A New Tour of Duty: The USO's Evolving Marquee For more than 60 years, the USO has been entertaining America's military men and women around the world. But the troops' tastes have changed a lot since the days when Bob Hope made the GIs smile.
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A New Tour of Duty: The USO's Evolving Marquee

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A New Tour of Duty: The USO's Evolving Marquee

A New Tour of Duty: The USO's Evolving Marquee

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Fifty years ago this week, one of the Army's most famous soldiers reported for duty. He turned up at Fort Hood, Texas, sporting a fresh GI haircut. The Army assigned him to a tank battalion, though he did his best-known work outside of a tank.

(Soundbite of song "G.I. Blues")

M: (Singing) We like to be heroes, but all that we do here is march. We like to be heroes, but all that we do here is march, and they don't give the Purple Heart for a fallen arch.

HANSEN: Elvis Presley still has fans in the military. Fifty years after he joined the Army, though, many American troops are clamoring for a different sound.


M: (Singing) Let's go. Whoah, yeah. This is for the soldiers. Whoah, yeah. This is for the soldiers.

HANSEN: That's a band called Drowning Pool performing in Iraq. The concert was sponsored by the United Service Organizations. For more than six decades, the USO has been trying to boost the morale of American troops. Joining us to talk about what the USO is doing to reach out to today's troops is Ned Powell. He's president and CEO of the USO. Thanks for joining us.

M: My privilege, Liane. Nice to be with you.

HANSEN: The USO tours - when performers from the United States go and perform for our troops wherever they are. Who are some of the most popular performers now? Who really strikes a chord for those American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan?

M: I think the most high-profile individuals, of course, are people like Robin Williams, Toby Keith. Kellie Pickler was over there.

HANSEN: Oh, one of the American Idols.

M: And she was a great hit. Scarlett Johansson, by the way, was there in January in Iraq.

HANSEN: Well do troops get a vote? I mean, you know, are there some that might be a little - I mean, the soldiers might like them, but maybe the USO might think these...

M: Well, it's a combination of things, Liane. First of all, we do listen to the soldiers. We do pay attention to who they want to see. I think it's fair to say some - I have, on occasion, received some criticism for why haven't I done more to get entertainers, but if I know who the entertainers are, they're not the ones the soldiers are interested in.


M: There is the small age differential. And it's important that we listen to who they want to see. They are very interested in bands and so forth that I haven't a clue who they are, and their music perhaps gives me a headache, but that's not the point.

HANSEN: Drowning Pool, for example.

M: Well, I wasn't going to name names, but no, no, no. But they're great folks. The soldiers love them. We do coordinate with the military, and they do approve everyone that goes. We also have to work very closely with the military to coordinate the schedules because they provide the aircraft to fly us around, the security to take care of the people, and it's a big deal when you start moving a group of people around in a war zone. If war stuff comes first, it comes first.

HANSEN: So it takes a lot to get a show like Drowning Pool to actually get there and perform.

M: It takes generally between 90 and 120 days to plan it, organize it and get it on the road, as it were. And people sometimes don't understand: We have, on average, a show somewhere in the world every day, and people seem to think that Iraq and Afghanistan is the only thing going on. We have shows in Korea, in Europe, in Italy, in Okinawa. There's troops and sailors and airmen and Marines all over the place, and we take care of all of them. We don't just go to Iraq and Afghanistan.

HANSEN: You mentioned Robin Williams. We actually have a clip from a performance that Robin Williams gave as part of a USO tour, and it's quite extraordinary. I'm going to leave it to you. Set up the scene, and describe what happened as he was in his comedy routine.

M: Well, they were in Camp Arifjan. They had just come off the plane from flying over from the U.S.

M: (Unintelligible).


M: The routine starts, and as you can hear from the tape, "Retreat" is played.


M: And anyone with a military background knows when "Retreat" is played on the base, everyone turns, faces the flag and salutes for the duration of the music, and this was something that obviously caught Robin a little by surprise.


M: I'm not going to forget that.


M: I've never had an entire audience just go, forget you!


HANSEN: He wasn't sure what was going on. He wasn't sure if there was incoming or they just were standing up and turning their back on him because they didn't like his routine.

M: Right.


HANSEN: Watching something like that, and I think also watching the Drowning Pool video, when you're watching these soldiers and they're all dancing around in a mosh pit, and you know, there's some liquid spraying. I'm sure it's soda pop. I look at the faces of the soldiers during that concert and it really is like they're taken away from their day-to-day existence. How does it make you feel when you see that about the work the USO does?

M: I have rarely done anything in my life that has given such a sense of appreciation or value. We've had phone calls that have come into the office, when a son has called home and he's got his cell phone at a show, and he's talking to his mom, and he's so excited he can barely contain himself.

I've also seen a three-star general get a tear in his eye talking about the meaning to him as a Vietnam soldier of coming up the escalator in Atlanta and being greeted by cheering fellow citizens as opposed to being forced to take his uniform off because it was dangerous coming back from Vietnam. I'm very proud of that.

HANSEN: Has the USO had to retool itself a little bit, given new technologies? I'm thinking of the comic strip "Doonesbury," and there's this character named Toggle, and he's serving in Iraq, and he used to crank out MP3 mixes for all of his buddies. Is the USO connecting with the MP3 generation? Has it had to revamp itself a little bit to become current?

M: Well, that's a very good question. We have changed. We are a different organization in how we do what we do than we were five years ago, much less 60 years ago. At the same time, however, what we do has not changed. The process of what makes them happy, the computer technology, the video games, those types of things, sure we have to stay current.

HANSEN: So how does one get on a USO tour? I mean, you have NFL players, you have beauty queens, you have comics, you have musicians, and there's a 2006 tour led by Drew Carey. Do these people volunteer? Do you invite them?

M: Short answer, yes. I mean, we do a little bit of both. We try to take as far up that we can, because that's - I mean, if you ask a soldier, an airman, a sailor, who would you like to see, well they're going to want to see Angelina Jolie, or they're going to want to see a Brad Pitt. They're going to want to see - or the comedians, who are obviously the easiest for us to take because their footprint, if you will, it's usually a comedian and a microphone as opposed to a Drowning Pool, logistically, is a much grander scale.

HANSEN: With all the drums and the instruments and the amplifiers.

M: The electronics, all of the above.


M: But we try to accommodate. As I say, we work with Armed Forces Entertainment, and they have to approve everybody. We also are very careful, and our entertainers are very careful, to understand: Politics have no business with the USO. That's not our place, it's not our job, and everyone that goes on a tour also recognizes they're there for the troops, and they're not there to harangue anybody. They're there to entertain and have fun.

HANSEN: Concerts, performances, coffee, doughnuts, phone cards, electronic greeting cards, sofas, hugs from people, lots of things that the USO does. You have a new program called USO in a Box? How does that work?

M: We came up with this for the very simple reason that there are - I'm sure people have heard the term forward operating base. And in places like Afghanistan, in particular, there are small contingents of soldiers. They may be as small as 50 to 100 or as large as 1,000, but it's still small compared to, say, Balad, which might have as many as 25,000 or 30,000.

W: flat-panel television, a computer, microwave popcorn, and we will send this to them. Again, it goes back to the very simple premise: The folks in those FOMs now know we care about them.

It's a hug in a box. I can promise you. It's amazing to me that you get over there, and you'll get almost anywhere in the front lines, and people say, does anyone back there know we're still here? Even if they've been there two weeks, they'll say the same thing, and our point is very simple, yes, we do, and we care about you, and this is that message from home.

HANSEN: So this week, it'll be exactly 50 years ago that Elvis joined the Army. Is there a legacy at all of that connection with the USO?

M: I really wish I could tell you that we had a couple of his guitars in our archives but unfortunately, I think Elvis, from near as we can tell, concentrated on being a tank driver. He did not do USO shows. He focused on his Army duties when he was in service.

HANSEN: What are the chances, though, that he popped into a USO center for a cup of coffee and a doughnut?

M: I suspect that was pretty good, and I do suspect he probably performed for a general or two somewhere along the line. It seems unlikely that he would not have had that opportunity.

HANSEN: Ned Powell is president and CEO of the USO. Thank you so much for coming in.

M: Thank you for having me.

(Soundbite of song "G.I. Blues")

M: (Singing) I've got those hup, two, three, four occupation G.I. Blues. From my G.I. hair to the heels of my G.I. shoes, and if I don't go stateside soon, I'm gonna blow my fuse.

HANSEN: We couldn't leave this part of the program without hearing from the best-known USO performer, Bob Hope. He's performing here for American troops in Vietnam.


M: What a welcome I got at the airport. They thought I was a replacement.


M: And as we flew in today, they gave us a 21-gun salute. Three of them were ours.


M: I understand the enemy's very close, but with my act, they always are. No, we're happy to be here. You know, I asked Secretary McNamara if I could come here, and he said why not, we've tried everything else.


M: Don't worry about those riots you hear about in the States. You'll be sent to survival school before they send you back there.


M: No, I have real good news for you. I want to tell guys the country's behind you 50 percent.

HANSEN: You can watch video of recent USO performances by Robin Williams and Drowning Pool at npr.org.


HANSEN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News, I'm Liane Hansen.

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