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With a string of hits like "There Is No Arizona," "When I Think About Angels" and "Shiver" to her credit, Jamie O'Neal has performed before some very special audiences, in venues from sold-out arenas to nationally televised award shows.
But none of them can top the reception she got during a recent USO tour to Germany, England, Spain and Turkey. The overseas jaunt came during a break in recording her new album, tentatively set for a summer release.
"The crowds were just amazing," she recalls with a smile. "They were so happy, and they'd say, 'Thank you for coming.' They treated us like royalty. My band had an incredible time and said, 'When are we going back?'"
Jamie feels the same way. But then, for her, performing for the military is sort of a family tradition.
"My parents were performers, and they went to Vietnam," she declares. "My dad still talks about it. For them, it was a lot scarier, because there were incoming and outgoing bombs, and they had stories like that to tell me when I was growing up. So I had an idea what it was like, but what I experienced was very different."
Jamie's emotions on the trip ran the gamut - from pride to joy and from sadness to gratitude. And, with the prospect of war looming on the horizon, those emotions were intensified.
"About my third show in, looking out at the faces and meeting the guys ... and the women, I had that feeling of, oh my gosh, none of us know what we're in for," she explains quietly. "But they're prepared to do whatever it takes. The fact that they would give so much for their country amazes me. And I would say, 'You guys are fighting for our freedom, and because of you I'm able to do the job that I love to do, and I can't thank you enough for doing that.'
"And they're so young! It's hard not to break down - especially when you're singing because singing is such an emotional thing anyway."
Jamie shared one especially touching moment with a mother who hadn't seen her daughter in six weeks.
"She came through my meet and greet and started crying and saying my song 'When I Think About Angels' was their song that they sing to each other over the phone." But there were also lighter moments.
"I had this escort named Mike, and his wife's name was Laura. When they went to karaoke, they always sang the duet I had with Mark Wills, 'I'm Not Gonna Do Anything Without You.'
"So I decided that night, I was gonna get them up to sing it," she recalls with a grin. "The crowd just absolutely loved it and gave them about a 10-minute standing ovation. But when they got up onstage, he was looking at me like, 'I'm gonna kill you!'
"But that was one of the funniest, best shows we had. It's just fun to get people involved in your show like that."
Jamie almost got involved in some fun of another variety - taking a ride in an F-16 jet!
"We all put our names in a hat and one name got picked - Larry Stewart of [tourmates] Restless Heart," she says. "He was pale and absolutely dizzy for two days afterwards and just didn't feel like himself. But I totally would've done it."
While Jamie's memories of the trip's special moments will last a lifetime, the overall impression made by our troops is what she cherishes.
"Their morale is just great," she declares. "And some of these guys are existing on two hours of sleep and a Power Bar, and still have a great attitude. And they're excited to be able to tell you what their job is. You know, it's freezing cold, and it's only gonna get colder and they're totally prepared for that. I'm just amazed. We're so fortunate to have people like that who give of themselves.
"I'd say we have a lot to be proud of."
So does that mean she's ready to go again?
"Absolutely!" she answers immediately.
-- David Scarlett