Troops outside secure compounds bemoan lack of USO entertainment
HILLAH, Iraq — Sitting on his bunk in an abandoned factory where he lives with 150 other soldiers, Army Sgt. Gregg Taylor flipped through a pile of CDs: 50 Cent, Linkin Park, Britney Spears, Patsy Cline.
“I like a little of everything,” he boasted.
But the Baltimore reservist assigned to the 372nd Military Police Company out of Cumberland, Md., would love to see some of his favorite artists in person while he’s deployed in the desert. During his 10 months in Iraq, though, he hasn’t seen a single United Service Organizations show.
“It seems like they’ve forgotten me,” Taylor said.
The 25-year-old sergeant is not alone.
The USO has had little success in getting its celebrities beyond the larger, more secure U.S. compounds in Iraq and Afghanistan to the smaller camps and hubs where the majority of troops live and work.
“When they are shooting down helicopters and you have to take a helicopter to go somewhere, you’re not going to be taking one,” said Bernie Rone, who works out of Washington, D.C., and is manager of celebrity tours for the USO.
In August, Stars and Stripes reporters asked nearly 1,900 American troops in Iraq how they rated services and conditions, including the USO, as part of a wide-ranging survey that resulted in a series of stories called “Ground Truth: Conditions, Contrasts and Morale.”
More than 80 percent of the 1,800 respondents who rated the USO on a scale of 1 to 5 gave the organization the lowest rating of 1. Some wrote in a zero. Indicators show the low rating wasn’t because of show quality, but rather the lack of shows. Still others didn’t know what the USO was.
Meanwhile, military officials warn that the number of USO overseas tours may drop this year because the Armed Forces Entertainment Office, which works with the USO to book and run the tours, had its funding cut by 22 percent for fiscal 2004.
The Armed Forces Entertainment Office is funded by the Department of Defense and reimburses the USO and other companies for overseas entertainment tours. Meanwhile, the USO, a nonprofit charity that raises money primarily through private donations, pays for the entertainers’ perks, such as first-class plane tickets and alcohol that government regulations bar the DOD from paying.
“We hope we would get more funding, but I don’t think it’s going to happen,” said Air Force Col. Janice Long, who heads the Armed Forces Entertainment Branch, located in the Pentagon. “I wish we had full funding, but we don’t.”
In fiscal 2003, Long’s office had a $9 million budget. This year it received about $7 million.
That money is used to provide both celebrity and noncelebrity entertainment.
Noncelebrity entertainers — professional artists without wide name recognition — are booked and handled by the Armed Forces Entertainment Branch. The military then contracts with the USO to take care of the celebrity entertainment.
Of the USO’s total budget, though, only about 20 percent is used for overseas entertainment. Most of its money is used on programs such as overseas service centers and canteens, employment assistance for discharges and airport welcome centers.
Last year, the USO and the Armed Forces Entertainment Branch, which also provides entertainment to stateside troops, hosted roughly 40 overseas tours. About one-third of those were high-profile celebrities, including comedians Robin Williams and Drew Carey, entertainer Wayne Newton, musician Joann Jett and country singer Neal McCoy.
They entertained in places such as Baghdad and Kuwait City and at the airfields in Kabul and Kandahar in Afghanistan.
Taking no chances
The celebrities still have a hard, if not impossible, time traveling beyond the secure, heavily guarded main operations centers.
“It happens all the time. We’re ready to go out with one of our performers and the local commander will cancel it at the last minute because of security concerns,” Long said. “We’re really at their mercy.”
For example, last September longtime USO supporter Carey, a former Marine, visited troops in Iraq but never ventured farther than the confines of Baghdad International Airport.
Actor Bruce Willis also visited troops that month, but he didn’t step outside Camp Arifjan, a $200 million outpost about 30 miles south of Kuwait City with hard-sided dining halls, gyms and a movie theater.
“I can understand how it’s hard to get us to see someone, but maybe it’s time we started finding a way to get these people out farther,” Army Sgt. Michelle Peters, a truck driver based at Tallil Air Field, wrote in an e-mail. “These guys are big morale boosters. After mail from home and morale [telephone] calls, the USO tours make a big difference in our quality of life.”
The USO and the Department of Defense concede that troops in the more isolated corners in the war on terrorism have a harder time getting the USO tours.
Rone sympathizes with the troops, too.
“We have [celebrities] who will go anywhere to be with the troops, but if they can’t get clearance to travel somewhere, they can’t go,” he said.
Those are the same guidelines entertainers visiting troops have always been under, he said.
Some USO entertainment tours are structured so performers break into smaller groups to reach the more isolated outposts, Rone said.
Still, those entertainers who make an effort can get to the isolated camps to meet the troops. While Marines and soldiers scattered across southern Iraq last summer repeatedly lamented the lack of USO tours, they uniformly recalled the sole visitor who made their day.
“R. Lee Ermey is the one guy who really seemed to care,” said Army Cpl. Lance Christian, who was stationed last August at Camp Babylon, about a three-hour drive south of Baghdad.
Ermey is a former Marine gunnery sergeant and drill instructor who starred in, among other films, “Full Metal Jacket.”
Now as part of “Mail Call,” a show on cable TV’s History Channel that answers questions about the military, Ermey visits deployed troops in the Middle East to boost morale.
“He sympathizes with us,” Christian said. “He knew it was the guys in the dirt who needed a visit the most. He knows what it’s like to not get mail, to not get showers.
“We need the visits more than some guy living in luxury,” Christian said, referring to troops who eat daily in traditional dining facilities and have access to television and hot showers.
All USO entertainers donate their time, and the USO and federal government pick up their travel costs. The celebrities also earn a per diem of $50, but most donate it back to the USO, said Donna St. John, a spokeswoman for the World USO headquarters in Washington.
Sometimes entertainers approach the USO or the military about entertaining troops overseas; other times the USO or the military approaches the celebrities.
Rone said the USO tours are not easy on performers.
“We give them a taste of military life,” he said.
A one-day performance in Iraq or Afghanistan, for example, means two days of travel each way, he said.
“A lot of celebrities want to do this but they have busy schedules and it’s hard to find the time,” he said.
The USO has never had a tour disrupted because of injury or attack, although terrorism touched the USO on April 14, 1988, when a car bomb exploded outside the USO Fleet Center in Naples, Italy. The center was destroyed and the bomb killed five people, including the first woman in the U.S. Navy to die in a terror attack.
To determine what the troops want, Armed Forces Entertainment contacts individual combatant commanders each year, Long said.
The USO has added performers as servicemembers’ tastes change, St. John said. She points to the addition of rappers such as Jay-Z and 50 Cent.
“We change with what people want,” she said.
Armed Forces Entertainment relies upon the USO’s expertise and contacts to persuade entertainers to hit the road for the American military.
Armed Forces Entertainment, meanwhile, concentrates on delivering noncelebrity performers to the troops, Long said. They, too, perform for free, she said, and are selected after reviewing audition tapes.
“They may not be well-known but they provide the diversion and entertainment we want our troops to get,” she said.
“The troops are grateful for any entertainer who gives up his or her time to go and spend time with them,” St. John said.