Armed Forces Entertainment Spices It Up for Troops Overseas
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jan. 29, 2004 Its list of offerings reads like a who's who of entertainment icons: musical superstars, award-winning actors and professional athletes among them.
During the past six months, the program sponsored visits by headliners such as World Wrestling Entertainment, Bruce Willis, Blink-182, Collective Soul, Drew Carey and David Letterman.
World Wrestling Entertainment stages a "smackdown" for troops at Camp Victory, Iraq, Dec. 20, 2003. Defense Department photo
(Click photo for screen-resolution image)
One holiday tour, presented by Armed Forces Entertainment in partnership with the United Service Organizations, featured Academy Award-winning actor Robin Williams, Olympic gold medalist and wrestler Kurt Angle, NASCAR driver Mike Wallace and Fox Sports host Leeann Tweeden.
In addition, "Comics on Duty" returned to the United States Jan. 27 after presenting comedy shows in Southwest Asia, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Pakistan, and football and baseball superstar Bo Jackson left Jan. 28 to visit troops in the U.S. Central Command area of operations. Upcoming gigs include performances by pop-rock star Jade and cheerleaders from the Washington Redskins and Baltimore Ravens, and visits by National Football League Hall of Fame athletes.
Not all the gigs booked by Armed Forces Entertainment are nationally recognized figures. Many are up-and-comers or smaller-name acts who simply want to do their part to boost the morale of troops deployed far from home recognizing that they receive no pay for their service, program officials said.
Each month, dozens of audition tapes, CDs and publicity packages from these "non-celebrities" pour into the Armed Forces Entertainment office in Arlington, Va. "Circuit managers" like Air Force 1st Lt. Sergio Rios, who helps coordinate entertainment for Southwest Asia, sift through the submissions in search of the right sound, the right look, the right mix to meet requests submitted by commanders on the ground.
Country and rock are the biggest requests, Rios said, but commanders also frequently request rhythm and blues, Latin or rap performers. Comedy groups and sports stars are always popular, he added, as are professional cheerleaders.
Whether they are accustomed to performing at huge arenas or intimate coffeehouses, officials said, entertainers report time and time again that they're hard-pressed to find better or more appreciate audiences than U.S. troops overseas.
Rios, who travels with many of the acts, said "it's the best feeling in the world" to see how strongly troops respond to the performers.
"When we go on tour, we see troops who have been away from their families for long periods of time, who are getting shot at, who have to deal with (improvised explosive devices)," he said. "But for that hour or hour and a half, they don't have a worry in the world," Rios said. "They're having a blast."
Performers, too, report "having a blast" when they entertain the troops. "Handshake" sessions turn into impromptu concerts. Autograph signings run into the wee hours. Performers gain renewed appreciation for the sacrifices America's military is making.
"Every time I meet soldiers they say, 'Thanks for coming out here,'" Tweeden said during a holiday tour to the U.S. Central Command area of operations. "I tell them that I'm the one who should be doing the thanking. If it weren't for what they do, none of us could do what we do."
NASCAR's Wallace said he was deeply moved by his holiday visit to Southwest Asia. ""These are the real heroes," he said of the troops. "Putting faces to the news headlines really drives home the point. It is a humbling experience. I wish everyone in America could see this."