In the Spirit of Bob Hope
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jan. 3, 2000 Okay troops, here's how it is. You march. You drill. You train. You also polish boots, scrub latrines, buff floors and pick up cigarette butts.
Defense Secretary William S. Cohen praises sailors and Marines aboard the USS Bataan as celebrities supporting the secretary's holiday tour and USO show look on. Cohen's stop aboard the Bataan was the first of five visits to military bases in Italy and the Balkans. DoD photo by Photographer's Mate 1st Class Dewitt D. Roseborough (Click photo for screen-resolution image)
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Ain't life grand with good ol' Uncle Sam?
You also work incredible hours, seven days a week in places you'd never heard of before. Bosnia? Kosovo? Until Slobodan Milosevic started his ethnic cleansing, who ever heard of these places?
So, here you are, spending at least six months of your year, peacekeeping in the Balkans' mud and snow. Some of you are frequent, repeat visitors to the dry, hot, desert sands of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and to southern Turkey. Others man posts far from home in Europe and the Asian Pacific.
Does anybody care? Does anybody even know what it's like to be in the military today?
Some don't, I guess; but others certainly do.
I recently spent a few exhilarating days with a group of folks who do care. After meeting you, seeing what you do, how you live and what you're up against, they said they had gained a new perspective. After seeing you in Bosnia, 1,000-strong, standing shoulder-to-shoulder, with M-16s slung over your shoulders, they came to care.
Dec. 20 to 23, you -- America's G.I.s -- charmed a group of world-class entertainers and celebrities with your "Hooahs" and "Ooh-rahs." The entertainers stepped into the past, a place infused with the spirit of Bob Hope. The actor-comedian did his first show in 1941. He entertained servicemembers around the globe from World War II to the Gulf War and beyond.
This year more than a dozen celebrities joined with the USO to become part of Defense Secretary William S. Cohen's annual holiday tour. They carried on Hope's more than fifty-year tradition of bringing a touch of home to forward-deployed troops.
For the past three years, I've been privileged to travel with the secretary's holiday tour. And, let me tell you, it's been a remarkable journey.
The first year, 1997, Cohen and his wife Janet Langhart Cohen, who just happens to be a television journalist, invited along a friend who just happens to have won five Grammy awards for her country music. So, Mary Chapin Carpenter tagged along, accompanied by USO rep Jeff Harvey.
Now, if you know country, you know that Chapin Carpenter's hits "I Feel Lucky" and "Passionate Kisses" are daily fare on country radio stations. But rumor had it, the singer songwriter from Washington, D.C., didn't feel too well that December day. But guess what? Like all good troops, she did what had to be done.
She sang her songs aboard a ship docked in Bahrain -- another one of those places most people have never heard of. Accompanied only by her acoustic guitar, Chapin Carpenter launched a tradition when she sang for more than 500 sailors and Marines deployed in the Persian Gulf.
The first show really wasn't a big deal. There was very little hullabaloo for the country star -- no opening act, no spotlights, no fireworks. Wearing jeans, a T-shirt and a field jacket, Chapin Carpenter just got up and sang. Then the group set off for Camp Able Sentry in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
Again, no hoopla, she just sang for a couple hundred troops in a drafty hangar.
The tour's last stop was on Christmas Eve in Tuzla, Bosnia, and there things changed. A light snow was falling. Eagle Base sports complex was decorated with holiday get-up and camouflage netting. It truly was a magical night. After a quick break upon arrival, Chapin Carpenter gave an unforgettable performance for about 1,000 foot-stompin', hootin' and hollerin' American troops and a scattering of Russian troops and other allied forces.
Remember, this was only a year after the Dayton accord ended Milosevic's ethnic cleansing. More than 20,000 U.S. service members were among the NATO-led force separating the warring parties and restoring order. Tensions remained high on the mission that continues today.
Military folks who could make music served as the show's opening act. The soldiers had even invited a group of children, orphaned by the ethnic war, whose grave faces pulled at everyone's heartstrings. As music filled the hall, Janet Langhart Cohen, and even the Sec Def, two-stepped with troops as Chapin Carpenter sang her heart out.
When it was all over, the Grammy-winner humbly said she'd gladly do it again. "If I'm invited." She was.
In 1998, Chapin Carpenter did it again; only this time, she wasn't the sole performer. Up-and-coming country singer David Ball and world-renowned singer songwriter Carole King came along. Ball played his hit, "I've Got a Thinkin' Problem," and King sang one of her most famous creations, "You've got a Friend." The singers also brought along backup musicians Jon Carroll and John Jennings.
So there was a little more razzle dazzle, but still no hullabaloo. Just some good music, played a long way from home. The tour made stops at Prince Sultan Air Base and Eskan Village in Saudi Arabia, aboard ship in the Persian Gulf, and in Macedonia and Bosnia.
For the second time, Chapin Carpenter humbly said she'd do it again. "If I'm invited." She was.
This year, let me tell you, there was a heap of hullabaloo. In the spirit of Bob Hope, and maintaining the tradition of entertainers for the last 50 years, the 1999 Sec Def Holiday tour and USO show had a bunch of pizzazz.
As mistress of ceremonies, MTV's "Downtown" Julie Brown, bantered and flirted with one and all. She shed outer layers of clothing until she was wearing only black leather pants and a tight black leather vest.
As the tour moved from base to base, this '90's personality diva even charmed the services senior enlisted -- the Army and Marine Corps sergeants major, chief master sergeant of the Air Force and the master chief petty officers of the Navy and Coast Guard -- NCOs who've seen it all. Brown's racy wit quickly tuned in to the military world and she told NCOs in the audience, "I hear you sergeants take good care of your privates."
Al Franken, of Saturday Night Live, and Sean Kanan of General Hospital and Karate Kid III, were the show's stand- up comedians. Most of Franken's social and political commentary hit the mark, but many of Kanan's sexist and ethnic jokes fell flat.
At times, I'm sure Cohen and other military leaders watching the show cringed as the comics gave unbridled opinions and told bawdy jokes. But in general, the humor was good-natured, the spirit was right and on went the show.
Football Hall of Famer Terry Bradshaw, who won four Super Bowls as the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback, former Chicago Bears linebacker Mike Singletary and D.C. United soccer star Marco Etcheverry, appeared on stage, followed by supermodel Christie Brinkley. As the troops cheered, Bradshaw -- courtly gentleman that he is -- helped Brinkley shed her beige jump suit to reveal a low-cut, form- fitting cherry red dress.
On the way to Kosovo, Brinkley, who survived a 1994 helicopter crash near a Colorado ski resort, bravely faced her fear of choppers. Waiting to board a Blackhawk bound for Kosovo, she told her husband she was "terrified." None-the-less, she did it, and once she was on Camp Bondsteel's stage, the gorgeous blond with the down-to-earth, girl- next-door appeal, proved she was a pro.
With a little help from her fellow stars, Brinkley worked out a new act. Swaying and posing like Marilyn Monroe, she sang "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas" -- only what came out was a mellow bass, alternating with the high-pitched squeaky voice of Donald Duck. Jon Carroll sang the Disney quacks, while Chapin Carpenter sang the deep notes. Troops responded, shouting "You go girl!" and "You're the best so far!"
At each show, however, it was Bradshaw and his simple, down-home remarks, which seemed to steal the show. Noting that the tour was his first exposure to the military, the Super Bowl hero remarked, "This has been the most uplifting, eye-opening experience of my life.
"Mike and I played in the National Football League," he said. "We're tough guys. But, this out here -- this is tough -- you being out here in the middle of a wheat field -- God knows where we are -- defending our country and giving us the chance to sit back there with our color televisions.
"No one realizes, until you get over here, the awesome, awesome responsibility that you folks have and how you provide for us," he said. "This freedom that we have is all because of you."
Bradshaw seemed to capture all of the celebrities' sentiments when he told the uniformed men and women, "If we bring any happiness at all today to you, you have no idea of the joy and the thrill you are bringing to all of us. I'm having a blast."
During the final show in Kosovo, Bradshaw promised that on his next Fox television show, he would wear his new maroon airborne beret and "hooah" the troops. He kept his word during the NFL pre-game show that aired Dec. 24.
Until the show reached Kosovo, Singletary had said very little. At Bondsteel, the legendary sports star opened up and said he had held off speaking until he knew what he felt.
Singletary said: "I thought about a lot of people in America standing on a line saying, 'America the great, America -- peace, faith, hope and love,' Then someone asked, 'Who's going to go forward?' And you stepped forward."
America's troops continue to answer the nation's call, Singletary said. "You continue to walk forward. You continue to say, 'Call me. I will make the call.' And you are here, and I am so blessed and so honored to have the opportunity to come and say thank you."
As an Air Force C-17 ferried from base to base, the diverse troupe jelled. From Naples and Aviano Air Base to Camp Able Sentry in Macedonia, then Eagle Base in Bosnia, and finally at Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo, the shows got better and better.
Ruth Pointer, of Pointer Sisters fame, accompanied by Reggie Royal, on the keyboard, sang "It's a Beautiful World" among other hits like "I Want a Slow Hand." Blues singer Mary Ann Redmond also shared her musical talent as did return guests Jon Carroll and John Jennings.
Up-and-coming country singer Shane Minor won the crowd in Bosnia. After first apologizing to the Sec Def in advance for his language, Minor boldly told the fatigue-clad peacekeepers, "I think all of you are bad-asses, and I'm so proud to be from America where we don't take #%$% off nobody."
The country star made Army Spec. Jennifer J. Miller's night when he invited her onto the Eagle Base stage while he sang one of his recent hits, "Just an Ordinary Love." It was obvious that the military fan from Gettysberg, Pa., had met one of her favorites.
Then of course, who could ever forget the six bright, beautiful Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders and their coach, former cheerleader Shelly Roper-McCaslin. I mean, people talk about muscle tone and flat abs, but until I'd seen these young women - Alice Phillips, Cindi Alsobrook, Julie Cash, Cheryl Gates, Megan Sims, and Sarah Shahi -- I hadn't a clue what they meant.
Waving pom poms, kicking high and ending with a synchronized split, the hotpants-clad cheerleaders' routine drew whistles and cheers. For the cheerleaders, the highlight of the tour was watching the appreciative faces in the audience, Roper-McCaslin later said from her office in Dallas.
"It feels good to be able to give something back," said Cheerleader Alsobrook, who just happens to come from a Navy family. "This is my fifth USO tour."
Asked if they'd do it again, many of the celebrities gave the same reply -- "In a heartbeat."