Like many USO entertainers, Dennis Haysbert can fondly recall even the smallest interactions with troops. Those moments of offering time and gratitude left him experiencing as much joy as he was giving.
It was a misunderstanding during his 2008 USO tour to Iraq that created one of those memories. Considering he was visiting with troops, when someone mentioned a range, he envisioned the military variety.
“At Camp Victory, troops were flat-out shocked and totally surprised we were there,” Haysbert said. “And they had this little island green set out in this man-made lake and they crushed [night glow sticks] to put the liquid on the golf balls to make them tracers because they could see the green at night. And we’re just hitting golf balls and sitting back … with the guys. … I got a kick out of it so I know they got a kick out of it.”
Haysbert’s association with the USO began in 2008 and has led to several tours to visit deployed troops and hosting duties for the 2013 USO Gala.
“[The USO] gives the troops that moral support. Having people from all parts of the performance spectrum and the industry to come and visit them makes them feel that they are appreciated for the sacrifices they’re making for the nation,” he said. “I think any and all performers, actors, musicians [and] artists that can go over there and give them some moral support should do it.
“These men and women need to know that they are supported by our nation. The more [entertainers] that get out there … the better it’s going to be for the troops.”
Haysbert, known for his memorable roles as President David Palmer on 24 and Army Command Sergeant Major Jonas Blane on The Unit, understands how a short visit can last a lifetime for both troops and USO entertainers.
“I knew that those roles were starting to resonate with the troops and the reasons I went [abroad with the USO] were [that] I just wanted to give them a little taste of home,” he said. “And give them a chance to see some Hollywood, see somebody from the States that would take time out to come and see them. And I know firsthand that they were very appreciative of that, as was I.”
On a professional level, Haysbert has drawn great satisfaction that his body of work in film and television has resonated with the groups he has represented.
“To be able to go out there and see them and also have them tell me how much they enjoy what I do,” he said. “It helped both ways. It was nice to have that feeling of acceptance.”
To gain that stamp of approval requires more than just filling out a uniform or spouting jargon—especially when the group depicted in The Unit was the discerning Delta Force.
“What I’ve found was that they thought that we were doing a really credible job of portraying them, especially the Special Forces guys,” Haysbert said. “Any time I’ve gone [into theater], we’ve driven by the Special Forces compound and not many tours get a chance to do that. So I felt really privileged to be able to meet these gentlemen who are really putting it on the line out there … in order to save dozens if not hundreds of other soldiers.
“So it’s really kind of satisfying to me that those guys really enjoyed what we did on The Unit because they’re so unsung. To do what they do—portrayed on our show—and have it be as accurate as we could possibly be without giving away any secrets. That is gratifying for me.”
Almost as good as driving golf balls with the troops in Iraq.
Christian Pelusi is a former USO Senior Web Editor.