December 14, 2011 12:00 PM

After her fourth USO tour early this year-a one-week trek through Kuwait and Iraq-Kellie Pickler came back in a surprisingly good mood. “You only hear bad things on the news, like how many people were killed on this day or that, but when I sat down with the soldiers, they said so many positive things are happening, I was really surprised,” says the singer, 25. “They’re building schools, cleaning streets and making it safer for families. One soldier was describing how kids can play soccer in the street there now. They feel like they’re making a difference.” Pickler, whose paternal grandfather was a Marine, took only a small group of acoustic players with her so she could visit some of the more remote bases in Iraq. “If you take a full band and a big production, you are limited in where you can go,” she says. “We went to some bases that no one had ever visited before, either because it was too dangerous or it was so small it was just overlooked. Soldiers would come up to me and say, ‘Thank you so much for coming over,’ and I’m like, ‘All I did was hop on a plane. You’re here every day, so thank you!’ I’m just grateful to be able to bring them a little piece of home.” That’s not to say the American Idol alum doesn’t squeeze in a little play time while she’s out there. “Every kid had a GI Joe, and it’s kind of neat to pretend you’re a little GI Joe,” she says. “On an off day, I love to shoot machine guns and ride around in the tanks.”

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