USO 'Recruits' Support Troops
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Nov. 21, 2000, Nov. 21, 2000 Outside, more than 40 inches of fresh snow covered the Balkan ground. Inside, nearly a thousand BDU-clad troops bearing M-16 rifles packed the prefabbed gym.
Actor Mickey Rooney, a World War II Bronze Star recipient, speaks at the Pentagon Nov. 2, 2000, during a corridor dedication ceremony honoring the USO. Photo by SGT. Joseph Tonetti, USMC.
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
As the lights dimmed, the standing crowd hushed, then exploded with thunderous applause, whistles, cheers, and 'hooahs' as the high-steppin' Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders took the stage.
The USO was in town and it was showtime.
USO entertainers may not wear a uniform, but they do have a military mission -- to show America's troops the folks back home are rooting for them.
For nearly 60 years, the United Services Organization has helped support and entertain America's troops at home and overseas. The non-profit organization, supported by private and corporate sponsors, operates family and airport centers. The USO also recruits celebrities to tour the globe.
For decades, Bob Hope served as the USO troupe's commanding general, leading Marilyn Monroe, Brooke Shields, Jonathan Winters and countless others. Today, multi-billionaire Ross Perot donates his personal jet to ferry Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders to USO gigs. Christie Brinkley, Ruth Pointer, the Go Go Girls, Hootie and the Blowfish and many others also help carry on Hope's legacy.
Military officials honored the USO in November, dedicating a corridor to the organization and the celebrities who have given their time and talent. Johnny Grant, Hollywood's honorary Mayor, actors Mickey Rooney and Gerald McRaney and Superbowl hero Terry Bradshaw attended the ceremony hosted by Defense Secretary William S. Cohen and his wife, Janet Langhart Cohen.
Rooney, who received the Bronze Star during three year's service in World War II, said he was thrilled to finally see the five-sided military headquarters. The veteran performer, who starred with Judy Garland and Elizabeth Taylor, recalled entertaining Army Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower and French President Charles DeGualle in Paris.
Rooney also noted he had served under Army Gen. George S. Patton Jr. "I was with Patton for three months," remarked the 79-year-old star of stage and screen. "I couldn't keep up with him."
Superbowl hero Terry Bradshaw confessed he got hooked on the USO mission while visiting troops in Italy, Bosnia and Kozovo last year on Cohen's holiday USO tour. Bradshaw said he hopes to broadcast Fox TV's "NFL Sunday" from aboard a Navy ship this holiday season.
Grant, a veteran of more than 50 USO shows, has traveled to Southeast Asia, the Persian Gulf and the Balkans. He knows what USO shows and visits mean to uniformed men and women overseas. Just as he knows what USO tours mean to the countless singers, dancers, musicians, actors and comedians who volunteer their time and talent.
There's no business like show business, he said, and there's no audience like a bunch of G.I.s. "They're the best audience in the world," he said. "When you do your first G.I. show, you're hooked for life. People in the entertainment world live on applause and G.I.s give you the most enthusiastic."
Grant served three years in the Army Air Forces during World War II and learned first hand what it means to be far from the home. He particularly likes to visit troops after local TV stations have aired "White Christmas," the 1954 holiday classic in which he played TV host Andy Harrison. The movie stars Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen.
Today's G.I.s are more sophisticated than they were during World War II, he noted, because they've seen so much more of the world. "Most of us had never been away from our home town more than 50 miles, if that far," he said of his World War II cronies. "And that was on the high school athletic bus to go play football somewhere."
Troops today know the stars, past and present, thanks to cable TV and videos. "They have seen the old movies. They know who Humphrey Bogart was. When they find out I knew him, they'll sit in the mess hall and talk all day long if their schedule will permit."
Debbie Reynolds, Connie Stevens, Angie Dickenson, Jane Russell, Patricia Neal -- Grant has traveled with many of Hollywood's glamour girls. Pretty women, lots of laughs -- USO shows entertain far longer than just the few hours the stars are on stage, Grant noted.
"From the time the show is announced, it gives them something to talk about. There's always a clown in the barracks who claims to be kin to the star of the show. They see the show, take pictures and get them developed, and they write home. I've had many mothers and wives send me letters -- eight to nine pages of a letter -- where the guys had written every joke down that I did on stage."
All good things eventually come to an end, even for a veteran trouper like Grant. He said lately, age is taking its toll.
"I'm 77, and they always want you to hop up on top of a tank," he said. "It's getting tougher to get up there. As I get a little broader, those holes you have to go through, you really have to squeeze."
Gerald McRaney, star of TV's "Major Dad" and "Simon and Simon," is another USO veteran. The actor has traveled to what he calls some of the "world's garden spots" frequented by American troops. He's signed autographs and shaken hands with troops in Haiti, Somalia and other hotspots.
During his USO travels, McRaney said he's often met up with the Army's 10th Mountain Division. "They're always deployed," he said. "If there's trouble going on, 10th Mountain is going to be in the middle of it. I visited with them in Saudi Arabia. I saw them in Somalia and then again in Haiti."
"Those guys really, really do appreciate when you come to pay a call on them," McRaney said. "Especially in an outfit like that where they're in the thick of it and they don't get a lot of rear area type R&R." Even if the celebrities aren't singers or dancers, he said, the troops appreciate those who "just do the 'grip and grin,' who fly in on a chopper, shake hands and sign autographs."
McRaney's exposure to the military was second hand before he volunteered to tour with the USO. Several family members had served, he said, and his scoutmaster was a retired drill instructor. In the 1960's, McRaney said he tried to enlist but was turned down because he was married and had a child.
"When all the people of good sense were trying to get out of the military, 'rocket scientist' here was trying to get in," he said.
Later, McRaney decided he could, in his own way, serve those who serve the nation. "Somewhere right now, there's a young man or a young woman standing watch and protecting me, my family and all the rest of us from people who would very much like to take away our freedoms," he said.
Peoples' attitude toward the military have changed considerably since the war in Vietnam, the actor said. "Nobody supports war," he said, "but from time to time we have to do things. I think people have gotten a lot more sophisticated than they were in the '60s and early '70s and they've done a very good job of separating war from the warrior."
Even if they don't agree with the national policy, he said, people "still tend to be more supportive of the people who have to carry that policy out." Some have reexamined their past stance, he said, realizing they were "out of line to have those feelings about the poor SOB who had to go over there and do that job."
Today, most American's appreciate the military for the job it does, he said, but they aren't "necessarily as knowledgeable about what that job is, and how thin the force is being spread right now with all the missions that are going on and the budget constraints."
Even so, he added, people don't appreciate the military the way they did during World War II. In those days, he said, Americans took care of their men and women in uniform.
"When I was a kid, if we saw a guy in uniform hitchhiking, my father didn't give him a ride to where we were going. My father gave him a ride to where he was going -- unless it was in another state. If there was a G.I. trying to get home, we just took him there."
McRaney has maintained that "anything for the G.I." attitude. He's also shared it with his wife, actress Delta Burke. He spoke of the impact a visit to the Middle East had on Burke.
"We were flying out of Bahrain," he said, "and when the plane banked, you could see troops deploying out in the desert in their Humvees and their Bradleys. Delta turned back to me and there were tears in her eyes when she said, 'Honey, you were right. These people are magnificent.' I want to come back.'"
McRaney described Delta's response after he explained a return visit was unlikely because war in the region was imminent. "She just looked at me like I was nuts, and said, 'Then they'll need to see us more, won't they?'"