By Amy K. Mitchell
Upon entering a combat zone on a USO tour, the thought of being shot at or even possibly wounded does cross the mind.
Yet, as soon as you are on the ground, the focus becomes talking with new friends, relieving the burden of war, and paying tribute to the military’s service and sacrifice with a few hours of entertainment at the bases visited. And even though war is always in the background, the tour is wrapped in the military’s protective shroud, and you feel invincible.
Since the start of Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, the USO has joined the military at the frontlines. Entertainers now regularly visit FOBs (forward operating bases) throughout the Afghanistan and Iraq AOR (areas of responsibility). And nobody has pushed the limit farther than Toby Keith.
For seven years, Toby Keith and his band of brothers have spent two unpaid weeks per year “FOB Hopping” with the USO. It is Toby himself who insists that when America’s Toughest Tour goes on the road, they “go anywhere.” To quote Toby’s most popular military song, Toby “doesn’t do it for the money” and he “doesn’t do it for the glory.”
There is an adage that applies if you can’t hang on tour - shape up or ship out. After years of doing this, Toby’s crew has the drill down: grab your helmet, put on your body armor, and get out there and perform. They are pros - the long hours of travel and spartan accommodations don’t faze them. In fact, the rougher the conditions, the better.
“We started out trying to set an example, trying to get other entertainers and performers to come over and Americans to support the cause. We try to set the example and the bar pretty high,” Toby explains. The country star has even gone a step farther and has assisted in recruiting other musicians for USO tours.
FOB Hopping brings a performer to the tip of the spear. This year that meant straight into Taliban country.
FOB Hopping sounds cool. And … it is. You helo from FOB to FOB in a Black Hawk or Sea Stallion or Chinook - high and away, or low and fast across the Afghan countryside. The air crews outfit their guests with headsets and you not only hear what is happening on the ground, but also the back and forth between the crew and Toby, who loves to joke with them. On the approach to FOB Shank for example, a base situated on a high plain in the mountains, the following announcement was made: “Thank you for flying today with Army Air. We appreciate your business and hope you have enjoyed your flight. We realize you have many choices in air travel while in Afghanistan, and we’d like to thank you for choosing the U.S. Army during your stay.”
Afghanistan is a very dangerous place where a very dangerous war rages on. The military protects the entertainers and USO each step of way. Our troops are ever vigilant about possible threats 24/7. From gunship escorts to black out and mortar procedures to perimeters, they protect their cargo - us. Out at the FOBs, the danger is even higher. There is no rotor to lift you from the ground to safety in a moment’s notice. Just four walls, four watchtowers, some barbed wire, and your fellow soldiers.
One Army captain, after reviewing the tour schedule, mused, “Welcome to the Wild, Wild, West.” He was not joking. Going to Afghanistan turns the clock back to yesteryear. Though the phrase should probably be, “Welcome to the Wild, Wild, East” to be geographically correct. On most flights an Apache crisscrossed our bird’s tail. Anyone who has seen an Apache up close and personal on the ground hunting them down knows to be afraid, very afraid; while those of us up in the air know we are safe, very safe.
“I’ve got a family back home too, that starts to freak a bit when it gets to this time of year to come over here. Once we’re gone, we’re over here, even after seven years, you still have to get your mind set that you’re going to be in a chopper, in a war zone, you’re going to come under fire sometimes. You’re going to be involved in some stuff,” Toby said during an interview in Bagram. “But the second that it gets too hot, I look up and here comes a Cobra or an Apache to take us on in. So if they say ‘hey, be careful at this next camp, I don’t have to go call and say 'hey, we need help,’ they’ve already got me taken care of. When we leave, here comes the Apache or here comes the Cobra and you know they are going to make sure you’re taken care of.”
FOB life is hard. You have to be mission centric. Although surrounded by Americans, eating American food, the arid vistas you see outside the wire are a vivid reminder you are not in Kansas anymore.
General Larry Harrington, the commanding general of Sharana (renamed Sharona, as in “My” by Toby’s band), told us above the pre-show’s yelps of “Hoo-ah’s” and “Toby” chants, “This is so important to our guys here. They are right in the thick of it out here and a night like tonight means a lot.” The General had pinned on 26 Purple Hearts in the previous week to soldiers from Virginia - part of Task Force Pirate - wounded while bringing the fight to the enemy the six weeks prior to Toby’s arrival.
A FOB’s nomenclature honors the life of a fallen service member who served at that remote location, At newer FOBs, the names still retain the Afghan name of the nearby village. The soldiers of Combat Outpost (COP) Boris, formerly Ramel, all knew the story of the Army Capt. David Boris. His name is a constant reminder of sacrifice serving six miles from the Pakistan border. He was co-captain of his high school soccer and swimming teams, a West Point graduate, beloved by his men, and just 30 years old when he was killed by an lED during a convoy mission through the mountains that overshadow the base. Toby also visited FOB Tillman, named for former Arizona Cardinals player and Army Ranger, Pat Tillman, four days after the fifth anniversary of his death. FOB Tillman is nestled on the side of rugged mountain slopes with sweeping views of a valley - a beautiful memorial to the hero from Arizona.
This is the existence of our military serving at forward operating bases, day in and day out. So, when someone decides to come for dinner (or lunch), it’s a pretty safe guess that the red carpet will be rolled out - FOB style.
During the first day of FOB Hopping, the band noticed some unusual, and quite amusing, stage decorations. Camo netting was to be expected. But then an American flag bearing John Wayne’s image appeared. A row of in-ground “stage lights” of detonated mortars adorned one “set.” Followed by an MRAP to provide stadium seating, a garden gnome, and even a stuffed squirrel appeared out in the wilds of Afghanistan.
By the fifth FOB Hop, the stage was decorated with a cargo chute suspended as a canopy and affixed to wire by binder clips (the men of 509 Geronimo from Anchorage, Alaska, “had finally found a use for them”), it was decided that perhaps next year, Toby should also host a FOB decorating contest while on tour.
“We put this together in less than an hour. Hanging the chute took the longest,” said Sgt. Darren Garcia from San Angelo, Texas. The FOB’s team of sergeants scoured the base to find ideas, and then the parts, to give Toby a proper stage and welcome. FOBs don’t get many visitors - some of the FOBs Toby visited on this tour had never had entertainment. So when a mega-country star stops by, “getting it right is a matter of unit pride,” explained SSgt. Matt Romine of West Virginia.
In terms of creativity and resourcefulness, the U.S. FOBs of Afghanistan would outdo HGTV any day. Plus, they were able to pull off urban chic … no easy feat.
But seeing the living conditions, and the lack of amenities from home, was difficult to witness, and then depart.
“COP Carwile doesn’t even have showers,” Toby said just before the concert in Bagram. “Those poor guys have to rotate in once every couple of weeks for a shower. Just knowing that and seeing the missions carried out … is unbelievable to me.” FOB Bakwa, a Marine camp no larger than two acres in the middle of the desert and another stop on this tour, also doesn’t have running water. But as the Marines stationed there promptly informed us, “Smelling like Dial doesn’t help when you’re sneaking up on the enemy. Plus, we’re Marines … we don’t want it, and we don’t need it.” Guess where the John Wayne flag was hung?
Horseshoes and watching movies pass the time at many of these remote locations when the units are not out on patrol. “This is our little piece of heaven,” smiled Richard, a sergeant first class, originally from Oklahoma. Richard’s wife is in the Air Force. Both have been deployed numerous times over the past three years - not during the same time frames, “It is a marriage between war zones,” he joked. “We see each other long enough to fight and then one of us is off again.”
Shadowing Toby from FOB to COP to FOB, it is apparent that the military views him as one of its own. Toby dressed in fatigues every day. When he arrived at a new base, the soldiers or Marines were at the ready to make sure he was properly attired … in their desert camo and not another service’s digital pattern.
Toby’s military roots run deep, and he knows firsthand the hardships of service on a military family. “My father was a soldier and he had lost an eye in a combat training mission back in the 50s, I was born in the 60s and he taught his kids to respect veterans no matter where they went. In fact, he didn’t let anybody come to his door unsolicited unless it was a veterans’ organization and then he would let them in the house. It was growing up in that world, and the respect he had because he was a soldier and got drafted. Knowing today they are not drafted, that they are volunteers, and they still come over hen when their elected officials send them - this tour is to pay respect and say thanks for knowing we have a military in place that’s ready to defend our nation and our freedom.
"I’ve also talked to so many commanders and sergeants major wives on this trip,” Toby continued about the sacrifices made by our military, “They get their cell phones out. There is cell service everywhere here, I feel like I’m in Des Moines. But they wake them up at three in the morning and I’ve wished them a happy birthday or said hello. They’re sitting back home, while their spouse, their family member is away - that’s complete dedication to continue to serve our country, and I really appreciate that.”
While in country Toby also attended two re-enlistment ceremonies, Both ceremonies were beautifully summarized by the first lieutenant’s introduction of the specialist re-upping for another four years at the second ceremony: “I am humbled by your loyalty to the nation, the Army, and your fellow soldiers.” Looking on, out in the desert thousands of miles from home, you are proud to be an American.
America’s Toughest Tour, however, wasn’t all smiles and laughter. One of the hardest songs to perform for Toby and his band while visiting Iraq or Afghanistan is “American Soldier.” The emotions laid bare at Toby’s feet as he strikes the first chords and sings, “I’m just trying to be a father/Raise a daughter and a son” are palpable, Everyone in the audience knows what comes next - they are American soldiers and this is their song; they own it.
An officer from the Pentagon told of a funeral he had recently attended for a fellow soldier just before the tour departed for Afghanistan, in which “American Soldier” was played as the closing hymn. This story is not uncommon - Toby’s managers receive dozens of letters from families of the fallen clinging to the honor and sacrifice woven through the lyrics. “American Soldier” has made an impact on the military community. But it was four soldiers who had that impact on Toby.
“Having to fly with a flag-draped casket, it’s such a reality check … it bores into your soul,” he described of writing the song alongside the four caskets as the tour left Iraq in 2004. “All these people … they’re a father, and a mother, and a brother and a sister. When you watch it on TV, it’s the same uniform, same helmet, same gun, same backpack, same sunglasses, same boots, cover, everything, But each one of those souls is somebody, to somebody - to a family, to an office, to a construction crew. They belong back home. This is a job. If we’re not at war, there are still being trained and on the alert, ready to go at the drop of hat. So, that’s what I wrote 'American Soldier’ for, it’s a tribute. I’d never have completed the song as well as it’s written if I hadn’t had experiences over here.”
Performers don’t sleep much on USO tours, the schedule being so tight. And Toby works extra hard, performing up to three shows a day. Not a minute is wasted.
To watch Toby in action, surrounded by soldiers at a FOB or on a flightline, laughing and shaking hands, you feel his sincerity for this mission. You know in your heart he is “true down to the core.” Not a photo, or surprisingly a guitar - of which there are apparently hundreds throughout Afghanistan - was left unsigned during those five days in Afghanistan. Toby made time for every soldier, sailor, Marine, and airman he met.
Touring with the USO has changed Toby Keith, “If my career at home were ever to hit the shore, I would still find ways to do this. This is part of me now,” he said.
Col. Ed Shock, chief of Armed Forces Entertainment, said of Toby’s recent tour, “The USO and Armed Forces Entertainment tours have a profound impact on our service members. When you send a superstar like Toby Keith into a combat zone where he visits a Combat Outpost high in the mountains of Afghanistan, for many of these young service members, this is the first time they have ever seen a celebrity in person let alone get the opportunity to shake his hand, get a picture, and actually talk to him. That is something they will remember the rest of their lives and share with family and friends.”
It was exactly that reaction Toby and his band of brothers experienced over and over at every stop: “We can’t believe Toby Keith would come all this way just to see us.”
That is the joy of a USO tour.
And so, as Toby ended every show, it is our promise too: “See y'all next year.”
Stories in this Series
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