Good Times, Gratitude Mark Sec Def Holiday Tour
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
CAMP BONDSTEEL, Dec. 19, 2000 When the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders pranced on stage here Dec. 18, Army Spc. Jeffrey Bungabong of Seattle cheerfully remarked, "Now that's a sight you don't see every day."
That's for sure. Not in the Balkans anyway, where coffee-colored watery mud and gray skies blend with the bland colors of BDUs and prefab wooden structures. On a drizzly, overcast day in December, there's nothing too inviting about the farm fields and rolling hills of Kosovo.
Autograph hound Army Sgt. Joseph Hillman, 527th Military Police Company, of Hagerstown, Md., gives his name and address to Grammy award-winning singer- songwriter Carole King. She turned the tables on him, taking his photo and then asking for his address so she could send him a copy. King joined Defense Secretary William S. Cohen's fourth and final USO holiday tour Dec. 16-20. The show company performed Dec. 18 for Hillman and 500 other service members on duty at Camp Bondsteel, Kosovo. Photo by Linda D. Kozaryn.
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Watching the cheerleaders clad in bright blue and white outfits, Bungabong said, if he could, he'd gladly go to Texas. For the 5,000 American GIs keeping the peace here, Kosovo is a long way from home, particularly during the holidays.
Since Bungabong and his cohort, Pfc. Robert Weller of Portage, Pa., and others of the 40th Engineer Battalion, can't get to Texas, DoD and the USO brought the renowned Texans to them. In keeping with a tradition set during his first year in office, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen and his wife, Janet Langhart Cohen, invited a few friends from back home to visit GIs stationed in Europe.
About 500 American troops, along with some Russian soldiers, packed the theater for the secretary's final holiday USO show. At showtime, the GIs welcomed the USO entertainers and celebrities as they have for generations.
No one hesitated when MTV announcer Ananda Lewis said she needed a hug or two. The troops heartily honored Medal of Honor recipients Sammy L. Davis and Al Rascon with standing ovations. They paid respectful tribute to John Glenn, former Marine fighter pilot, astronaut and U.S. senator.
Bondsteel was the third stop on the Dec. 16-20 holiday tour. The show's singers, comedians and sports celebrities had already polished their acts aboard the aircraft carrier USS Harry Truman in the Mediterranean and at Ramstein Air Base in Germany. Following the show in Kosovo, the traveling troupe's final stop would be in Tuzla, Bosnia, before heading back to the States.
This year's tour had a mix of "good time" musical entertainment by singers Carole King, Ruth Pointer-Sayles, Jewel and Shane Minor. NFL stars Terry Bradshaw and Mike Singletary, joined by baseball legend Ernie Banks, carried regards from the folks back home. Comedian Al Franken shared his unique views on the presidential election and other current events.
Ty Murray, the 31-year old king of the cowboys, dubbed the troops "American heroes." The Stephensville, Texas, native, who's won seven all-around rodeo championships and two world bull-riding titles, said he felt secure after seeing the men and women who protect America's interests around the world.
Bad weather forced the stars to depart early from Bondsteel, but only after they had the chance to meet the GIs. Ed Mobley, a retired airmen who now heads protocol at Bondsteel's Joint Visitors Bureau, said he was thrilled to meet Carole King. "I remember listening to her 'Tapestry' album while I was in Vietnam," he remarked.
Instead of taking helicopters back to an Air Force C-17 transport plane waiting in Skopje, Macedonia, the performers traveled two hours by bus through the foggy night. Instead of an aerial view of roofless homes in remote villages, the group got an up close and personal view of the Kosovar landscape.
As the buses pulled into the Skopje airfield where the brightly lit C-17 waited, its massive cargo door open, singer-musician Jon Carroll gladly remarked, "It looks like a 7-Eleven after a late gig."
At each stop throughout the tour, the Cohens thanked the troops for their service and that of their families. Nearing the end of his term in office, the former senator noted that being defense secretary has been his most rewarding job.
"For Janet and I, this has been the best possible experience of our lives. Being around you, having the opportunity to serve you and seeing the kind of sacrifice you and your families make on behalf of our country is truly inspiring," Cohen said. "This is one of the most exhausting jobs one could ever have. It's also one of the most exhilarating and the most rewarding."
"When we're back home, we'll be thinking about you," Langhart Cohen said. "Not just now, but even after we leave this job, because we're not leaving the military, we're just leaving the Department of Defense."
She urged the troops to phone, write and e-mail their friends and family back home often. "Tell them my husband and I are grateful to them as well for their support and for their sacrifice, because I know some of those sacrifices have been very painful," she said. "We will be eternally grateful."