MILTON, Fla. -- An instructor pilot from Training Air Wing Five (TRAWING-5) at Naval Air Station Whiting Field recently received the rare opportunity to fly to Las Vegas, perform in front of 14,000 people, rub elbows with country music stars and more thanks to the Academy of Country Music (ACM).
Lt. Chelsea Brunoehler was one of twelve service members selected to participate in the ACM "All-Star Salute to the Troops" show which is due to air May 20 on CBS.
"It was an incredible time," she said about her experience. "They took great care of us. I felt like a celebrity too. Everything was amazing, they treated us like royalty."
ACM's idea of care for the 12 "celebrities" entailed accommodations at the Mandalay Bay on the Vegas strip, flights out to Vegas for them and their family, food vouchers and per diem for the military members, access to the charity party Saturday night, VIP backstage passes for the ACM Country Music Awards and opportunities to perform on stage for the "All-Star Salute to the Troops" special - all of which took place over Apr. 4-7.
Brunoehler and two other service members were selected to sing the national anthem, which opened the show with a number sung by George Strait and Merle Haggard. Other military performers actually sang duets with various artists such as Keith Urban, Hunter Hayes, Lady Antebellum, Rascal Flatts and more. All the military members were on stage for the finale - Toby Keith's "American Soldier."
"It felt like I had my 15 minutes of fame, and I'll be happy with that," Brunoehler said. "I just enjoyed being able to represent the Navy."
Brunoehler met many of the performers and took pictures to capture the moment. She emphasized that they were very genuine, and sometimes even seemed a little shy, but all expressed appreciation for her service. However, meeting Kimberly Perry from The Band Perry stood out among all the other moments.
"I got the chance to tell her that their song 'All My Life' is what inspired me to pick up an acoustic guitar."
Though her experience with a guitar is recent, Brunoehler has been performing for a long time. Music has been with her most of her life. She began singing very young in elementary school and continued through high school singing in a group call "Allegro" in local festivals and for area organizations. Heading to the Naval Academy in Annapolis didn't inhibit her passion for music as she sang in the Women's Glee Club, touring Italy and England with the unit. She even met her husband, Matt, while performing. A former Marine artillery officer, Matt was a guitar player and songwriter even then.
Now, they have formed a band with another friend, calling themselves "Critical Incident."
"We love music and it is a hobby that we share. We both enjoy performing in front of an audience. Practice is fun, but when you have an audience that enjoys your music, it is really rewarding," she said.
It is safe to say that 14,000 people was a little beyond her dreams when she first submitted her application.
Beginning in late January, the Navy began soliciting nominations from Sailors who wished to perform in the program. Potential participants had to submit a link to a video of them performing a country song, a biography, and a recommendation letter from their chain of command. Out of more than 40 applications, Brunoehler was one of two Navy candidates selected for participation.
She chose Tammy Wynette's "Stand By Your Man" as her video, which she and Matt put together on short notice with a smart phone.
By the time she heard back about her package a month later, she had forgotten about the submission. When the Chief Staff Officer from TRAWING-5 contacted her, she had no idea what it pertained too.
"I was in shock! I think I had put the package out of my mind. I know I was just really excited to have a chance to meet some of my favorite artists," she said.
Now that the taping is over, she is anxious to see the final result on tape. Being part of the program was a new experience and seeing the backstage work that went into the show gave her a new appreciation for the dedication and effort that go into coordinating such an event. Combined with the fact that travelling to Las Vegas was a dream for her and Matt, the opportunity was a once-in-a-lifetime event.
"The experience makes us want to support country music even more. Their support for the military is so important," Brunoehler emphasized. "I was just grateful to be there."