FAIRBANKS, Alaska. (KTVF) This week, performers with the USO (United Service Organizations) Spring Tour traveled to Eielson Air Force Base and Fort Wainwright to ‘bring a bit of home’ to troops in Interior Alaska. U.S. Air Force Gen. John E. Hyten, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff says each year the chairman and the vice chairman get to sponsor a USO tour and this was his.
Soldiers at the Fort Wainwright USO Tour performance. (Sara Tewksbury/KTVF)
“The USO is an amazing organization, for a long time, [it] goes back to Bob Hope and all those things. You come and just bring a little bit of home, to the folks that are in the far reaches of our military enterprise. Fort Wainwright is one of the far reaches of our military enterprise as is Eielson. We will be at Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson tomorrow, just to bring a little bit of home,” said Hyten.
The performers on this tour were, comedians Matt Walsh, Scot Armstrong, and Brad Morris, Bellator Women’s Flyweight World Champion Ilima-Lei Macfarlane and music performances by DJ J.Dayz and LOCASH.
“They do it on their own, they don’t get paid, they just carve out their time and it’s very valuable time. Just to say we love you to the soldiers that are up here,” said Hyten.
Comedian Matt Walsh said he was a part of the tour because, “I do so little for the soldiers and they do so much for us, that’s the simple answer,” said Walsh, “The reason we do it is to hopefully give a little back to these men and women who do so much for us.”
Bellator Women’s Flyweight World Champion Ilima-Lei Macfarlane, said her first USO tour was in January when they went to Romania and Poland.
“The crew we went with, the other talent, we really truly became a family within those first couple of days and months later we’re still in the group thread texting each other. So when they asked me if I wanted to go on the Pacific tour, I was like absolutely one hundred percent and I said that I would be down to do this forever, so whenever they need me if I’m not in fight camp, then I’m there.”
Macfarlane said when she first started the USO tour, the treatment alone was amazing, but when she met the soldiers, it changed it for her. “I could fly economy, and I would still do this because the sincere appreciation from the troops made it all worth it”.
The tour performed at Eielson Air Force Base on Tuesday before their performance at Fort Wainwright on Wednesday.
“Eielson’s awesome, I’ll tell you what, all the way from Colonel Bishop all the way down, everybody’s got this positive atmosphere, I felt like it was Eielson summer camp but with a mission, everyone’s got this positive happy attitude about being there and serving the country,” said Preston Brust, of LOCASH.
Chris Lucas of LOCASH, says his favorite part of the tour is sitting down with the troops during their mealtimes. “They tell us stuff and we ask questions a lot. They want to know what it’s like to be on the road or be on TV, and we’re like we want to know what it’s like to be here and live here, and what do you do for the country and they’re just positive, they want to be here, they want to do this,” said Lucas.
Hyten says a morale boost is visible during the show. “Every place is different, some places you see it right away but by the end of the show you’ll see the morale just building and building and building. LOCASH, the country band that is out there today, they have a unique ability to take a quiet audience and just get them rolling. You will see the morale build. We leave a little bit better a place than we found it, which is pretty cool, but the long-term issue of making sure that the soldiers know we care about them, that’s the big issue,” said Hyten.
“To be able to kind of bring a little slice of home to these troops who are far away from their families, and are in a little bit harsher conditions, it makes it really worth it and it makes the mission of the USO a lot more clear,” said Macfarlane.
It was Hyten’s first visit to Fort Wainwright and he commented on the positive improvements made to the fitness centers.
“When you look at the million dollars going into the fitness center and maybe more importantly the 24/7 piece because when it’s this cold up here, you gotta have a place to go that’s first rate that you can work out, you can [blow] off steam and just take care of yourself, that’s critical,” said Hyten.
Hyten commented on the unique challenges that service members at Fort Wainwright and Eielson face. “I don’t know if you noticed but it's cold up here and it's dark in the winter, and it’s light in the summer all the time, so you have a very unique environment…you got to have black out shades. Not every place has blackout shades, when in the summertime, that is tough. If you don’t get sleep, if you don’t get sleep anytime in life, that’s just hard. We’ve got to get blackout shades up here and they’re coming, they’re coming this May I think, just in time for summertime hopefully,” said Hyten.
He hopes that the blackout shades will help soldiers sleep better. “The whole sleep rhythm, the whole got to take care of yourself, have survival kits, it’s just a different environment. If you’ve never been here, if you’ve never been up North, when you come here, it is a shock to the system, a shock to your body, a shock to your mind, your spirit and you just [have] to be resilient and fight through it. So it’s our job to make sure that we give the tools to the soldiers and the airmen and all those that live up here so that they can deal with this environment,” said Hyten.
On Fort Wainwright, there are many changes being made to improve the quality of life and hopefully reduce the rate of suicide. Hyten commented on how difficult it is to understand what causes someone to take their own life. “You see signs and indicators, and we look at all the metrics, we look at all those pieces, but you really just can’t take your eye off it. You just can’t look at a number, you have to think about the individual and the person, and the people that are affected all around when something like that happens, and you just have to go after it all the time,” said Hyten.
He says they have to make sure they are treating the root cause, not just put a band-aid on the issue. “Not just fixing a fitness center, not just doing something, but treating the root cause, providing people help, making sure they know it’s okay to get help. Making sure that people know they have to watch out for each other when they’re up here, because this is a family when you’re up here, we have to do all of those things and we have to do it all the time,” said Hyten.
Hyten says Fairbanks is a special community that cares about the military that live and work here.
“We had dinner with the community leaders last night and they care so much and they want to reach out and they want to do the right thing, it’s a small community but man it’s a powerful community. When you see that, you see the relationship between the community and the fort, the community and the base, it is just awesome, because that’s what this country is all about, that’s the strength of our country, that’s the strength of America,” said Hyten.
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