Rachel Cantrell
The Mansion Entertainment and Media Center
187 Expressway Ln.
Branson, MO   65616


The Oak Ridge Boys Theatre in Branson, MO is hosting the “Welcome Back From Iraq” press conference on Tuesday, May 5th at 5:30pm in the theatre’s lobby. Join the “Country Tonite” cast to relive their life changing experiences on their humanitarian trip to the front lines in Iraq. This short presentation will include never seen before footage and interviews of soldiers preparing for deployment in the Middle East. Food and opportunities for interviews will follow. Press is invited to see the Country Tonite show with Collin Raye at 8pm after the press conference.
Marty Wilhite thought he knew something about what soldiers experience when they’re called into duty and find themselves on foreign soil battling to protect freedoms in this world. “I pictured myself in their boots,” he said. “In fact every one of our shows ends with a segment dedicated to American veterans.”
Now, those dedications during the “Country Tonite” performances at The Oak Ridge Boys Theatre in Branson, MO have new and even deeper meaning for musical director Wilhite, his singer-dancer wife Kenya, and the dozens of other entertainers and dignitaries that accompanied them on their recent trip into hotbed centers of conflict in the Persian Gulf.
Unable to hold back tears when he speaks about the experience, Wilhite confesses he was naïve about the depth of commitment and sacrifice lived out by the American troops he met. “Some of them are just kids in their early 20s. Some are a little older and have come back usually by their own choice to serve their second and third, even fourth tour of duty in Iraq. They say things like, ‘I don’t want to leave my guys over here,’ and ‘We’ve got a job to do.’ Some have sick kids back in the States. Some have seen their marriages fall apart while they’ve been deployed. But through it all, they sacrifice everything they have to fulfill their commitment.”
Several stirring experiences during their goodwill mission resulted in transformed thinking for Marty and Kenya and their colleagues. “I’ve always supported the military,” Wilhite said, “but now I have a whole new perspective on the role of the military in a free society.” In fact, Wilhite claims little patience for individuals who talk down the U.S. military involvement in Iraq. “They’re not even qualified for the conversation. I would challenge anyone to experience what I did during those nine days over there, and see if their hearts and minds aren’t changed, too.”
Wilhite reports that as the cast and crew were setting up for one of their performances in Baghdad, some soldiers walked by and peered in with interest. Sadly, they weren’t going to be able to stay for the show since they were being deployed immediately to the front lines of battle in Afghanistan. “We just told them that there was a whole lot of people back home praying for them, and that we really appreciated what they were doing. They need to hear our thanks.”
On another occasion the show ran until about 10:30 one evening, but the cast stayed until nearly 1:30 the next morning greeting soldiers and signing autographs. “I think they were surprised that we were willing to stay that long,” Wilhite says of that night when the performers got very little sleep. “But we would have stayed longer, as long as there were folks who wanted to meet us.”
Wilhite exchanged contact information with many of the soldiers and told them that if they or their families were ever close to Branson, they’d be assured free admission to any of the shows at The Mansion. “When I got back to the States and checked my messages, so many were from the military personnel we met. They weren’t asking for any favors. They were calling to thank us for our being there to entertain them.”
Throughout the tour the mostly Branson-based ensemble, that not only included the “Country Tonite” cast, but also Tony Orlando and his band and several dignitaries, were escorted by highly trained security specialists and a number of high-ranking officers. “They were with us ‘24/7’, no small comfort when you hear those bombs going off around you.”
Wilhite and others were taken behind the scenes of the war and even witnessed a top-secret, technically sophisticated command center where the military operations are carefully observed and where sensitive and classified intelligence is gathered. “As we walked by each position to talk with those specialists, they would shut off their monitors and turn their laminated credentials face-down. That’s just how secure the operation is.”
It was the contact with the rank-and-file, boots-on-the-ground soldiers, however, that touched the hearts of the entertainers most deeply. At one location they were able to read letters from children in the U.S. expressing their thanks for the military effort. And once, when it appeared that the enlistees were giving the performers too much credit for their willingness to come to the Persian Gulf for their visit, Kenya Wilhite spontaneously broke out in an a cappella rendition of “Wind Beneath My Wings,” the pop ballad with the poignant chorus lyric, “Did you ever know that you’re my hero?”
“There’s something about seeing a big ol’ Marine with tears streaming down his face that really gets to you,” Marty Wilhite remembers. “It was an awesome moment, one of many. These guys deserve our deepest gratitude and a pat on the back from all of us.”

For more information,
please contact Rachel Cantrell,

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