Judy Seale reaches out to American troops in a way most of us will never be able to do—with boots on the ground.
As President/CEO of Stars For Stripes, Judy heads up a non-profit organization dedicated to providing quality entertainment to internationally deployed U.S. military forces. But she is also the chief logistics officer, who accompanies each musical entourage to places like Iraq and Afghanistan.
Stars For Stripes brings together professionals from aviation, entertainment and the military to improve the overseas tour experience for performers, sponsors, donors, and most importantly, for the dedicated men and women protecting our national interests.
Q&A with Judy
How did you get your start in the music business?
I was working for the Governor’s Commission on Physical Fitness in Montgomery, Alabama in 1971. The Alabama Special Olympics program (non-profit) fell under the jurisdiction of that office. George “Goober” Lindsey was the Honorary Coach for Alabama Special Olympics and a native of Alabama. We organized a benefit concert in conjunction with a Celebrity Golf Tournament. The George Lindsey Celebrity Weekend hosted over 60 celebrities in the music, sports, and acting world each year and raised more than a million dollars for Alabama Special Olympics. I worked for George for over ten years and then moved to Tulsa to handle Roy Clark’s charity, ultimately going to work for the Jim Halsey Company—at the time the world’s largest Country music booking agency.
You have traveled extensively to international music festivals across the world. How did that come about? How many countries have you visited on these tours?
I was employed by the Jim Halsey Company, and Jim has always had a “vision” for the international marketplace. In 1987, he gave me a new title, “Vice President of International Relations,” and basically it was “sink or swim.” My first tour was to Japan with Brenda Lee for three weeks, performing Christmas dinner shows in a different city each night. I never looked back. Since 1987, I have visited 69 countries with many “firsts” for a Country music event, including Japan, Hong Kong, Thailand, and Brazil, to mention a few.
I was managing The Forester Sisters in 1991, and the USO asked them to go to Iceland over New Year’s Eve. I accompanied them and was “hooked.” I don’t come from a military family and to see our men and women serving under such difficult circumstances, so far away from friends and loved ones over the holidays, definitely caught my attention. I started volunteering my time and soliciting entertainment for the USO until 2003 when I started my own non-profit organization to provide celebrity entertainment to troops deployed overseas—Stars for Stripes.
Has God ever provided an unexpected “detour” in your life that turned out to be positive?
In 2003, I was a part of the first group of entertainers allowed to go into Iraq to entertain our troops after the initial invasion. The person in charge of the tour had very specific ideas about what the entertainers would be allowed to do, which included NOT letting the entertainers sing at certain times. It was extremely frustrating to me since the troops had set up sound systems and stages and been waiting for hours for our arrival. I burned a lot of bridges on that trip with the organizers, but my entertainer performed for the troops in Iraq. When I returned, a friend of mine in the Air Force Reserve encouraged me to start my own non-profit organization and coordinate celebrity entertainment tours for the troops deployed overseas. I was scared and honestly did not have faith that I could pull it off. Obviously, God had enough faith for both of us. Everything happens for a reason, and entertaining the troops overseas is what fills up my heart. Every visit is life changing, not only for me but for whoever the participants are that so generously donate their time and talents to say thank you to our military.
Please tell us about Stars for Stripes, and how people can help your efforts to provide entertainment for U.S. troops around the world.
Stars for Stripes was founded in 2003 as a non-profit organization to provide celebrity entertainment to troops deployed overseas. Since that date, I have been blessed to produce 49 tours overseas with 29 of those in Iraq alone. My biggest struggle is financial. I’ve been very “innovative” in financing the tours. Sponsorships and donations have not been forthcoming as I envisioned. The general public tends to give to organizations that “tug at their heartstrings” (i.e., wounded heroes, families of KIA’s, etc.), as they should. If they do make a donation, it’s usually to the USO who has much more name recognition and does a fantastic job of supporting the troops. All participants in a Stars for Stripes tour donate their time, and only their travel expenses are covered, but it’s still expensive to fly everyone commercially and provide the production needed in remote areas for a performance.
The best tour I’ve ever produced took place in October 2009, when I took Craig Morgan, Chris Young, GAC TV, and two of our wounded heroes to Iraq and Germany. The wounded heroes visited the sites where they were injured (one an amputee and one a TBI who was not supposed to survive and is now back serving in the U.S. Air Force!), as well as the hospitals and doctors/nurses who treated them. GAC TV continues to air the one-hour special several times each month. I’ve been able to do so much with so little, and coordinating all these tours in my “free time.” Think of what I could accomplish with funding!
What is your most memorable moment on tour with U.S. troops?
In 2004, we visited a remote FOB—Camp Summerall—in Iraq. I had made friends with the commander of the base earlier in the year when he was impressed that we were the first entertainers to visit his guys/gals. I promised him I’d return later that year and made good on my statement. After the show, the entertainers I take over always sign every autograph and take a photo with each person individually…usually about a three to four hour process.
The day after our performance, we flew to another camp, and I emailed the commander to thank him for his hospitality. He emailed back later that evening saying he had lost one of his boys in a firefight that day and was extremely upset because the young man had also been his “work out partner.” I assumed we would not know the young man but asked for his name because we wanted to pray for his family. When we learned of the young man’s name, it was a shock to learn that it was someone the entertainer had talked with for quite a while in the autograph line. His last name was the same last name as her mother’s maiden name, and he was from the same small town in Pennsylvania as her keyboard player.
We all remembered him. The entertainer called his parents when we returned and asked to dedicate her next video to his memory. His mom said that she was probably the last person to hug her son. This particular Army unit was headquartered out of Germany and due to return about seven months later. I promised that we would return to entertain the troops at their “Welcome Home Ceremony” in Germany. I then called the parents of the fallen hero and offered to pay their expenses to travel with us if they would like to have the opportunity to meet the people who their son had spent the last months of his life with.
I was extremely apprehensive about even making such an offer, but the parents were unbelievably grateful and agreed to accompany us. My hope was that it would be a “healing experience” for them. As a parent, I could not even begin to imagine the pain of their loss. When we arrived by bus from the airport, their son’s four closest friends were lined up on the sidewalk in front of our hotel with tears pouring down their faces. It was the first time I had ever seen anyone in uniform cry and to this day is still one of the most emotional moments I’ve ever encountered. The four friends were carrying such guilt for not being able to save their buddy’s life and for being alive when he had been killed. Instead of being comforted, the parents were the ones giving the comfort, and I think this visit truly helped them with their healing.
Let’s talk about what you do to relax. What kinds of books do you like to read?
When I travel, I usually like to read something that is not “too heavy,” like a romance novel or Nicolas Sparks’ novel. I love John Grisham also. When I have time to read at home (which is rare), I like to read non-fiction books about the war zones I’ve visited—Korea, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Kuwait, and Iraq. Because I have first-hand knowledge of those areas, I find it very interesting to read about them as well.
What kind of music is in your MP3 player?
Everything from Bellamy Brothers and a new artist I manage to Keith Urban, Charlie Daniels, The Beatles, Tom Petty and, of course, Elvis! I tend to listen to music of entertainers that I have worked with or will be working with in the future.
No doubt you’ve eaten some interesting cuisine in your international travels. Can you give us a “taste” of the dining on your military tours?
U2 Spy Plane pilots eat “tubes” of food. I had the beef stew (yuck) and apple pie (yummy). In December 2003, in Iraq, there were the largest barbequed ribs I’ve ever seen—like a foot long. We were convinced they were camel ribs. In Afghanistan, they serve “barbequed” tuna, and I don’t mean tuna fillets—I mean canned tuna in barbeque sauce. I tried to stay safe and only eat the spaghetti, but even that sauce had sugar and chicken in it.
The good news is, at the larger bases throughout Iraq, they now have a Baskin Robbins ice cream bar, a salad bar, a sandwich bar, a hot line, a snack line, a stir fry bar, a pasta bar, a taco bar, etc.
The most memorable meal I’ve ever had was in Afghanistan with Aaron Tippin on Thanksgiving Day 2006. We were running hard all day long—FOB hops and a full band show and a very, very long autograph line. We didn’t have time to eat the Thanksgiving lunch or dinner that had been prepared for the troops. A few minutes before midnight, we finished the autographs and were standing backstage. The backstage had been catered with a deli tray about five hours prior. Aaron and I each had two pieces of white bread the consistency of a piece of plywood and a couple of slices of very dry deli turkey…no condiments to spice it up. It was the best Thanksgiving I can remember.
What’s next on your agenda?
My summers are spent in Europe each year. Not as glamorous as it sounds. I leave the first part of June and won’t return to the U.S. until the end of August. I’ll jump from country to country with different artists every few days—places like Norway, Germany, Ireland, Switzerland, Italy, Denmark, Greece, and Sweden. Those are “commercial dates” through Judy Seale International that pay my bills. I have to sacrifice taking any tours for the troops during that time (although I almost worked out a Fourth of July concert this year in Iraq!), but will go back over to Iraq in September with the rock group Filter.
Thanks, Judy. It’s easy to see that you love your work. Thank you for what you do for our troops. It’s a privilege to have you as a guest as our nation prepares to honor its veterans on Memorial Day.
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For more information about Stars for Stripes, visit http://www.starsforstripes.com/