© 2010 Leighann Lord
Entertaining the troops in the Middle East back in 2002 during Operation Enduring Freedom was a once in a lifetime opportunity. Spending 30 days on bases in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia was alternately thrilling and exhausting. I assumed I'd never do it again. But alas, my wanderlust got the better of me and - thanks to Armed Forces Entertainment – off I went to Iraq: Five comics, nine bases, 10 days. Amazing!
Hands down, military audiences are some of the best I've ever performed for. Given the stressful environment and dangerous jobs they do, the soldiers are highly appreciative of the brief respite they get from visiting entertainers. We are treated like gold.
One of the coolest things was getting to literally bunk in Saddam Hussein's Hunting Lodge. The U.S. military converted this mini palace into a hotel complete with dining area, gym and internet. Aside from the bunk beds, the Lodge was lavishly furnished with the gaudiest Victorian furniture I've ever seen. It's proof that being a wealthy, maniacal dictator doesn't automatically confer one with a sense of style.
Because of the upcoming Iraqi elections, ground transportation was out of the question, so we traveled to shows by Black Hawk helicopter. At $10 million a pop, it's a very expensive taxi. They're great for short trips but anything longer than 30 minutes requires ear plugs, buns of steel and long johns. Black Hawks have a four-man crew: Pilot, copilot and two gunners for whom the windows stay open, giving new meaning to the phrase "freezing your ass off." I'd love to be able to tell my grand children about this trip, but I'm not sure my eggs will ever completely thaw.
A couple of the bases we visited were all male. "It's Raining Men" looped through my mind so often I probably owe royalties. Apparently, we not only have a well-trained military but a good-looking one as well. Selective Service indeed. I love the smell of testosterone in the morning.
I'm always stunned though by how young our soldiers are. We met a baby-faced 17-year-old who should have been playing video games at home, not war games in the desert. I wondered if it was too late to call his Mom and get him grounded. Having acne and an M-16 just feels wrong but on the other hand, who would be intimidated by a fighting force of 50-year-olds? It's not that they're past their prime, they’re just past the point in their lives when they can live on pop tarts and energy drinks without dire digestive consequences. That's not the surge anyone had in mind.
While performing for the troops is a rewarding experience, it's not for everybody. It can be physically and emotionally draining, and requires a great deal of patience and flexibility. Even though my second tour had more amenities than the first, there was still the matter of body armor, helmets, bunk beds, carb heavy food, and sand. The vast amount of the latter was a bit of a shock. Sure, we have beaches in New York but by comparison our sand is more like concrete with low self esteem.
Suffice it to say the desert is no place for neat freaks. My inner Felix Unger was having a nervous breakdown. The soldiers were carrying guns and I wanted to carry a Swiffer. Thank goodness for baby wipes. I doubt I’d do well in the military.
“Where’s your weapon, Soldier?”The military uses a 24-hour-clock:
“Wrapped in plastic, Sir!”
0900 (oh-nine hundred) hours is 9am.
1200 (twelve hundred) hours is noon.
1300 (thirteen hundred) hours is 1pm.
Math is not my strong suit, consequently I never really knew what time it was. Factor in the challenge of keeping in touch with my family in New York on Eastern Standard Time, and I was constantly adding 12, subtracting eight, and regretting not taking a Quantum Physics class when I had the chance. Where’s Stephen Hawking when you need him?
Many of our shows were at 1900 hours. For military people that’s 7pm. For me, 1900 isn’t a time of day, it’s a year; 2300 means we’re meeting in the future.
And then there are the porta pottys. If you're afflicted with Archie Bunker Syndrome -- you can only go to the bathroom in your own home -- then scratch trekking through the Middle East off your bucket list. In America, the porcelain throne is pretty standard equipment, but in that part of the world you're just as likely to find a hole in the ground. I saw such a hole in the women's bathroom in the Kuwait International Airport and I felt my colon hermetically seal itself.
Thankfully, most of the bases had indoor plumbing but indoor doesn’t mean good. One base had one bathroom for each ... er ... function. There was a Number One Bathroom and a Number Two Bathroom. You had to decide ahead of time what you were going to do and stick to it, no changing your mind at the last minute. Who’s got the kind of gastrointestinal fortitude? Do they teach you that in Basic Training?
America's presence in the Middle East is fraught with tension. Why are we there? When are we leaving? What are we fighting for? Oil, democracy, cultural superiority? Perhaps it all comes down to plumbing. One of the most basic freedoms and pleasures in life is being able to, shall we say, fire at will. When you can’t do that, the terrorists win.
I take pride in knowing that the laughs we brought to the troops helped their hearts, minds and colons.