“I remember being asked if we were uncomfortable with being on that particular flight,” Kellie Pickler says, recalling a rarely-told personal memory from her first USO tour.
The country singer, songwriter, actress and USO tour veteran has been a longtime advocate of the US military across the world for well over a decade now. The newly-appointed USO Global Ambassador has been on 12 USO tours to countries and countless Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) all over the world. Her very first tour, however, began back in 2007 in Iraq.
The then-wide-eyed Pickler had come off American Idol not long before and was touring the country to promote her Gold-certified debut album, Small Town Girl, which spawned the hits “Red High Heels,” “I Wonder” and “Things That Never Cross A Man’s Mind.” She had never traveled long-distance internationally on a plane, let alone been on a USO tour.
However, unbeknownst to the “small town girl,” saying “yes” to entertaining the troops abroad very early on in her career would leave her a changed woman forever. While the trip in 2007 was life-changing with endless memories, she reveals to Sounds Like Nashville one stirring moment that has really stuck with her since.
As Pickler recounts, just as her band and her were preparing to depart Iraq for Kuwait to catch their commercial flight back to American soil, military officials approached her to ask if she would be fine with sharing the plane with the bodies of soldiers who were just killed in service.
Some would be squeamish, while others would politely request for the next flight. But for Pickler, it did not matter at all. She obliged in a heartbeat and said, “Whatever you need us to do.”
“Maybe there’s a reason we’re supposed to be on this particular flight. You know, it’s not about us,” the singer says, recollecting her response then. “We ended up flying back and it was such a beautiful, spiritual thing. Beautiful relationships were built on that flight, and it really just stuck with me.”
Adds Pickler, “That first trip was very much like, “You know what? For as long as I have the opportunity to do this, I will be there. I can do my part if they can do what they do.”
Since that initial tour, the Albermarle, North Carolina native has gone on to perform for the selfless servicemen and women stationed in countries such as Afghanistan, Germany, Poland, Kosovo, Spain, Turkey and Norway. Additionally, the avid military supporter has also completed five annual USO Holiday Tours with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“The USO has really been a sanctuary for me,” says Pickler. “They have enabled me to be a part of something that matters. I have built so many beautiful relationships in every place that we’ve been. I know, without a shadow of a doubt, they consider me to be family.”
Pickler’s tumultuous childhood is no secret to fans. Right from the get-go on American Idol in 2006, her personal story was broadcast to millions across the world. The singer’s mother had left when she was two years old, leaving her in the custody of her grandparents, while her father spent time in and out of jail for assorted offences.
Through all of this, Pickler, who’s been married to songwriter/producer Kyle Jacobs for ten years now, says she feels “extremely blessed” to have found a beautiful home in the USO, calling them her “family” too.
“I’ve learned that we don’t choose our relatives. We choose our family. And there’s people that have been placed in my life that help fill certain voids. They’ve been a sanctuary and a safe place for me,” the singer shares of her newfound military kinfolk. She then lights up with a smile.
“I guess, music has really been this common denominator of bringing people together.”
In honor of Memorial Day and Military Appreciation Month, Pickler is also encouraging fans to donate to the USO T-Shirt Campaign, where proceeds will go to support the USO’s programming efforts to entertain the troops around the world and keep families connected. Every donor who gives $29 or more will receive a special veteran-designed USO t-shirt. To donate to the USO T-Shirt Campaign, go to www.uso.org/t-shirt