Steppin' Out With Carpenter, Cohen
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
NAPLES, Italy, Dec. 30, 1997 Expect the unexpected. That's a safe bet for military folks. For a few forward-deployed U.S. troops, Dec. 24 turned out to be exactly an unexpected type of day.
Petty Officer 2nd Class Stanley Dunlap, a trombone player with the Sixth Fleet band here, never dreamed he'd work sound for an award-winning country music star that day.
But when Mary Chapin Carpenter took the stage aboard the USS Guam, Dunlap, from Robinson, Ill., and band director, Lt. Mark Cole, from Jacksonville, Fla., were running the sound system. The two sailors were volunteers, working for the singer-songwriter whose albums have sold more than 8 million copies worldwide.
Navy Lt. Larry Baxley, from Atlanta, never dreamed he'd dance before 1,200 sailors and Marines that day -- and with the boss's wife no less. But when Carpenter's guitar started twanging and her gutsy voice rang through the crowded hangar bay, the lieutenant had to account for words he'd spoken only minutes before.
"I was signing autographs a little while earlier," Carpenter told the hangar bay audience, "and this gentleman named Larry came up to me and said, 'I really like to two-step to a song of yours called 'Shut Up and Kiss Me.'"
Nodding toward an obviously embarrassed officer, shuckin' and grinnin' on the sidelines, Carpenter asked, "Was that you? Will you come up and demonstrate?"
As Baxley headed for the stage, Carpenter asked, "Do you need a partner? Can we have a volunteer?" Cheering and whistling, the sailors and Marines applauded as Defense Secretary William Cohen's wife, Janet Langhart, stepped up to the stage.
"Is this all right, Mr. Secretary?" Carpenter asked the defense secretary seated in the front row. Cohen signaled a thumbs up; Carpenter began strumming; and Baxley slid into a polished country two-step.
"He's pretty smooth," Carpenter wryly commented as the lieutenant deftly led Mrs. Cohen across the stage. "Larry, wipe that smile off you face," Carpenter said, adding, "I have a feeling I'm not going to get a ride home on the secretary's plane. Let's hear it for couple No. 1."
From Naples, Carpenter's traveling USO show moved to a repeat performance in Macedonia, where about 350 U.S. troops are part of the U.N. Preventive Deployment Force, and then to Bosnia, where about 8,000 U.S. troops are part of NATO's stabilization force.
At Camp Able Sentry in Skopji, Macedonia, Sgt. Ivan B. Knudsen, from Salt Lake City, a Utah National Guardsman attached to the Illinois National Guard, could not control his dancing feet. He joined the Grammy-winning singer on stage for a solo dance performance before about 150 U.S. troops wearing United Nations blue berets.
In Tuzla, Bosnia, Task Force Eagle's Club 21 was packed with about 500 U.S. troops, a brass quartet and a dozen Bosnian orphans. This time, Sgt. Randy Hackbarth, Headquarters Troop, 3rd Squadron, 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, brought Mrs. Cohen to the stage for another set of two-steppin'. "It was fantastic," the Midwest City, Okla., native said. "I did not think in my wildest dreams I would be up there on the stage."
Carpenter's show was a welcome taste of home for U.S. troops. For the country singer, it was an honor to carry on Bob Hope's holiday tradition.
"It's a privilege to be able to spend time with everyone here -- to be able to give back a little," Carpenter said. "I wanted to come because the meaning of the season all too often gets lost in the commercial aspect of it. I really felt inside that spiritually it would mean a lot to be here, and it has proven to be true."
Carpenter said the troops' young faces brought out her maternal instinct. "People will probably barf when they hear me say this, but I just wanted to go up and hug every one of them and say hi."
The whirlwind trip was Carpenter's first exposure to the military. She quickly mastered the nuances of what she called the military's multi-purpose word "hooah." Signing autographs and dining with military men and women throughout the day, she said she was the one asking all the questions. "This is so different from anything I've every experienced, so I'm kind of chatting them up," she said.
Carpenter asked sailors and Marines about their ships, their jobs and how long they've been away from home. She said the troops told her they miss home and that it means a lot when people come out to see them. While some performers may be influenced by the politics surrounding a deployment, Carpenter said, visiting American troops overseas is "not a political issue; it's a humanist issue."
"You come out to see people, be together and support them, whether one is into the issues or not," she said. While this was her first USO show, Carpenter said she hopes it won't be her last. "I'd love to do this again if I'm invited," she said. "This is the best Christmas Eve I've ever had."
U.S. Marine Corps Lance Corporals Walter Holt, from Peoples, Ohio, Larry Moore, from Pikeville, Ky., and Rob Rudge, from Pompton Plains, N.J., saw Carpenter's show aboard the USS Guam. The three fans from 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines, said the show was a welcome break. "It kind of takes your mind off being here," Moore said.
U.S. Marine Corps 1st Lt. Michelle Sawyer, Air Combat Element, 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, is also a country fan. The Scottsdale, Ariz., native said it was "a really good morale booster for the Marines and sailors here. You cant be across the seas and not feel a little bit homesick."
Carpenter was the first performer to accept Cohen's invitation to join his holiday tour, said Jeff Harvey, USO celebrity entertainment producer. "She was our first choice and the most enthusiastic to respond. When she said yes, we quit our search."
For nearly 57 years, the United Service Organizations has brought a touch of home to military men and women overseas. USO is a congressionally chartered, nonprofit organization, supported by contributions, corporate donors, the United Way and the Combined Federal Campaign.
In 1997, the USO sponsored more than 25 celebrity shows overseas. Jay Leno, Sinbad, Larry Gatlin and a the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders followed in the footsteps of such performers as Bob Hope, Marilyn Monroe, Phyllis Diller, Billy Joel, Brooke Shields, the Judds, Steve Martin and a host of others who've entertained troops around the world.