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Servicemembers honored at annual USO-Metro gala

Al Franken (right), introduced by four previous medal recipients, accepts the Merit Award at the United Services Organization's Annual Award Dinner at the Ritz Carlton March 25 in Washington, D.C. Mr. Franken is a seven-time overseas visitor overseas and frequent military hospital visitor in the United States. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Amaani Lyle)

Al Franken (right), introduced by four previous medal recipients, accepts the Merit Award at the United Services Organization's Annual Award Dinner at the Ritz Carlton March 25 in Washington, D.C. Mr. Franken is a seven-time overseas visitor overseas and frequent military hospital visitor in the United States. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Amaani Lyle)

Retired Army Sergeant 1st Class Carlo DePorto gets a smooch from the United Services Organization Amercian Belles member Annie Gane during the USO Annual Award Dinner at the Ritz Carlton March 25 in Washington, D.C. Other volunteers and attendees included model and Fox correspondent Leeann Tweeden, Miss America 2009 Katie Stam, former San Francisco 49er Riki Ellison, and NFL Hall of Famer Anthony Munoz, formerly of the Cincinnati Bengals. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Amaani Lyle)

Retired Army Sergeant 1st Class Carlo DePorto gets a smooch from the United Services Organization Amercian Belles member Annie Gane during the USO Annual Award Dinner at the Ritz Carlton March 25 in Washington, D.C. Other volunteers and attendees included model and Fox correspondent Leeann Tweeden, Miss America 2009 Katie Stam, former San Francisco 49er Riki Ellison, and NFL Hall of Famer Anthony Munoz, formerly of the Cincinnati Bengals. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Amaani Lyle)

Actress and United Services Organization volunteer Renee Zellweger greets Tech. Sgt. Israel Del Toro during the USO of Metropolitan Washington Annual Awards dinner at the Ritz Carlton March 25 in Washington, D.C. The event recognized 31 of the nation's 98 living Medal of Honor recipients and other battlefield heroes from each branch of service. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Amaani Lyle)

Actress and United Services Organization volunteer Renee Zellweger greets Tech. Sgt. Israel Del Toro during the USO of Metropolitan Washington Annual Awards dinner at the Ritz Carlton March 25 in Washington, D.C. The event recognized 31 of the nation's 98 living Medal of Honor recipients and other battlefield heroes from each branch of service. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Amaani Lyle)

WASHINGTON (AFNS) -- The United Services Organization honored military heroes with a black-tie gala at the Ritz-Carlton March 25 here. 

The Metropolitan Washington Annual Awards Dinner recognized 36 of the nation's 98 living Medal of Honor recipients and other battlefield heroes from each branch of service, including combat controller Staff Sgt. Zachary Rhyner from Pope Air Force Base, N.C, the most recent Air Force Cross recipient. 

Of the honorees in attendance, USO-Metro Chairman Michael Singer said, "We bask in the glow of them ... we bring home where home is far away, every single day because that's where they are." 

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz presented Sergeant Rhyner with a USO Special Salute Award, and recalled the last time he honored the combat controller. 

"I had the privilege of presenting Zach Rhyner's Air Force Cross and his Purple Heart at Pope AFB, so it is a special pleasure to be here and recognize him again, especially in the presence of Medal of Honor recipients," the general said. 

Sergeant Rhyner shared the general's sentiment about the evening's caliber of company. 

"I'm honored and humbled," Sergeant Rhyner said. "I'm extremely excited and fortunate to be able to meet and greet the 30-plus Medal of Honor recipients and hear their amazing stories." 

In addition to combat heroes, the star-studded homecoming-style tribute featured USO celebrity volunteers Al Franken and Renee Zellweger. Mr. Franken, a seven-time visitor overseas and frequent wounded warrior visitor here, accepted the organization's Merit Award. 

Ms. Zellweger presented a special award to Tech. Sgt. Israel Del Toro, the tactical air control party operator who suffered severe injuries from a roadside bomb in Afghanistan in 2005. With burns covering more than 80 percent of his body, Sergeant Del Toro lost much of his face and right hand, and his entire left hand. 

General Schwartz said he's grateful for the USO's place in the lives of so many military members no matter where or how they've served. 

"The USO is there wherever you may need them -- at airports, on installations -- just about anywhere in the world," the general said. "This is Americana. This is why service is so rewarding. The American people really appreciate what we do, so it's vital that we continue to do our work well." 

More than 44,000 volunteers at 135 locations around the globe comprise the organization. Other volunteers and attendees included model and Fox correspondent Leeann Tweeden, Miss America 2009 Katie Stam, former San Francisco 49er Riki Ellison, and NFL Hall of Famer Anthony Munoz, formerly of the Cincinnati Bengals. 

A retrospective video featuring the late Bob Hope, live entertainment from the USO singing troupe, the American Belles, and uplifting celebrity anecdotes were just a few of the evening's highlights. But USO-Metro President Elaine Rogers didn't hesitate to share the one thing she will remember most. 

"The energy in the room was simply amazing," Ms. Rogers said. "There was one inspiring and moving story after the other; everyone was feeding off of each other, and you just couldn't believe what you were hearing." 

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