ARLINGTON, Va. -- Celebrities, entertainers and supporters gathered here May 12 to express thanks for the country's men and women in uniform and to raise money for programs of the United Service Organizations of Metropolitan Washington that support them.
The USO's Stars and Stripes, Diamonds and Clubs Benefit raised more than $10,000 for the organization's far-reaching programs for members of the military and their families.
First-class entertainment, gourmet food and rousing demonstrations at the gaming tables marked the event, where celebrities mingled with donors as well as service members being treated for wounds received in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Headliners included Miss America 2005 Deidre Downs, tenor Daniel Rodriguez, country singer Jolie Edwards and the USO show troupe "The Liberty Belles." Also participating were retired Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. R. Lee Ermey from the History Channel's "Mail Call" program and World Wrestling Entertainment celebrities Chris Nowinski, Ron Simmons and Mick Foley.
"I love the USO and what it represents," said Rodriguez, a former New York City police officer who responded to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center and has since become known as "America's beloved tenor."
Rodriguez said his personal experience on 9/11 gives him a special kinship with troops waging the war on terror. "I'm not a political person," he said. "But these are our sons and daughters and we need to support them."
Edwards, who also was scheduled to visit with wounded troops in the Washington metropolitan area today, said she considers herself "one of the lucky few who gets to say thank you eye-to-eye" with the men and women who serve in uniform.
Edwards has performed for troops in Iraq, Kuwait, Italy, Spain, Germany, Macedonia, Turkey and the Azores, and is preparing to leave next week to visit six bases in Korea. During a recent visit to Iraq, she said a commander told her how important entertainment programs like those offered by the USO are to troops' morale, and that "a boost to morale saves lives."
So regardless of how many records she sells or how many TV appearances she makes, Edwards said she considers entertaining the troops the most important thing she does. "This is what God put me here for," she said. "It's my purpose."
Downs called the USO benefit an opportunity to support an organization that's making a big difference for troops sacrificing in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the world, and to thank some of them personally. "This is a chance to be able to express thanks for all they are doing," she said.
Foley, who returned from a WWE performance in Iraq in December, called the fund-raiser an important way to support the USO and its programs for U.S. troops, particularly those wounded in combat.
"It's important that they know that the country hasn't forgotten them," said Foley, who makes regular visits to both Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington and the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., to show his support for patients.
Army Capt. Marc Giammatteo, an outpatient at Walter Reed Army Medical Center being treated for severe leg injuries received in Iraq in January 2004, said he's a big fan of the USO and the way it has supported him throughout his military career.
As a cadet at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., Giammatteo said he looked at the USO as a way to get discount tickets to Broadway shows. As a deployed soldier, he enjoyed the entertainment the USO provided. Now, as a wounded soldier undergoing treatment, he said the
USO treats him to special events, fancy dinners and periodic phone calls "just to see how I'm doing."
"It's a great organization," he said. "What they do is really worthwhile for making people's lives better."