NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. — Airmen, Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Coast Guardsmen were honored as well as performed during the Academy of Country Music’s “An All-Star Salute to the Troops” concert at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas April 7.
Each Service had an open nomination period that allowed service members to compete for a chance to perform with a country music celebrity, and -nine service members were given the opportunity to perform with country music acts Lady Antebellum, Lee Brice, Toby Keith, The Band Perry, Keith Urban, Hunter Hayes, Rascal Flatts and Kellie Pickler.
Each service member chosen provided a short biography containing his or her name, military specialty, current duty station, number of deployments, a performance video, and a compelling story with a country music tie to their respective service for the selection process.
Surface Sonar Technician 3rd Class Destiny Mills-Coates, a student at the Fleet Anti-Submarine Warfare Training Center at Naval Base Point Loma, Calif., sang “For You” with Keith Urban. Urban wrote the song specifically for the movie “Act of Valor” about Navy SEALs.
Mills-Coates applied for the opportunity to participate in the ACM event because she loves to sing and always wanted to be a singer. When the opportunity presented itself, she put in for a chance to perform during this event.
“I was fortunate enough to keep moving up and up and up,” the petty officer said. “Here I stand today.”
Urban said he loved Mills-Coates voice as soon as he heard it.
“When we got together in the room [the evening of April 4], it was just a click straight away,” he said.
Urban has become very involved in the Navy SEAL Foundation since the film’s release in 2012, and the song’s proceeds, about $500,000, have gone to the foundation.
“When I heard about this show, I wanted to be a part of it,” Urban added.
The entire experience has been memorable for the petty officer.
“The entire experience – I can’t really pin it down to one thing,” Mills-Coates said. “Sitting in a room one day waiting for Keith Urban to walk in, and then the next day I’m in a hallway waiting to see if I can get pictures with George Strait or LL Cool J. It’s all amazing.”
U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Col. Mike Corrado, executive officer of the Wounded Warrior Regiment at Marine Corps Base in Quantico, Va., went through the same process of elimination as Mills-Coates, and he was chosen to sing with Toby Keith.
He was surprised with the news by the ACM film crew that came to his house to film his backstory.
“They handed me a letter that said, ‘We’d like to formally invite you to Las Vegas to perform ‘Call a Marine’ with Toby Keith,’” he said. “At that point I found out.”
The highlight of this experience for the lieutenant colonel was just to be there and mingle with the stars.
“In talking with them you really feel their appreciation for what we do … all the services,” Corrado said. “It’s pretty genuine and pretty heartfelt. Country music is very good about taking care of their service members, and this is just a great honor for all of us to be here tonight.”
This is the first year in 11 years that Keith has not gone out on a spring USO tour, and he said he’d have participated in this event anyway.
“Any time you can get this collection of people in one room and hold them still long enough it should be to support the military,” said Keith, the veteran of more than 200 USO shows.
In his mind, the military audience is the finest there is, and his most powerful USO memory was in 2004 flying out of Baghdad on a plane that had a military casket on board.
“First Lt. Erik McCrae from Oregon … I’ll never forget it,” he said.
U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Baily Zimmerman, an aircrew, aerospace medical craftsman at Pope Army Airfield, N.C., performed the song “Red High Heels” with Kellie Pickler, also a veteran of approximately seven USO tours.
Zimmerman received an email from the U.S. Air Force Reserve unit on her base and submitted the required information for a chance to perform at this event. The staff sergeant was ecstatic to be able to perform with Pickler.
“She’s such a great person and has made this experience so amazing,” Zimmerman said. “[This] is the coolest thing I’ve ever done.”
Pickler bought Zimmerman a pair of red high heels as a memento of the occasion.
Hunter Hayes sang with Lt. j.g. Katie Spira, executive officer aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Adak.
“I was stoked to be a part of this,” the singer and songwriter Hayes said. “I think this is one of the most important things we can do here.”
Hayes said singing with Spira was a pleasure.
“She absolutely rocked … I was so inspired by her energy. I’m inspired even now afterwards. It was a blast,” he said.
Two U.S. Marine captains from the Marine Barracks in Washington, D.C., were chosen to play with Lady Antebellum. Capt. Matt Smith, assistant operations officer, played guitar while Capt. John Auer, Silent Drill Platoon commander, played the fiddle on the group’s song “Compass.” They found out about a week prior to the concert they were paired with the group.
“I’m so excited,” Smith said. “I grew up listening to country music so this is literally a dream come true. I’m very honored that they would let us do it with them.”
The native of Kentucky was also honored to represent not only the Marines during this show, but all the other services as well.
“Hopefully they know we’re representing them, especially the guys and gals who didn’t come home,” he said. “That will be who this is for.”
U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Christiana Ball, drill sergeant for Initial Entry Military Police Soldiers at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., performed “I Drive Your Truck” with Lee Brice, who won the Song of the Year Award April 6 for this song at the 49th Academy of Country Music Awards.
“She is awesome,” Brice said. “I walked in earlier today and had no idea about how she sang or what she sang, and I said, ‘let’s do a chorus.’ She said, ‘I sing harmony,’ and I was like OK, cool let’s try it. Before I was even done with the chorus, it was magic. I was like well no practice needed. We’re ready to go. She was amazing.”
This was a once in a lifetime experience for Ball, the Army’s 2013 Operation Rising Star winner, who felt honored to perform with Brice.
“It makes me feel really honored. They’re so willing to go out of their way and sacrifice their own time and their own resources to do so much for us to support what we’re doing. It’s really humbling,” she said.
Ball’s inspiration for her performance was her two uncles who are Vietnam veterans who were in the audience with other family members.
“I thought about them quite a bit while performing this song. I have a soft spot in my heart for Vietnam vets, and I like to do whatever I can to bring more focus to them to sort of give them back things they missed out on,” she said.
Brice was so impressed with Ball he invited her to sing with him at an upcoming concert in St. Louis.
U.S. Army Spc. Kelly Gregg, a patient administration specialist at Fort Bliss, Texas, performed with The Band Perry, and U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Brandon Valentine, radio operator at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center at 29 Palms, Calif., performed with Rascal Flatts.
U.S. Navy Lt. Chelsea Brunoehler, instructor pilot at Training Air Wing 5 in Milton, Fla.; U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Harry Bounds, explosive ordinance disposal from Seymour-Johnson AFB, N.C.; and U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class Noah Reinhart, maritime enforcement specialist at U.S. Coast Guard Island Alameda, Calif., were walk-ons during the show’s finale.
The ACM “An All-Star Salute to the Troops” special is scheduled to air on CBS May 20.