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Gone Country

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USA Cares recruits help from Music City

By Marty Finley

By MARTY FINLEY

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mfinley@thenewsenterprise.com

RADCLIFF — Local charitable military organization USA Cares has recruited celebrities and entertainers to its cause before, counting Emmy-winning comedian and talk radio host Dennis Miller as its national spokesman. Now the group has invested in some Nashville power.

Country music recording artist Mark Wills has joined the ranks of USA Cares as its newest spokesman, and toured the organization’s Radcliff headquarters on Tuesday, initiating himself with the organization’s mission and those who work behind the scenes for military families.

Wills said his interest in helping USA Cares is in direct correlation with his commitment to the military.

“You get personally attached to these guys,” Wills said.

Known for hits like “Don’t Laugh at Me” and “Wish You Were Here,” his resume garnered interest from the U.S. Army itself about seven or eight years ago, Wills said, when he was asked to participate in a tour for the troops. Wills, the son of a Vietnam veteran, immediately signed on.

“That was sort of the beginning of the end for me,” he said, as it would become a driving passion and a defining moment in his life.

Since that tour, Wills has taken nearly ten more trips overseas — to locales ranging from Afghanistan to Korea — to sing for the troops, but he said the smaller gestures, such as spending time with a unit or taking someone to lunch, is just as fulfilling, if not more, than the allure of the stage.

“I don’t care if I sell a single record to a military family,” he said, adding that some entertainers travel overseas to expand their fan base. Wills did not criticize this goal, but said he felt everyone should be honest and upfront about why they do it.

He said he also gets involved stateside by visiting military installations and honoring military families during concerts.

Roger Stradley, founder of USA Cares, said the organization’s leadership is approached often by entertainers — many new to the industry — who appear to have suspicious motives. USA Cares is focused squarely on helping military families, not finding the next “American Idol,” he said bluntly.

But Stradley said he sought out Wills after seeing his exuberance for the military burst forth onscreen during a program for the television channel Great American Country.

Camera crews followed Wills and other entertainers around during a trip overseas, documenting candid moments along the way. Sitting in a room of less than a dozen people, Wills sang, and Stradley said he then knew Wills was the kind of person who would represent USA Cares well — putting aside ego for a greater purpose.

Wills said entertainers often feel their work is earth-rattling, but said most never truly make a difference in the world. He said if he can make someone laugh or cry during a song, or make life better for a military family, it is the least he can do.

“It’s about giving back,” Wills said. “It’s about being there for those people who are being there for us.”

Marty Finley can be reached at (270) 505-1762.