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Toby Keith, with Scotty Emerick, entertains in Afghanistan in 2008.
Toby Keith, with Scotty Emerick, entertains in Afghanistan in 2008. / KEITH: DAVE GATLEY/USO
Troops fuel the love during a 2009 stop. / SIGN: DAVE GATLEY/USO

"These people are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice and deserve so much appreciation." — Toby Keith

Drew Brees gets a T-shirt in 2008 from Navy Damage Controlman John Eason of Frankfort, Ind. / BREES: MIKE THEILER/USO
"This wasn't my usual crowd" for rap star Chamillionaire, at Fort Hood in 2009 / CHAMILLIONAIRE: MARK MATSON/USO
Zachary Levi high-fives Navy Lt. Krista Moses during a 2009 USO stop in Djibouti. / LEVI: FRED GREAVES/USO
Michelle Rodriguez poses for photos during a 2010 tour of the USS Hue City in the Red Sea. / RODRIGUEZ: GINA WOLLMAN/U.S. NAVY

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What do Marilyn Monroe, Neil Armstrong and Toby Keith have in common?

Yes, the movie star, astronaut and country singer are all uniquely American stars. But all also have used their fame for a very specific purpose: to deliver a dose of old-fashioned entertainment and high-wattage gratitude to our men and women in uniform around the globe.

This Memorial Day weekend, as we at home honor those who serve, it's not hard to imagine how a bright light from back home can bring a welcome break to those far-flung men and women in uniform. But we wondered: How have our brave service men and women affected the celebrities who have entertained them? After the stars were airlifted from the glamour and comfort of their own lives, often to the front lines, what did it mean to them?

USA WEEKEND asked a current crop of the rich and famous just that. To a person, they say they have returned home somehow changed, deeply affected by what they saw and who they met.

Here are their stories.

Toby Keith: 140 shows, one unforgettable moment

Keith goes to the Middle East every year for two weeks at a time, and he usually heads right to the front lines. Of the trips he has made to perform more than 140 shows for the troops, one resonates with him most.

In 2004, after touring the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, Keith and his band hopped on a C-130 military transport and prepared for takeoff. Before they left, military personnel carried a flag-draped casket onto the plane.

“For two hours, we sat in that plane with his casket literally right there in the middle of all of us,” Keith says. “That's the moment that will always stay with me. For two hours, all I could think about was that the last time his family saw him, he was alive and probably gave them a big hug when he said goodbye. Now he was coming home in a casket. It drove it home to me that these people are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for us — and they often do. They deserve so much appreciation.”

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Michelle Rodriguez: From Avatar to the Eisenhower

Along with other Avatar stars and director James Cameron, Rodriguez was on the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower for a screening of the sci-fi hit, and Cameron was nervous, Rodriguez says. He feared his high-tech film wouldn't measure up before an audience who dealt every day with systems under which the stakes were a matter of life or death.

But when the movie was over, it got a standing ovation, and the Hollywood visitors joined their hosts. “We lined up for a big group photo,” Rodriguez says. “There must have been thousands of people who got in. They lined up for autographs, too, and we refused to leave the ship until we signed for every single person who wanted one. It took hours, but it was worth it.”

Chamillionaire: Rapper's revelation

Chamillionaire had a unique experience with troops stateside: In December, just weeks after the Fort Hood shooting rampage in Killeen, Texas, left 13 dead, he visited the base. He expected a somber mood. Instead, “spirits were good,” says Chamillionaire, whose real name is Hakeem Seriki. “It was a carnival atmosphere, with tents and food. I got to meet Nick Jonas of the Jonas Brothers and Aaron Lewis of Staind, because they were performing, too.

“This wasn't my usual crowd. There were lots of buzz cuts. But I'm from Texas, so there were lots of people there who knew my music, and we had a great time.”

He was constantly reminded of the military community's dedication. “From the moment I was picked up at the airport by the soldiers, they told me what they went through in Iraq. But they still said they went back there, sometimes two or three times. This is something you read about or see on TV. But when you're face to face with someone who is sharing these stories, it makes an impact.”

Drew Brees: Saint goes marching in

Even before he led the New Orleans Saints to this year's Super Bowl championship — and won the Most Valuable Player award — Brees was planning a trip overseas, his fifth, to meet with troops in March.

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Because he grew up in Texas, played ball at Indiana's Purdue University and then joined the San Diego Chargers before signing on with the Saints, Brees says, it seems he has a “hometown” connection to every soldier he meets. “And, yeah, it seems like every one of them tells me that they had me on their fantasy football team,” he says with a laugh.

He finds Afghanistan especially compelling. “I was near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. All you see are peaceful-looking mountains. You look at them and wonder about all of what's happened there.

“The conditions are tough. They're serving for 15 months at a time. Sometimes they're on their second or third tour. If I'm away from my family for a week at a time, I get sad. But that's nothing compared to what these men and women go through.”

Zachary Levi: Chuck's reality check

The star of TV's Chuck took a week-long trip last May to Bahrain and Djibouti — as well as a stop on the Eisenhower — and thanked every service member he met. One exchange, however, changed his impression.

“I always thought that you join up because you need some financial help to get to college or that you served for a certain number of years to qualify for a pension,” Levi says. “But one serviceman told me, ‘I plan on staying with the Army for the rest of my life. There's a brotherhood here that I haven't been able to find anywhere else.' Quite frankly, at that point, I felt a bit silly about telling anyone that I made my living as an actor.”

Learn more about the USO

The USO has sent literally thousands of musicians, actors, newsmakers and athletes to entertain and boost the morale of American troops worldwide since it was founded in 1941. To learn more about the organization and how you can help, go to
http://www.uso.org/

Cover photo by Joseph Anthony Baker for USA WEEKEND

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