Actor Robert Patrick, celebrity chef Robert Irvine and top U.S. military officers were among those who honored service members at this year's USO gala in Washington, D.C.
The event, held Tuesday night at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, drew 1000 troops, their families and corporate sponsors who honored an individual from each branch of military service.
Actor Robert Patrick served as the master of ceremonies. Patrick, who currently stars in the CBS drama "Scorpion," is known for his role as the T-1000 in "Terminator 2: Judgment Day," as well as his role as Col. Tom Ryan in "The Unit."
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley introduced Spc. Christian Sheer, the USO's Army Soldier of the Year, as "one of our finest soldiers." He spoke about Sheer's bravery as he provided medical care while under fire from a foreign gunman who turned his weapon on Sheer and his fellow soldiers during a diplomatic visit.
Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller said he was familiar with the dangerous location in which Staff Sgt. Joseph Bednarik, the Marine of the Year, served. "I've been there, I know exactly where he was," Neller said, noting Bednarik's courage in treating a fellow Marine after an attack from an improvised explosive device. The young Marine overcame his own injuries to go on and serve three more deployments, the general said.
While the event was a celebration of service, the realities of 14 years of fighting wars on two fronts were evident throughout the night.
Dawn Seif attended in honor of her late husband, Andrew Seif, the 2013 USO Marine of the Year who was one of 11 troops killed in March when their helicopter crashed during a training mission near Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. She said she was "honored to be invited and to be thought of as family. It really is a family, the USO, and I was touched that they included me in this year's event."
Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfien said Senior Airman TJ Brantley, the Airman of the Year, suffers from daily headaches after sustaining a traumatic brain injury in combat. Goldfien said when he asked Brantley what he takes for the pain, Brantley replied, "I don't want to take any pain killers because I don't want to jeopardize my ability to serve in the Air Force."
The celebrities said they took part to show their support of the troops. Patrick explained that after having worked on the CBS show "The Unit," he gained a "tremendous" amount of appreciation for those who serve. He was inspired to work with the USO, because of his grandfather who was a lieutenant colonel in the Army. He works with the USO because, "This is how I serve. The USO is a significant source of morale for our troops."
Irvine designed the menu for the event and is a longtime USO volunteer. He said he was inspired by Bob Hope's service. "No matter where you go, you'll find a USO volunteer someplace: an airport, a hospital; taking care of a family, taking care of our military," he said. "This is something I need to do because they do such a great job."
The National Guardsman of the Year, Sgt. Aaron Burdash, said the honor, "really did mean a lot to me; as much as I like to think it was just me doing my job, it really is nice to be recognized." His wife Katie said it took her a little while to understand how high-profile the award was. "I began to understand what a big honor it was for him and it brought a lot of pride to our family," she said.
Also honored at the event were Sailor of the Year Petty Officer 2nd Class Jessica Jusino for her role in rescuing a civilian from a burning building and Coast Guardsman of the Year Petty Officer 1st Class Angel Leott for her role in port security and maritime operation in Africa.
Eric Chun, the overseas Volunteer of the Year, drew applause when he stepped on stage in his new Air Force uniform. As a civilian, he began volunteering for the USO on Guam at age 15 and decided his dream was to join the service. Airman 1st Class Chun completed his basic training in September.