By Army Capt. Michael Greenberger
American Forces Press Service
April 28, 2009 - Country singer and troop supporter Toby Keith finished up a 15-show tour in Afghanistan yesterday as he drew near the end of his seventh tour with the United Service Organizations. Keith spent five days criss-crossing the war-torn country visiting bases large and small in a whirlwind of handshakes, autographs, photo-ops and of course – country music shows.
Whether it's hundreds of Marines at Camp Bastion or a crowd of thousands at Kandahar Air Field, countless hours of preparation and manpower go into making each show special.
"It's a three-pronged attack," said Rachel Tischler, USO vice president of entertainment operations. "The crews get to work setting everything up for the larger shows as most of the band goes to see people at the larger bases. While they are doing that, [Toby] and a few others visit the more remote locations."
Keith's tour visited Forward Operating Bases Tillman and Boris, near the Pakistan border, in addition to the larger bases, like FOBs Sharana and Salerno.
"It was important to Toby and the crew to visit as many of the smaller, remote locations as possible," said Tischler. "Never mind getting entertainers – some of them don't have running water!"
Keith, was taught early on to respect the military and those who serve in it.
"My father was a soldier. He taught his kids to respect veterans," said Keith. "It's that respect and the thank-you that we have a military that's in place and ready to defend our nation; our freedom."
Since 2002, Keith and company have visited war zones, military bases and ships at sea to bring a little levity and light into the lives of those in harm's way. He loves his job, he said.
"It's a break from the monotony in their life," Keith said of his duty to the troops. "They're under fire and tremendous workloads trying to accomplish their goals, so when we show up, it changes that for a little while. We try to put smiles on their faces."
According to the roaring crowd in the "clamshell tent" on Bagram, he succeeded.
"The energy level was so high," said Army Spc. Jennifer Cook. "It brought all the soldiers in, no matter what kind of music they liked."
Keith's forte is playing country music. He's been doing it for more than 23 years. Some of the hits he poured into the night sky over Afghanistan have been staples of country music for years – as well as favorites of those in uniform, such as "Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue" and "American Soldier."
Written after his first visit to Iraq, "American Soldier" is a tribute to service members everywhere. Keith salutes military mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters -- ordinary people all over who volunteer to serve their country and give their lives for it if necessary. Keith took many of his first interactions with the military in Iraq, such as a remembrance ceremony for a fallen service member, and turned it into something many could understand.
"Those kinds of things just bore into your soul," Keith said. "I would have never been able to complete 'American Soldier' if it weren't for the experiences I had."
The troops appreciate Keith just as much as he appreciated them.
"This show was awesome," said Air Force Senior Airman Patrick McGuire. "I saw Toby Keith stateside and it was smoky and the crowd was just different. Here, it's like he was here for us, not just a show. It just felt like he was here for us."
Keith doesn't just raise spirits though, he raises awareness too.
"It's great to be supported by someone in the music business," Cook said. "It also keeps us on people's minds back home."
Keith ended more than an hour of guitar whompin', foot stompin' music with a promise he's echoed over 150 times: "I'll see you next year."
After departing Afghanistan, Keith and company head to Italy to finish their seventh USO tour.
(Army Capt. Michael Greenberger serves with the 5th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment)