This article was originally published in September 2011.
While many heavy-music artists have been exceptionally outspoken and proactive in their support for United States soldiers, it is a more select group of metal bands who have actually played for members of the armed forces. "For the past 70 years, the USO [United Service Organization] has constantly worked to make each and every USO tour — both stateside and overseas — a morale-boosting experience for our troops," John Pray, Senior Vice President of USO Entertainment/Programs, says. "Rock bands, in particular, are always a troop favorite. There is nothing like watching the smiling faces of our servicemen and women when a high-energy band performs for them. There is a very real and tangible connection between performer and fan — it's a wonderful thing to see."
That connection, of course, goes both ways. "Our goal is to create life-changing experiences for both our troops and for the entertainers, as well," Pray explains. "We know that each artist will walk away with a deep-seeded appreciation for what our young men and women are doing on our behalf."
Here, Avenged Sevenfold's vocalist M. Shadows recalls playing shows in Iraq and Kuwait for service members.
"I think everyone in the band has had someone that's served in their family. Both of my grandfathers were in the military. But I also have a lot of friends who, out of high school, went into the Navy, some went into the Marines, some went into the Army. A few of them have been over to Fallujah in Iraq and getting in a lot of gun battles and a lot of danger. So we have experience just wondering if our friends were going to come back. Thankfully all of them have. Those men and women over in Iraq and Kuwait and different parts of the world, defending our country, they're people we grew up with. They're from our generation. So we figured we could go over there and entertain them. It's the least we could do while they're in harm's way.
"We've played bases in other countries, but last year we played four shows in Iraq and Kuwait. We'd been trying to go for a while. The first base we went to, in Kuwait, was the last training ground before they ship people out to Iraq. So we got to go in the Humvees and get them turned over as if getting hit by a grenade, and you've all got to try to get out of them. There's smoke and you're upside-down and disoriented, and that's fun. They let us shoot M16s, too. And then to play there was just insane, because it was rowdy and everyone's got to hold their gun at all times. So you're playing for 5 or 6,000 men and women who all have M16s on their shoulders. And they're trying to pit, and it's pretty crazy. A couple of the bases were a lot stricter. So they'd get the talk before, like, "You're not moshing. No one's getting sent home because of a broken nose from a show." But there were some places that were just so out of control that they couldn't stop it.
"In Baghdad, we stayed in Saddam Hussein's palace. It was so over-the-top. He drove his country into poverty — he was taking all the water, he was taking all the money, he was doing all these things so he could have these crazy palaces that were basically all a façade. All the gold was fake, all the chandeliers were fake, but it looked like it was billions-of-dollars worth. We got to see some of the 'murder pools,' where he would have wood chippers and they'd put people through them and feed them to his fish. Just crazy stuff. It was an unbelievable experience.
"I'm actually in my studio right now and I'm looking at a bunch of stuff the troops gave us. They gave us a lot of their battalion's patches. They gave us bracelets. They gave us cool knives. I think they appreciated just the fact that we even came over there. Everyone was really cool. I think it's very important that we support them, because I'm not putting myself in front of a bullet every day. And you're not. But they are."