- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 3, 2009

Country music singer Neal McCoy says he grew up watching Bob Hope entertain the troops.

“It was always Christmastime, and he was far away from home. I watched the joy light up the soldiers’ faces and heard their laughter. I fell in love with the whole concept,” Mr. McCoy said of Mr. Hope’s tours with the USO.

“I wanted to have a generous heart like him. It thrilled me to be offered the same opportunity,” he said.

The singer’s career has been marked with a number of country music hits, one gold and three platinum albums. He also has earned two Entertainer of the Year awards. Late last month, Mr. McCoy was inducted into the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame.

He also is deeply devoted to the troops. Mr. McCoy has been on 14 USO tours. He has performed at many military bases and events throughout the United States.

“USO tours are a real highlight of my career. Performers go for their own hearts,” he said. “I’ve toured so many places in Kuwait, Iraq, on our Navy ships. … We play the big bases and visit little out-of-the way places. I like to touch as many soldiers as I can.”

Mr. McCoy works closely with singer and entertainer Wayne Newton, who chairs the USO Celebrity Circle and recruits entertainers. “I have traveled on a number of tours with Wayne. Bob Hope passed the baton on to him, and, like Bob, he goes for all the right reasons. Gary Sinise is another great guy who entertains the troops. He has a great heart.”

The country music artist shared a light moment. “Girls are it,” he said. “We’ve toured several times with the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders. They’re a top-notch organization, and they’ve made more than 80 trips. Wayne Newton and I joke about working with them. When we’re in the van with them, they’re always the first out, racing to meet the guys. While the guys are clapping and cheering, Wayne and I get out and walk to the stage. Nobody notices us.”

Mr. McCoy is generally moved by the reaction he gets from the crowd. “On my first tour, Wayne told me, ‘You’re going to meet military people you’ll see the rest of your life.’ … People come up to me after shows and say, ‘I saw you on the USS Abraham Lincoln’ or wherever. It always touches my heart.

“My strongest memories are of the young soldiers. They thank you with their eyes and a firm handshake. One guy worked his way from the back of the crowd to give me his jump wings,” Mr. McCoy said.

Mr. McCoy mentions the USO in every performance. He frequently wears his USO hat. He closes every show with a song he dedicates to the troops and his fans. Photos from his performances for the troops provide the background as he sings “I’m Your Biggest Fan.” For most of the show, Mr. McCoy does not have a specific repertoire. He said he responds to the audience and the music in his heart.

He explained that he has been inspired to use his talents to benefit others. In 1995, he and his wife, Melinda, founded the nonprofit East Texas Angel Network, devoted to helping children in East Texas who are suffering from grave illnesses.

“I’d done a number of benefits over the years,” he said. “The best part was to know the recipient. That didn’t happen too often. With our own foundation, we help a child and get to know him or her. We’ve raised over $6 million, and we’re proud that 80 percent of the money raised goes directly to the recipients.”

The foundation raises money through a yearly benefit concert and golf tournament and from donations.

In 2005, for his work with the USO and the East Texas Angel Network, Mr. McCoy received the Academy of Country Music’s Home Depot Humanitarian Award. He also has been awarded the Country Radio Seminar Artist Humanitarian of the Year Award and the Masonic Grand Lodge of Texas’ WB and Brandon Carrell Humanitarian Award.

• Pat McGrath Avery lives in Branson, Mo., and is secretary of the Military Writers Society of America. She also is the author of “The Sharon Rogers Band” and co-author of “Sunchon Tunnel Massacre Survivors.”

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