There’s a banner hanging in Terminal A of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. It says “Welcome Veterans” and “America Thanks You For Your Service.” It was there six days before Christmas and it was there two days after the holiday. The message is the same, but it feels entirely different now.
That’s to be expected when one sees it through new eyes. Eyes that have seen, firsthand, even a fraction of what those words mean. Or should mean. That was the opportunity afforded to me as embedded media on the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff USO Tour, a once-in-a-lifetime trip that was as challenging as it was inspirational.
Ten shows in five countries, plus an aircraft carrier. Fourteen flights totaling nearly 44 hours in the air, spanning over 23,000 miles. A breakneck pace that was light on sleep and bursting with action. One where bleary eyes and sleepwalking bodies became the norm. But one where the spirit of the mission never dampened, running on the fuel of gratitude and appreciation of those whose sacrifices far outpaced our own.
The tour aims to entertain and uplift service members stationed abroad. Actors Wilmer Valderrama and Milo Ventimiglia, three-time gold medalist Shaun White, CrossFit champion Mat Fraser, comedian Jessimae Peluso, country star Kellie Pickler, and disc jockey J. Dayz met for the first time at Joint Base Andrews before flying overseas. They put together a variety show on Air Force 2 that would be performed over and over, from picturesque Norway to adrift on international waters to some of the more sobering outposts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
We visited Scandinavia on the the shortest day of the year where the sun’s path was more a tiny arc than a looping parabola. We visited Bahrain, a magnificent port of wealth serving as a Naval hub, and the USS John C. Stennis, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier bustling with 5,000 people and activity. We made three stops in Afghanistan (Bagram, Dahlke, and Kandahar) on Christmas Eve and three in Iraq (Baghdad, Taji, and Al Asad) on Christmas Day. We closed with a visit to Poland.
We flew on various cargo planes, helicopters, and traveled by bus. Every jaunt was a reminder that the sound of freedom is loud. And powerful. It requires ear plugs. Thousands of American soldiers, contractors, and foreign nationals piled into hangars, gazebos, and outdoor plazas to watch, and appreciate a moment or two far-flung from their reality.
There was a routine but it was hardly routine. J. Dayz began each show with a 15-minute set, setting the mood. Those seated would begin rocking in their chairs, slowly at first, then picking up speed as the tracks continued. There were occasional sing-a-longs, the intensity varying by stop. Valderrama served as the emcee, welcoming the crowds and introducing each performer, interjecting wisecracks and, if the audience was good, a moment of Fez. Peluso went first, with a blistering set where no person or topic was off-limits. White and Fraser spoke about particularly high and low moments in their careers before fielding questions. At one point, White let it be known he cut his trademark long hair out of fear of turning into Carrot Top. Ventimiglia did a scene from his show, with an audience member standing in for his wife. Pickler closed things with a four- or five-song set before a castwide rendition of White Christmas.
The following words won’t do the week justice. They won’t capture the raw emotion or reflect a significant spectrum of those impacted. To do that, one needs to see things for themselves. And that, more than anything, is the point. To bridge that divide and walk, ever so briefly, in a service member’s boots.
Sgt. Anthony Williams, of the 101st Airborne Division, works on Apache helicopters at Camp Dahlke, in the Logar providence in eastern Afghanistan.
“You never really know what you’re going to get until you’re here,” he said. “We came out in June, Christmas wasn’t even on my list. It was something I didn’t expect to be away from home for. I’ve got my wife and 1.5-year-old son at home. It’s tough, but we’re going to work through it.”
His words are still ringing in my ears. You never really know what you’re going to get until you’re here. I certainly didn’t. How could anyone who hasn’t served, who hasn’t seen the realities involved and sought out answers from those who have, do, and will in the future?
Williams, who was speaking after an afternoon show played against the crisp backdrop of mountains and a setting sun, said he was ecstatic the tour included a stop to his location. He was one of the scores who spoke about how welcome the visit was, in terms of breaking up the monotony of the day-to-day.
“It gave us morale back after a long, long eight months of unbearable heat and constant enemy threats, so to have this time to let our guard down and enjoy ourselves is really good.”
This was a common refrain. The ability to let relax and forget about the challenges and work for 45 minutes or an hour, or to share a meal with a new face, was spirit-buoying. Seeing the seriousness of the situation melt into bliss was a freeing 180-degree journey. The weight of duty can be heavy, and the act of unburdening cathartic.
“I want a picture with Jack,” a gun-toting soldier in Afghanistan told his friend. “I watch This Is Us and I’m not afraid to admit it.”
Ventimiglia, who was a late addition to the troupe after hearing of Valderrama’s plans at Mandy Moore’s recent wedding, was making his second such trip to visit those serving on the front lines.
“Who doesn’t fill up with a good feeling when someone’s smiling at you or asking for a moment to have a conversation,” he said. “It’s great. For me, it’s reinvigorating to come over here and then come back to the states and really speak loudly and proudly about the work that’s being done by our military.”
From the pebbly and monochromatic Kandahar to the Tataooine-like Al Asad in Iraq, the scenery changed. One thing remained constant. The overwhelming sense of mutual respect between those putting the show on and those taking it in.
“I didn’t understand what representing the USA at the Olympics was, I didn’t fully appreciate it,” White told me. “I didn’t realize you’re going for all of these people.”
White said he felt a deep connection when sailors told him they watched his PyeongChang glory on base. “Definitely one of the top experiences of my life.”
“As soon as I was asked, I agreed and didn’t really ask what was involved and, oh my god, I’m glad I said yes,” Fraser said. CrossFit, which has military roots, is wildly popular on the bases and the crowds swarming him were plain evidence.
“It’s been the experience of a lifetime,” he said. “I’m looking up to what they do and they’re looking at me saying thanks for setting the table, we’re kind of in awe of each other. It’s just a very cool experience. I hope I get to do it again. I’m going to be bragging about this for a lifetime.”
The show is for those in uniform. It’s also for those putting it on. And those covering it. And those at home who will read about it. This is a closed circuit meant to conduct energy.
“I always say that the overt mission is to entertain the troops during the holidays but the covert mission is to get the entertainers to have a better understanding of the kinds of Americans who are out here defending their freedoms,” USO CEO and President J.D. Crouch II explained. “It helps to connect Americans back to their service members. Our mission statement in the USO is keeping service members connected to family, home, and country. That’s a two-way street. We want to put service members in the minds of people at home during this time of year. One of the challenges we’ve got is the same challenge the military has–that fewer than one percent [of Americans] serve. The military is held in very high regard but people don’t understand what these folks live with here.”
The military-civilian divide is real — and perhaps an inevitable line. It is built more out of ignorance than malice. People don’t know what they don’t know. They can read things but feeling them, and sorting through them, along the way embracing the complexity, is another story.
“This has given me perspective,” said Peluso. “Appreciation. The main thing is learning that my complaints are so minimal.”
A sharp-tongued shot of lithe energy, she was the comedian on this tour in part because of a recent tragedy. She lost her father to Alzheimer’s in late October. This whirlwind was heavy on emotion for all involved. It may have been even heavier on her.
“The main reason I’m here is because of his death,” she said. “Honestly, when he passed away — and even now because it’s so fresh — I just didn’t think twice about it. I honestly didn’t. I thought ‘these men and women miss their families. They don’t see their families for years. They don’t get the opportunity that I had with my father for every Christmas of my life.”
“It’s a boot camp in traveling,” she said. “It’s a boot camp in comedy. It’s a boot camp in emotion. It’s humbling. It is the most humbling experience of my life. It’s so different from doing shows back home because their energy is kinetic. It’s so visceral and you can tell that they need it in an animal way. Those laughs hold the tears and blood and stress and anguish they have experienced through their service here. I’ll be the military clown whenever they need me to.”
No act connected with the crowd on such a deep level as Peluso. She pulled no punches in a set heavy on audience participation — both willingly and involuntarily. In Poland, the biggest, strongest man in 20 miles was enlisted to serve as Patrick Swayze to Peluso’s Jennifer Grey in a remake of Dirty Dancing‘s pivotal moment.
“Good for him,” one of his superior officers told me. “He’s one of the shyest guys we have.”