Myers, Celebrities Visit Thousands During USO Tour
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Dec. 18, 2004 No one wants to be away from family and friends during the holidays.
But the pressure of war means thousands of American servicemembers are deployed in strange lands on station to defend America from its enemies.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff understands the feelings that servicemembers have during the holidays, and he led a United Service Organizations tour to the Middle East and Horn of Africa to bring a bit of home to men and women in uniform.
Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers led the marathon tour through Kuwait, Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Afghanistan and Djibouti. The USO arranged for Robin Williams, Blake Clark, John Elway and Leeann Tweeden to participate in the tour.
And the reactions were fantastic.
On the way over to the Middle East, the chairman's aircraft stopped at Shannon, Ireland, to refuel. A planeload of American servicemembers were coming back to the States for rest-and-recuperation leave. As John Elway came out of the ramp from the plane, a lifelong Denver Bronco fan recognized the former quarterback.
"Oh my God, it's John Elway," the sergeant yelled at a volume that could be heard back across the Atlantic Ocean. And he added an expletive when he noticed Williams.
Another soldier spotted Myers. "Are those four stars on his collar?" he asked. Immediately, Myers, Williams, Clark, Elway and Tweeden were surrounded by a group in desert camouflage. Digital cameras appeared, pads of paper came out, and the soldiers, Marines, sailors and airmen talked and laughed with the celebrities.
In Kuwait, units preparing to go into Iraq took time from their training to take in the show. At Camp Virginia named for the site of one of the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 about 3,000 servicemembers packed in around a stage to see the show.
Each show followed the same lineup. Myers was introduced by local commanders. He would take the stage and thank the servicemembers for their contributions. He would turn the proceeding over to Tweeden.
Tweeden dressed in modified desert camouflage served as emcee. She spoke about the USO and previous experiences on tours to entertain the troops. Then she would introduce Elway.
The two-time Super Bowl winner spoke about the teams he had been on. Then he told the servicemembers that they were part of an unbeatable team and that he was proud to be affiliated with them. Then Elway proved he could still sling a football, tossing out souvenirs all the way to the edges of the crowds.
Tweeden would next introduce Blake Clark. The unintelligible coach in "Waterboy" and Drew Barrymore's father in "Fifty First Dates," as well as Harry the hardware store owner on "Home Improvement," bonded almost immediately with the troops. And he should have, since he served as an infantry platoon leader in the Vietnam War.
He had several bits that got troops laughing from growing up in Georgia, to an experience calling for aerial support in Vietnam to his idea of getting the Crocodile Hunter into Afghanistan to find Osama bin Laden.
Tweeden then introduced Williams to incredible cheers. In Afghanistan he started off with "Goooooood Afternoooon, Baaaagraaaam." While there were bits that he did at each show, it is a sign of his genius that each show really was different.
In one, he joked about what the "special" in Special Forces really meant. In another, he riffed on the blue camouflage uniforms the Air Force was trying out. At still another he joked about meals ready to eat.
Following the shows, Myers and the celebrities signed autographs, had their pictures taken with troops and just spoke with them. Then it was on to a new venue.
A Pentagon spokesman said the tour traveled more than 50,000 miles all told and put on 13 different shows including one day with four shows in three different countries and aboard the aircraft carrier USS Truman.
Thousands of servicemembers got that taste of home. And certain vignettes stuck out.
In Kuwait, a young airman met Elway. He shook her hand, had his picture taken with her and gave her an autographed football. She was so excited that she literally danced away.
In Bagram, after keeping the troops rolling in the aisles, Williams turned serious. "It's because of you that 10 million people got a chance to vote and have a chance for peace. You are the best. Thank you." The gymnasium "clamshell" rocked with cheers.
In Djibouti, Tweeden signed autographs, hugged Marines, airmen and soldiers for as long as she could. She also carried cameras with her to document the men and women she was meeting.
At Ramstein Air Base, Germany the site of the last show about 60 wounded soldiers and Marines from Landstuhl Regional Medical Center came to the show.
At the end of his show, Vietnam vet Clark spoke directly to the wounded servicemembers. "In the years to come, the ribbons will fade," he said. "But you didn't read about it in newspapers. You didn't watch it on TV. You lived it."
He then came to attention and saluted the wounded troops.