U.S. AIR BASE, Kuwait--Army Staff Sgt. Andrew Guffey was assigned to the distinguished visitors just arriving to the airbase in the middle of the Kuwaiti desert. The 27-year-old native of Pangburn, Ark., with 10 and a half years of military service was on his first tour of the Middle East and assigned the duty of looking after members of the press.
The occasion was the USO tour just before Christmas hosted by Navy Adm. Michael G. Mullen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Guffey had the photographers and military media under control so he would have the time to enjoy the concert himself.
An old pro of visiting the troops, Robin Williams is on his fourth full USO tour.
Within moments, comedian Lewis Black, Kid Rock, Miss USA Rachel Black and Lance Armstrong were going to entertain the troops, but even before anyone took the stage, Robin Williams was already putting on a show.
This was Williams' fourth tour in the area of operations. Among all the top celebrities paraded in the American media today, it's difficult to find anyone who has committed more energy and time to the troops than the man known as Mrs. Doubtfire.
Guffey, for one, was happy to see the visitors give soldiers "the sense that someone back home cares enough to come out there."
"We dedicate between 7 to 8 million dollars on entertainment," said John Hanson, USO senior vice president of marketing and communication. "We don't pay the talent but we will offer a small per diem." he said. "Most of them refuse it."
Today the group was in Kuwait, yesterday was Qatar, and then over to Afghanistan and Iraq before Turkey and Italy. These weren't glamour tours, the dust alone makes any attempt at flashy theatrics futile; and the physical conditions, hard travel, impromptu stages and questionable acoustics were anything but welcoming.
One of the main reasons why more stars don't come out is the commitment.
"We got them working the same day they got into town," Hanson said.
A home away from home, the USO is a resting stop for troops traveling. This USO, in Ramstein, Germany, has free wireless Internet and all-you-can-play video games.
The daily program can change according to the mood of a Blawkhawk helicopter, but the schedule is set for two to three shows per day in seven countries in just under two weeks.
"We have to be flexible," Hanson cautioned.
The military makes an effort to transport the distinguished visitors, but they often have to wait in line for air assets like anyone else.
"There's a war going on," said Hanson, in the tone of a man who has met and overcome scheduling issues without any of the arrogance normally afforded to Hollywood icons.
Often the issue keeping other stars from coming out are prior engagements. Robin Williams alone had four movie releases in 2005 and six films in 2006. When the stars are not working, the hundreds of people who work with them are also not working.
I first met Marine Sgt. Wayne Edmiston from Scranton, Pa., in Fallujah during Operation Alljah. By chance, we ran into each other on his way back to Cherry Point, N.C. He just happened to be in town during the "great show and a motivated taste of home." The young sergeant was happy his brief stopover included this treat.
"I'm honored they would donate their time," he said.
Edmiston, a tri-athlete, is a big fan of Lance Armstrong, the Sports Illustrated Athlete of the Year and seven-time consecutive Tour de France Champion. Many soldiers throughout the Iraq and Afghanistan sport the famous yellow "Livestrong" wrist bands, so the audience was especially happy to shake hands with the retired cyclist.
"People would pay $1,000 to get this close to these guys, and we have them right here," said the sergeant of the no-frills unidentified airbase where most of the troops are either on their way back home or "heading up North" to Iraq and Afghanistan.
The celebrities had no red carpet, no velvet ropes, no dressing rooms and little if any of the amenities many stars are accustomed to back home.
Edmiston's uncle had seen Robin Williams in Operation Iraq Freedom, OIF One, back in 2003. Although it was Williams' fourth visit to the combat zone, he was still fresh and funny.
When Kid Rock took the stage, he illustrated why many mega stars would probably prefer to stay away from a USO tour. The Detroit bad boy was forced to improvise, humming lyrics as he tuned a reluctant guitar after having already started his first song. No back up, no rehearsal no chorus, just an artist, his skill and that rarity in today's MTV pop culture--charisma.
In under an hour, the troops got more variety than during a 15-month tour. Miss USA spoke about growing up in a military family after posing on a newly arrived Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle. Lance Armstrong spoke of cancer and the challenges "the disease" had given him while Williams was very frank about his most recent tour in rehab during a "You know you're a drunk when..." routine.
The United Society of Organizations, or USO, came about when six charities united in 1941 at the request of President Franklin Roosevelt with the mission of "providing morale and welfare" to U.S. uniformed personnel. For a president known as the creator of "big government," FDR made the uncharacteristic decision to keep the USO autonomous and private, because if the American public didn't support it, he felt, it should not exist.
USO centers are located throughout the U.S. and abroad in places you would expect and others you would not. Some charities donate to the USO, but much of the money comes from private contributions. The Afghanistan USO, or Pat Tillman Center, was donated by the NFL. Nestled in the "Bagram Bowl"--a valley flanked by perpetually snow-capped mountains--the log cabin cottage could easily pass for a ski resort, where movies play 24 hours and military passengers transitioning both in and out of Afghanistan fall asleep on the over-sized chairs while waiting for web pages to download through the wireless Internet.
Immediately upon arrival, Robin Williams, a USO veteran, made his trip to the portable trailer latrines into an event in itself. The Academy Award winner hugged and posed for pictures with any and all comers, improvising people-specific comedy that soldiers will pass on to their grandchildren.
"He's been non-stop," said Staff Sgt. Guffey, the media guard and Williams fan.
Williams has an enormous gift for breaking every rule of civil discourse and still forcing everyone to laugh. There were no boundaries to his 20-minute act: sex, race, politics, culture and celebrity. In front of the loosely camouflaged stage, and armed with nothing more than a microphone he barely needed, Williams shifted into rapid-fire comedy that spanned literally a dozen accents he has mastered in a career that began before most of the troops in the audience were born.
"We don't really want a Bob Hope," said USO rep Hanson.
Times have changed, and so has entertainment. Back in his day, Hope produced tours using his relations with the USO at a time when there was no cable TV and fewer choices for prime time.
Today, it's difficult to get a network or producer interested in a tour because "variety television isn't as popular" and partially because of the changing dynamics of television programming. Today's younger audiences have often never seen a live performance.
Hanson is pleased the soldiers enjoyed the show, but his mind was on the bigger picture. At the end of the day, volunteers handed out gifts to the troops.
With 130 centers throughout the world, the USO has remained lean, keeping a mere 320 employees and mostly staffed by volunteers.
The little known secret was that Williams had donated much of the merchandise.
Kid Rock didn't avoid the controversy of his tabloid divorces. The former DJ dedicated his song "She's half your age and twice as hot" to his former wife, Pamela Anderson.
During his skit, comedian Lewis Black told audiences how much the military needed to change. But he wasn't the only one to give advice.
Kid Rock performed his "What if Kid Rock were president of the U.S." and pledged he would "turn churches into strip clubs" but promised, "We would remain one nation under God." Both comments got cheers from the audience.
Williams was present for the groundbreaking of the first USO in Afghanistan and will be present for the debut of the first USO in Iraq.
Army Cpl. Lee Dumbleton of Rochester, N.Y., is on his second tour and stationed in Germany. He enjoyed the show because he had never had much contact with the USO. Stationed at FOB Naray, near the dangerous Pakistan border, Dumbleton serves at a place "no one visits." With just a guitar and guts, Toby Keith has earned a reputation of going out to the FOBS that have yet to make it on to official maps.