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Brittany Murphy and the USO: an exclusive appreciation [PICTURES]

December 24, 2009 |  7:30 am

USO-tour-2004-brittany-murphy-on-stage Actress Brittany Murphy's funeral is today, Christmas Eve -- a "strictly private" service reportedly to be held at Forest Lawn Memorial-Park in the Hollywood Hills.

With that in mind, and in the spirit of the holiday as well, we'd like to celebrate Brittany's life a bit, with exclusive photos from her 2003 and 2004 USO tours that show the "sweet soul, with a lot of talent and heart"  described by Alyssa Milano  on Sunday on Twitter.

Alyssa's Twitter followers saw a couple of Twitpics of her and Murphy hanging out on the carrier Nimitz -- and through the magic of the interwebs (with an assist from Twitter user Dustin P. Jones), the Ministry has more, courtesy of Les Martines, the original photographer.

Alyssa and Les were both eager that the images reach Brittany's fans.

The shots of Alyssa and Brittany "were taken aboard the USS Nimitz about 100 miles out to sea on a USO tour in 2003," Martines said.

Brittany murphy neal mccoy referThe closeups of Brittany singing were taken in 2004 at a Ft. Irwin, Calif., USO show that was also part of a Wayne Newton TV special.

Please click on the "photo gallery" image of Brittany and country singer Neal McCoy, to the left, if you'd like to see the pictures and let them speak for themselves. Otherwise, read on -- we're going to go long with a few quotes after the jump, because the sentiments are uniformly heartfelt.

Martines is road manager for Neal McCoy, who was on those tours too, along with USO stalwart  Newton (he's performed during every conflict since the Vietnam War), Air Force and USO veteran Paul Rodriguez, and of course the lovely ladies. McCoy is about to set out on his 14th USO tour come January.

"Brittany was a part of a large group that went on two different USO tours," Martines said. "The one with Alyssa went to Kuwait, Iraq, Qatar and also to an aircraft carrier, where their pics were taken. That was in 2003."

"She was always so sweet to us and although we were only around her for those two tours it was nice to have her come back the second time and know us by name," he said. "Her commitment to the troops was both tireless and effortless.

"She gave them all smiles and a little piece of her heart, which they all appreciated."

The "USO family" and others in its sphere of influence were hit hard by news of Brittany's sudden death.
Alyssa and brittany

Brittany was “a fun-loving young lady who got it," said Bernie Rone, the organization's director of celebrity entertainment recruiting, on the USO's official blog. "She went out on the tour for all the right reasons and the troops loved her.”

“The heat on that tour was unrelenting," said John Hanson, a USO senior VP who, like Rone, was on the tour. "It was over 120 degrees everywhere we went. Brittany Murphy was there for the troops 15 hours a day every day, and her commitment to the troops was clear from the beginning. We will miss her compassion, her charm and her generous spirit.”

Brittany made an impression, Rone said, by stopping to say hi and shake the hand of every service member she encountered. Plus, "she actually performed and sang a few numbers with Wayne Newton’s band. And we were blown away by how good she was.”

Rest in peace, Brittany.

-- Christie D'Zurilla

P.S. Keep in mind that the USO -- "the way the American public supports its troops" -- still has tours going strong. McCoy, Martines and others will be heading for Europe the last week in January for what will be McCoy's 14th USO tour. Over seven days they'll hit England, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany. And a private, nonprofit organization, can't make that happen for free. Remember, "Until every one comes home."

Photos: Brittany Murphy, top right, sings at Ft. Irwin in California in 2004; she and Neal McCoy, middle left, were together at the same event; Alyssa Milano and Brittany hang out on the carrier Nimitz in 2003. Credit: Les Martines / Used with permission by the Los Angeles Times' Ministry of Gossip.