of Americans having a family member serving on active duty, the dancers got to experience something that most of their countrymen only hear about from the media or from friends of friends.

“It was really cool to get out there and see what they do,” says Hightower. “You have a different appreciation for what they do for our country. It’s sad, because you feel like a lot of people don’t really understand what it means to be an American, especially in my generation. I thought I was very blessed to go out there and see the troops, see what people do for our country.

“A lot of our generation doesn’t get to go out there and see what these guys do. There are so many good things that people are doing around the world, yet we are so consumed with the entertainment business and pop culture and everything that’s going on in that realm.

“For me, to get out there and see what good people are doing, and what they’re sacrificing, is an amazing experience. It inspired me to want to do the same and to want to give back somehow and be more American.”

The 21-year-old even got to cut a rug on the road.

“The first night,” says Hightower, “they had a salsa party. There was a DJ there. There were four or five guys I danced with from the Army, and they were a lot of fun.”

According to Hightower, the moment that impacted her the most was when she got to visit a transport aircraft taking wounded soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan to America after medical treatment in Germany.

“We actually got to stand on the plane,” she says, “as they were loading the passengers up. The wounded warriors were coming on, missing legs and with bullet holes; some of them were hurt by grenades.

“It was amazing to be able to talk to them a little bit. Just those images will remain with me for the rest of my life. That feeling I had, when they were carrying these passengers on, that these guys are giving their lives. They’re risking their lives, every single day, to fight for our country, and how noble that is.”

Hightower has also refocused her gaze on the world beyond the dance floor.

“It’s got me interested in America,” she says, “and what’s going on in politics, what’s going on in the country. It’s so important for people to know that, to know what’s going on.”

She’s also come to appreciate the freedom that has allowed a girl from Orem, Utah, to become a successful ballroom dancer and TV personality.

“I think that was God’s plan all along,” she says, ” to have freedom. To be an American, to live that way, is priceless. That is something I definitely don’t take for granted.”

The cast for this fall’s edition of “Dancing With the Stars” is set to be announced on Aug. 29, with the season premiere airing Sept. 19 on ABC. Performing for the troops made Hightower realize that it’s not just all about the mirror-ball trophy.

“It was cool to get out there,” she says, “and see what appreciation they have for us. We are realizing the people we inspire, as well. For these troops, just to have that escape, to forget about all the craziness they have to deal with on a regular basis, to be able to turn on the TV and watch something that’s lighthearted, takes their minds off it.

“I hope [‘Dancing With the Stars’] does inspire people to get out there, work their butts off and go after their dream. You can’t get by on two hours of practice and do it half-assed, because you’re not going to make it. You’ll get cut pretty quickly. It’s a show about hard work and what hard work can do for you.”

Hightower even has a notion about how to work her USO experience into the show.

“We were talking to a couple of the soldiers out there,” she says, “that we should do a soldier episode or a soldier season. It’d be so cool. So, I’ve been talking to the producers about that a little bit, nudge them, see if they’ll do it.

“Maybe [it could be] a summer special or something. We’ll see if we can do that.”

Hightower is up for more adventures with the USO, even if it means going to the front lines.

“I would love it,” she says. “Obviously there’s a risk in going, but what you get out of it, it’s absolutely priceless. You could never experience that anywhere else. I would definitely love to do it.”

It also doesn’t hurt that a lot of the military men were easy on the eyes.

“There were so many cute soldiers that I saw,” says Hightower. “I’m not complaining about that.”

Posted by:Kate O'Hare