USO, military spend about $20M per year on overseas shows

By DAVID JOSAR | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 24, 2004

STUTTGART, Germany — The U.S. military and the United Service Organizations together spend about $20 million a year delivering entertainment to troops overseas.

For that amount, the USO tours are taken to American servicemembers based in such locations as Iraq, Afghanistan, Diego Garcia, the Balkans, Germany and South Korea.

Most of the costs are picked up by the World USO, based in Washington, D.C., which relies on donations as well as money it receives in contracts with the Pentagon’s Armed Forces Entertainment division.

Of the USO’s annual budget, about 20 percent goes toward overseas entertainment, according to the nonprofit agency. For the 2001 tax year, the most recent year figures available, the USO had total revenues of $37.2 million and total expenses of $23.2 million.

Although the USO does not receive direct congressional funding, the USO was awarded roughly $20.8 million for the “Spirit Hope Endowment Fund” in government appropriation during fiscal 2000 through 2002.

A portion of interest from the Spirit Hope Endowment Fund pays for entertainers’ expenses that are covered in contracts with Armed Forces Entertainment. That includes such things as liquor and first-class airline tickets that celebrities are given, though federal rules bar the government tax-dollars from covering such items.

Recently the USO and the Department of Defense faced criticism from the General Accounting Office after bills from overseas tours were improperly paid, such as for prohibited first-class plane tickets, or at least improperly documented.

Jennifer Lopez, Kid Rock and Ja Rule put on a concert for 1,500 troops at the height of the war in Afghanistan, for example, and although the Pentagon paid MTV — which aired the performance — for $343,910 in production expenses, it is still unclear how the money was spent, USO officials said.

Among the celebrities who got first-class tickets at taxpayers’ expense were comedian Drew Carey and teen idol Jessica Simpson, who entertained troops in Italy at Christmas in 2001; Wayne Newton and Bo Derek, who flew to Afghanistan, Qatar and Oman and to aircraft carriers in the region during the same period; and rocker Joan Jett, who performed for troops in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The USO has since said several employees who could not handle the billing complexities were terminated and a new management team is in place.

The findings have embarrassed a venerable organization that has sent entertainers such as Bob Hope, Marilyn Monroe and Arnold Schwarzenegger into sometimes treacherous terrain to bring smiles to war-weary faces.

Formed by philanthropic and service groups after a request by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the USO made an immense difference in the lives of GIs serving in World War II. USO clubs at home and abroad gave GIs places to dance, talk, write letters and see movies.

From 1941 to 1947, the USO presented more than 400,000 performances.

In Vietnam a generation later, USO centers opened in combat zones. And during the Persian Gulf War, USO mobile canteens delivered books, refreshments, magazines and compact disc players to troops on the front lines.