much to the chagrin of those still in line. But then the main ballroom opened, and the nearly 1,100 folks, who paid a minimum of $1,000 per person for their tickets, flooded into the room and took seats at random tables. This stampede was set to music by the Marine Corps Band.
Before the meal was served, Gibson offered an emotional and tearful speech. “There are countless organizations out there doing great work,” he said, “but no other organization [covers] the size and scope of the USO.”
Fox 5 anchor Allison Seymour then introduced the entertainer for the evening, Jordin Sparks. Sparks sang three songs, including her hits “Battlefield,” “One Step at a Time,” and “No Air."
It was difficult to get the true flavor of the event, as media were sequestered in a small corral, which made it possible to watch but not join the dining scene in the ballroom. For that reason, many of the media departed the before the speeches from Dempsey and Panetta, and before USO Service Member of the Year Awards were handed out.
Both Dempsey and Panetta offered kind words for the USO. Dempsey quoted Yogi Berra a number of times, saying, “If you don’t love Yogi Berra, you don’t have any sense.” His speech kept the audience laughing and reflecting simultaneously.
Panetta gave a more serious speech, highlighting the importance of the USO to him as a young boy and later to the soldiers of Vietnam.
The evening wrapped up with the awards. Honorees included USO Soldier of the Year Staff Sergeant Jacob J. Perkins, USO Marine of the Year Sergeant Clifford M. Wooldridge, USO Sailor of the Year EOD2 Gregory F. Gaylor, USO Airman of the Year Staff Sergeant Christopher S. Beversdorf, USO Coast Guardsman of the Year ME2 Nicholas A. Beane, USO National Guardsman of the Year SrA Evan J. Stevens, and USO Volunteer of the Year Sergeant Richard Schuh.