RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The United Service Organizations, or USO as we know it, has boosted morale in the armed forces for nearly 80 years. It can be a vital connection to home, but keeping that connection strong for troops is a challenge. KPCC's Austin Cross explains.
WILMER VALDERRAMA: Hello. Washington, D.C. Make some noise, y'all.
AUSTIN CROSS, BYLINE: At The Anthem auditorium in Washington, D.C., 1,100 members from all branches of the military settle in for an evening of hot dogs, comedy and country music.
BRANTLEY GILBERT: (Singing) D.C., y'all better crank this up.
CROSS: It's a modern version of the shows the USO started putting on nearly eight decades ago at a very different time in American history.
(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE, "STRICTLY G.I.")
BOB HOPE: Howdy-do, fellas. This is Bob Command Performance Hope telling each Nazi that's in Russia today that Crimea doesn't pay.
CROSS: The USO got its start before the U.S. formally entered World War II. When war came, Bob Hope was one of the most famous comedians at the time. He entertained the troops from the southwest Pacific to the European theater. He continued through Korea, Vietnam and the first Gulf War.
ANN-MARGRET: When I went with Bob, there were 85 of us.
CROSS: Actress Ann-Margret performed alongside Bob Hope in 1968.
ANN-MARGRET: And there were hairdressers and makeup people and thousands of men and women just sitting in the sun waiting for us to perform.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: That's Ann-Margret right here.
CROSS: But the event wasn't just about the past. It's also about spotlighting what the USO is doing now. A lot's changed since the days of Bob Hope. Around 12% of the country served during World War II. Today, less than 1% of the population is on active duty. With the end of the Cold War, military bases became concentrated in the South, leaving large portions of the country with no military presence and little connection to the force. Marybeth Ulrich at the U.S. Army War College says that's affected the troops.
MARYBETH ULRICH: So that leads to a perception that they are carrying the burden for the country and, increasingly, the perception that this is something that other people do, the people in the service being those other people.
CROSS: Battling those perceptions is now part of the USO's latest mission. To that end, 400 civilians have been welcome to the show. For some like Daniel Kleinbaum (ph), it was their first exposure to the USO.
DANIEL KLEINBAUM: I mean, I've heard the name, but I was walking by earlier and saw that there was an event going on, so looked it up and then decided to come back a few hours later.
CROSS: Once inside, civilians were given a rare glimpse of military life. USO senior operations manager Emily Flint.
EMILY FLINT: So this is a USO center mimicking what it would look like if you were in a center in Iraq. So we have the comforts of home - you know, the couches, the pillows, the blankets, the decorations that would maybe remind you of being at home. We have a TV system over here with the PS4 and actually two service members are playing right now.
CROSS: In the back, there's a refrigerator full of sodas and a corner where service members can record books for their kids. The civilians here at The Anthem were also treated to a staple in the USO experience - the show. For one of the headliners, comedian Paula Poundstone, it was a different experience to perform for a largely military crowd.
PAULA POUNDSTONE: It is a little bit daunting, to be honest with you. You know, this is a person who's been through something that is - that I couldn't possibly understand. And how now do I relate to them? And I think the answer is just to be a human being.
VALDERRAMA: Keep it going. Keep it going. Keep it going.
CROSS: A lot has changed in the last 80 years, but to service members, a soda, a laugh and a hot meal can still go a long way when they're far from home.
VALDERRAMA: So thank you, thank you, thank you for your service.
CROSS: For NPR News, I'm Austin Cross in Washington.
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