Patriotic Mission: Cornville man traveled the world entertaining troops with USO
Talk about full circle. Little did U.S. Army combat veteran John Padgett of Cornville know after completing his tour of duty from 1968 to 1970 that he would be returning overseas - - this time, with the Department of Defense's Armed Forces Entertainment.
"I used to haul Bob Hope on my Chinook helicopter and 23 years later I was entertaining the troops with the USO," said Padgett.
Flat tire paves way for big break
Padgett has been drumming since he was 8 years old. He grew up in Tucson, where he played with Linda Ronstadt.
"She used to standup and sing with our band in high school. She went to Palo Verde and I went to Rincon," Padgett said. "Later in 1980, I produced a record for Everett Blair. It took off pretty good and played in about 600 radio stations across the US."
By 1992, Padgett was playing drums and singing for the Cornville-based band Oak Creek Country. He was joined in the group by Kenny Kannada of Cottonwood on guitar; Buddy Wheeler of Prescott Valley on pedal steel; Dave Almond of Prescott Valley on bass guitar and vocals; Bob Williams of Phoenix on lead guitar and Addison Taylor of Phoenix on vocals.
But a flat tire gave the band its big break.
"Kenny Kannada was going to Sedona and he saw a lady on the side of the road broken down with a flat tire. He stopped to help her," said Padgett. "They got to talking and Kenny said, 'We play music. We'll be up at Rusty's Rockin' B to try and get setup for a USO show.' She told him, 'I've done those before.'"
Turns out the lady was entertainer Tangie Thomas from the Arsenio Hall television show.
"She decided to come-up and listen to us and she liked us. Two weeks later came a whole package of paperwork and she got us in for the May '92 USO tour," he said.
Padgett explained that his DOD tours worked in partnership with the USO.
"USO is always a celebrity. We'd open for Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. They did R&B, we did country," said Padgett. "We also toured with Highway 101 and followed the Ricky Skaggs tour."
As far as the countries he's visited, Padgett can read-off a laundry list:
"Israel, Egypt, Turkey, Italy, Greece, Spain, Korea, Okinawa, Guam, Marshal Islands, Honduras, Uruguay, Panama, Puerto Rico, Antigua, Cuba, Bermuda, Iceland, Macedonia, England, France, Germany and Austria," Padgett said.
"You see so much. You get to see what the Sinai desert is like. We snorkeled in the Mediterranean and also in Iceland, where the movie Blue Lagoon was filmed," said Padgett.
Yet being a part of the USO goes far beyond entertaining troops and touring the sights.
"In the USO, you do everything from hospital visits to acoustic guitar performances in bunkers in war zones. We did anything for the betterment of the morale of the troops, to give them just a little bit of home contact," Padgett said.
Even with the high points of supporting lonely troops, touring with the USO was not without its drawbacks.
"Here's the key to USO: You volunteer, you don't get paid. You get expenses only. Tours last 59 days. The problem was getting anyone that could afford to take a loss of pay for that long," said Padgett.
And then there is the intrusion of war.
"In 1992 in Macedonia, we were starting to do our show and the base went under alert. When the air raid sirens went off, I thought, 'What am I going to do - - throw my drumsticks?' I felt buck naked because I didn't have an M-16," Padgett said. "So they put a circle of guys around us and got us out of there."
After hours under heavy guard, the band was finally whisked out of the country.
"In the USO, you have to have a military escort everywhere you go. You are considered at the same level as majors and colonels," said Padgett.
The fact that Padgett served as a Vietnam-era combat vet in Korea did result in some moments of déjà vu when later touring with the USO.
"The year I was there in '69 was a hot year," Padgett said. "I did the DMZ (demilitarized zone) in Korea, when casualties were 80 percent."
"I actually got to go back to Korea as an entertainer and got to sit in my old bunk 23 years later. That was creepy," said Padgett.
As a professional musician since age 12, Padgett is not about to give-up his trade.
"I'm producing a homeless veteran awareness song called "On These Streets Tonight." It will be out and ready to go by Veterans Day, Nov. 11," Padgett said. "Eighty-five percent of the proceeds goes to the Homeless Veterans Association. If the politician's kids or grandkids got treated like some of us vets, they'd get off their backside and do something about it."
With all the things he's experienced in his life, one thing is certain: Padgett retains his sense of humor.
"We were in Austria and my wife was taking pictures," said Padgett. "A youngster points to her camera and says something but she can't understand him. Then he tries speaking another language and then another. My wife shakes her head, she can't understand."
"Finally," Padgett said, "she says to her in perfect English, 'What kind of camera is that?' He told her, 'We have a saying here. If you speak three languages, you're trilingual. If you speak two languages, you're bilingual. If you speak one language, you must be an American.' That summed it all up," said Padgett.