Good morning, Afghanistan!

It's Robin Williams & Co back in old routine

Originally published on December 21, 2007 | The Scotsman | written by Jason Straziuso

ROBIN Williams and Lance Armstrong took a swipe at the French, Kid Rock strummed Sweet Home Alabama, comedian Lewis Black grumbled about the snow, and Miss USA told the troops to "keep kicking butt".

Some 500 American soldiers watched an all-star USO (United Services Organisations) cast perform under a steady snowstorm at a US base in Kabul.

The stop was part of a six-day, 14-show tour that saw the entertainers begin their day with a performance in Iraq.

The group was also performing at bases in Bagram, Kandahar and Kyrgyzstan.

The audience of soldiers--bundled in hooded jackets and warm hats--stood in the snow before a makeshift stage waiting for Williams and company to arrive after they were delayed by rough weather.

Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who was travelling with the group, took the microphone first, telling the soldiers it was a tough time to be away from home but the stars had arrived to provide some festive cheer.

"We brought a few celebrities tonight to try and lift your spirits," he said.

To a burst of cheers from the assembled soldiers, he introduced the first act: Miss USA, Rachel Smith, who gave them a blunt message of support: "We wouldn't have the opportunities and freedoms that we have back at home if you guys weren't over here kicking butt."

Smith, who was born on a military base in Panama, said she wanted to give something back because she knew what the troops were going through and called their work invaluable.

Armstrong, arguably the world's greatest-ever cyclist as a seven-times winner of the Tour de France, told the soldiers that the entertainers had got stuck in Tikrit, Iraq, because of a sandstorm and had to bunk in the same room.

He raised a laugh as he described how Black started snoring 60 seconds after the lights were turned out. "Then Robin was above me snoring, so all night I was punching the bunk trying to get him to stop," he said.

After winning the world's most prestigious bike race so often, he said he was the most hated man in France.

He then said he did not think "there's that many French people around here anyway"--a statement that could be interpreted as a dig at the French military, stationed in the relatively peaceful north of Afghanistan.

However, Armstrong later said he walked offstage and promptly ran into several French soldiers. It was unclear what their reaction was.

Robin Williams, a USO veteran making his fourth trip to Afghanistan, told the soldiers he had woken up on Thursday in the desert sands of Iraq and then ended his day with snow in Kabul. "From sand to snow, mother nature is having hot flashes," he said.

Then he, too, took a dig at the French.

"They're the only people who go into combat wearing a chef's hat," he said. "It's amazing."

Among the many soldiers in the crowd wearing wide smiles on their faces was Lieutenant-Colonel Larry Terranova.

"Afghanistan is sometimes called the forgotten war and we don't get a lot of attention here and conditions are pretty miserable, so it means a lot," said Lt-Col Terranova, 48, who is normally based in Fort Sill, Oklahoma.

He revealed some homesickness when he said he would miss his four children and four grandchildren over the holidays.

Williams, Armstrong and company have already performed in Qatar, Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan and will perform in Kyrgyzstan and Europe before returning home.

Wayne Newton, head of talent recruitment for the USO, has complained in the past that the USO has had trouble recruiting entertainers for trips overseas.

But John Hanson, USO spokesman, said that had proved not to be the case for this particular tour, noting the presence of an all-star cast.

He said there had been 52 USO tours in 2007 that performed more than 300 shows.

"We don't want people to think there aren't people willing to come out here... there are," Mr Hanson said, adding entertainers must commit to between ten days and two weeks per tour.

The cheerleaders of the American football team the Dallas Cowboys--known as "America's Sweethearts"--are currently in Korea to entertain troops there, marking their 65th USO tour.

The cheerleaders were first asked to go to Korea in 1979 and were praised for their "unwavering commitment and support of our nation's troops", by USO president Edward Powell.

Kid Rock, who performed on acoustic guitar and had soldiers sing along with the chorus to Sweet Home Alabama, said he volunteered for the sake of the soldiers.

"I'm here for one reason--to entertain these guys," he said in an interview after the show.

"To be a source of entertainment, give them a slice of home. How can you not come?"

Robin Williams said he wanted the troops to know people in America were thinking about them. "Especially at Christmas... to let people know they're not forgotten," he said.

Armstrong--who said he was introduced to USO tours through the comedy actor, a longtime friend--said debates about the rights and wrongs of the war on terror were not relevant to what they were doing.

"I feel like it's important for us as entertainers or sports figures to support our troops regardless of what you think of the conflict," he said.

"The bottom line is that they sign up to defend our country."

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