By Kathleen T. Rhem
Nov. 23, 2006 – U.S. troops serving in Afghanistan are the embodiment of the Army values of loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage, country singer Michael Peterson told troops here today during a Thanksgiving concert.
Peterson, here courtesy of the United Service Organizations, accompanied Army Command Sgt. Maj. William J. Gainey, senior enlisted advisor for Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as he visited U.S. troops at three different bases in Afghanistan today. Army Command Sgt. Maj. Daniel R. Wood, the top enlisted member in Combined Joint Task Force Afghanistan, accompanied them on the trip.
"General Pace wants me to tell all of you that he's very proud of you and to stay focused," Gainey told a group of servicemembers in Forward Operating Base Gardez, his first stop of the day.
After eating a traditional Thanksgiving meal with soldiers from the Connecticut National Guard, Gainey spent time explaining his role as senior enlisted advisor to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and thanking the troops for serving far from home on Thanksgiving. He also told the troops their mission is as important as that of servicemembers in Iraq.
Peterson, a Grammy Award-nominated singer and songwriter, then had the group alternating between stitches and tears as he combined deep-rooted patriotism with sometimes-ribald humor in his remarks and songs. He's sold more than a million records, but doesn't travel with an entourage -- just an acoustic guitar and a cowboy hat.
Peterson's heartfelt respect and admiration for servicemembers was evident in every remark. "I'm like a lot of others: When our country was hit (in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks), I knew I wanted to do something, but I didn't know what to do," he said before launching into a patriotic song about the value of veterans and the American Legion. He's donating half the profits from the song to the Legion's Legacy Scholarship Fund, which takes care of college scholarships for students whose parents have been killed in action.
"So I'm doing what I can with what I have and where I'm at," he said. "That's why I'm out here, just trying to be one team, one fight with you guys and trying to close the gap between the military and the civilians."
He also thanked the troops for their service. "More than anything, I say, 'Thank you' on this Thanksgiving Day," Peterson said. "My hat's off to you."
A table in the base's brand-new dining facility sported paper leaves with handwritten messages about what the troops were thankful for. Some were sweet: children, family, spouses, God, etc. Others were more practical to deployed servicemembers: rest-and-relaxation leave, Kevlar, Gortex, bacon. And still others raised eyebrows: "Not being dead," read one, while others proclaimed their authors' thanks for such things as Rick James, snow, Puerto Rico and cheerleaders.
Peterson and Gainey next traveled via Black Hawk helicopter to Forward Operating Base Ghazni, where they spoke to and entertained about 20 soldiers during a brief stop. Peterson's patriotic bent continued there. After singing a song titled, "I'm a soldier," he told the troops that what they're doing matters.
"I believe if we don't stop them here, they'll bring the fight to us. You are the ones that are changing the world," he said. "How do I know that? Because I stood yesterday with the Afghan National Army at their training center, and I can't really put into words what I saw and what I felt, except that I knew I was seeing people that were getting a taste of something they had never known their whole lives, and that's the taste of freedom."
The singer thanked the servicemembers for "a commitment to patriotism that lives not just on your lips, but in your hearts."
"I know some days it doesn't feel like it, some days you're probably just flat wore out, tired and want to go home, and maybe Thanksgiving's one of them," he said, "but you're making a difference. I saw it yesterday."
Finally the group set down at Bagram Air Base, headquarters of Combined Joint Task Force 76 and the main air hub for coalition forces into and out of Afghanistan. Peterson, Gainey, Wood and several other senior enlisted leaders donned aprons and dished up chow for about an hour as they greeted troops and continued to thank them for their service. Army Gen. John Abizaid, chief of U.S. central Command, and other senior officers served meals at a different dining facility across the base.
Just before a performance by the Air Force "Tops in Blue" touring group here, Peterson performed for half an hour before about 400 servicemembers who obviously appreciated his humor and his message.
After first suggesting that frequent deployments were the key to marital bliss, Peterson shared his top two tips for lengthy marriages. He said married men should forget all their mistakes. "There's no reason for two people to remember the same bad thing for the rest of their lives," he said.
His second tip: Never let your wife cut your hair when she's mad at you. "Never a good idea," he said.
The roar of helicopters overhead sometimes cut through the festivities, a reminder that military operations here don't stop for holidays, no matter how significant.
Peterson also traded hats with a young soldier who's a huge country music fan. Army Spc. Candace Smith walked away with Peterson's cowboy hat, which he had hand carried from the states in a protective plastic case, and he'll wear a 10th Mountain Division baseball cap home tomorrow.
"He was great," Smith said. "I loved it!"
Then Peterson got serious, earning respect and cheers from many in the standing-room-only crowd when he explained that he left the music industry 10 years ago as he was on the cusp of being a household name. After 700 concerts in fewer than three years, he was on the verge of sacrificing his family for stardom when he decided to leave it behind.
"It was a lousy career decision, but I've still got my family," he said. "And you know what I figured out? If you're lucky, you'll maybe get a second chance to do with your life what you love to do whether you're famous or not, but you may not get a second chance at your family. So I know I made one of the greatest decisions I ever made."
But patriotism drove him back into music. "I knew that I still loved to do music. What happened to me was a daughter who became a battalion commander in a Junior ROTC group of about 350 high school students, combined with 9-11, combined with seeing a cover of a Sports Illustrated magazine with Pat Tillman on it and how deeply that moved me and inspired me," Peterson said at Bagram.
His voice choked with emotion when he spoke of Tillman, a National Football League star who left a $3 million contract behind to enlist in the Army Rangers after Sept. 11. Tillman was killed in a friendly-fire incident in Afghanistan.
He performed a brand-new song called, "I remember, America," which carried a message for servicemembers everywhere. "I'll never forget the day, Sept. 11, 2001, when those b******s tried to blow our dreams away," Peterson sung. "And my prayer for you tonight is that you get the job done and come home safe again."
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