By Army Capt. Michael Greenberger
Special to American Forces Press Service
July 16, 2009 - Celebrities stopped by here yesterday to entertain troops as part of the star-studded USO's Summer Troop Visit. Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the celebrities are travelling throughout the U.S. Central Command area of operations to thank troops for their service and sacrifice.
The celebrities include actors Bradley Cooper and D.B. Sweeney, former Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Warrick Dunn, National Football League Hall of Famer Don Shula, and sports commentator and model Leeann Tweeden.
The group's first stop was aboard the USS Ronald Reagan, an aircraft carrier currently under way in the Gulf of Oman. From the floating airport to the sands of Iraq to the hills of Afghanistan, the stars accompanying Mullen said they were excited about entertaining the troops deployed overseas.
"We feel like we want to give something back," said Shula, a well-known former Miami Dolphins coach. "We appreciate so much what our troops do, and we wanted to do something in return."
Travelling to different locations presents logistical challenges. Travel in Afghanistan is dangerous, and some of the outposts are so remote, the only way to reach them is by helicopter.
"The hardest part is getting the talent out to where they have to go," said Army Capt. Dena De Lucia, deputy chief of quality-of-life programs for U.S. Forces Afghanistan.
"Getting to remote [forward operating bases] means getting helicopters, and we got lucky this time because the 82nd Airborne graciously gave us two to use," De Lucia said.
Planning these types of trips can be as harrowing as planning an air-assault mission.
"It takes weeks and months in advance to plan something like this," De Lucia said. "It's a very arduous process. You have to contact camps and make sure they can support the visit, and make sure you can get to where they need to go."
Travelling throughout Afghanistan was difficult for the USO tour, but well worth it to both the troops they visited and the stars themselves.
"All of the places we go are really important, but the smaller locations are very austere, where they don't have hot showers or necessarily a hot meal every day," said Rachel Tischler, USO entertainment operations vice president. "So it's very special to bring that touch of home to those people that don't necessarily have those creature comforts."
Many of the hundreds that lined up outside the Pat Tillman USO here yesterday were delighted that the stars could break away from busy schedules to visit them.
"It's great to have the support of celebrities over here," Army Sgt. Linnea Biniak said. "Them being here and showing support for the troops definitely raises morale."
Inside the USO building, which is named for Pat Tillman, the ex-NFL player and U.S. Army Ranger killed in Afghanistan in 2004, the visiting celebrities struggled to give adequate attention to the servicemembers who had come to see them.
Rather than stay indoors, the stars decided to "walk the line" outside, where they could meet with more people and make sure everyone who came to see them received an autograph or personal photo.
In addition to the "grip and grins" pictures, ssome soldiers were given the opportunity to talk personally with celebrities. Army Spc. Jonathan Grizzard asked Sweeney about several of his films, including "Fire in the Sky," a 1993 film in which Sweeney plays a man abducted by aliens.
"That was the sweetest experience I'd ever had," Grizzard said. "I waited almost an hour, but I would have waited two hours -- it was totally worth it!"
"I've got several movies that people really responded to, and it's very flattering for people to bring up a movie that's 10 years old and talk about specific scenes," Sweeney said. "I kind of get to relive the process of making it, and it underscores what I think my role as an entertainer is, to help people forget their jobs for a little while and get through the day a little easier."
Elsewhere in the line, football fans shook hands and "mugged" with Dunn. Iraqi war veterans swapped stories with Tweeden from her last trip overseas.
Cooper was a big draw following his most recent hit film, "The Hangover."
Meanwhile, inside the building, Shula shared his most memorable moments with diehard sports fans eager for a glimpse of his Super Bowl ring and to get his autograph on their footballs.
Staying until well after 10 p.m., the stars made sure everyone had gotten what they'd come for before finally packing it in to prepare for another day of travelling to more Afghan locations the following day.
"It's amazing for them to come out here and represent the United States," said Air Force Master Sgt. Raymond Stone. "Not many people come out here, and I think it's great that they do it. They've got other things that they have to do, yet they've taken the time to come out here and show their support to us."
(Army Capt. Michael Greenberger is assigned to the 5th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment.)