Chairman's USO Tour Wraps Up

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

ROTA, Spain, Dec. 23, 2007 - If they made movie starring Robin Williams about this year's Chairman's USO Holiday Tour it could be titled: "Good Morning, Arifjan, CampVirginia, Taqqadum, Ramadi, Tikrit, Balad, Kabul, Kandahar, Manas, Aviano, Rota."

The title would be longer but for a dust storm that forced cancellation of a show in Baghdad and snow that forced cancellation another at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan.

Navy Adm. Michael G. Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wanted to reach as many servicemembers as possible in the trip, which started Dec. 16 and ended yesterday. "This is a tough time to be away from home; we know that," Mullen said. "The USO performers donate their talent and time to make sure our young men and women get a taste of America during the holidays."

Williams could play himself in the movie as he made his fourth trip "downrange" to entertain troops. The Oscar-winning actor/comedian had a different show in every location, always tailored to the place. In Robin's world, the soccer stadium in Balad, Iraq, became the home of the first NASCAR track in Iraq where MRAPs would rule.

Rocker/hip-hop artist/country singer/virtually-all-music-genre entertainer Kid Rock always brought the house down, starting with the first three bars of "Sweet Home, Alabama" and ending with a blues take on what Kid Rock would do if he were the president. It was the Detroit-based performer's third trip to Iraq, but his first to Afghanistan. Young men and women sang along with Rock in his own songs like "Cowboy" and others like Hank Williams Jr.'s "A Country Boy Can Survive."

At Balad -- four days into the tour -- Kid Rock teamed up with Robin "Bluesman" Williams on harp for a hilarious, high-energy -- and unprintable -- finale. It became a staple of the rest of the shows on the trip.

Actor/comedian Lewis Black was making his first USO tour. He is an American original in both his comedic observations and in his delivery. Black expressed his appreciation of the men and women in uniform in a way that they appreciated.

Seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong talked about how the trip has given him a new perspective and about what being a hero really means. He said that many people call athletes heroes because they win an event or catch a pass. "That's not heroic. Athletes do that for money or for fame or for a magazine cover," he said in Manas.

He said some people called him a hero during his battle against cancer. "That wasn't heroic, because I just wanted to stay alive," he said.

American servicemembers are real heroes, Armstrong said, because they fight for freedom and liberty, often in appalling conditions. "I know this Christmas I will hug my kids a bit tighter after this experience," he said.

Miss USA Rachel Smith thanked the troops for their sacrifices and probably received about 30 marriage proposals after every show. Smith and all members of the troupe were always gracious and willing to pose for a picture or to autograph a hat or a poster or even a water bottle.

In Kandahar, Irish tenor Ronan Tynan joined the party. Tynan opened the shows with "Go, Lassie, Go." He followed with a pitch-perfect rendition of "God Bless, America" that brought tears to the eyes of many servicemembers far from home.

The trip covered all sorts of ranges. The shows themselves went from rated R in the combat zones to PG at the shows with families in Aviano Air Base, Italy, and here. The weather went from sandstorms in Iraq to snow at Camp Phoenix in Afghanistan. Temperatures went from sweating in the sun at a location in Southwest Asia to the teens in Kyrgyzstan and springlike in Italy.

One aspect didn't change, and that was the appreciation the servicemembers had for the performers and vice versa. "You couldn't see a show this good in the states," said Army Sgt. Vareena Jenkins, an aviation specialist in Balad. "You certainly couldn't get a picture with the stars like this."

"Don't thank me," Lester Black told a young Navy petty officer after a show in Kuwait. "I'm supposed to be thanking you."

"There is no ... place I'd rather be than right ... here, with the best ... men and women on the face of the Earth," Kid Rock said after a show in Iraq.

Mullen spoke to the American Forces Network affiliate at Aviano yesterday. "We've been traveling all over the Middle East in this past week," he said. "What we try to do in these shows is bring a little bit of home around the world.

"It's a difficult time of year to be away from home with the holidays. The goal is to put smiles on their faces and memories and lighten their load. And that certainly happened. These entertainers are really a remarkable group, and I have seen those smiles go from halfway around the world to home, and the spirits have been lifted."

Mullen thanked the United Service Organizations for all the group's work in putting together the show. The organization, founded in 1941 to serve a generation going to war around the world, is serving a new generation with the same mission. "It's not just the holiday show, they make a concerted effort around the world to support the men and women in uniform and their families," the admiral said.

"I'd certainly like to wish all our servicemembers and all our families around the world Merry Christmas and Happy New Year the best of holidays. These are fun times and they are memorable times for all of us, and we wish each and every one of you nothing but the best."

Chairman's USO Tour Wraps Up [ ]