Photos of Smiling Troops are the Story of Roker's USO Tour
“By Eric Brandner”
Al Roker’s face is on a lot of strangers’ cellphones.
The gregarious weatherman-turned-co-anchor of NBC’s “Today” gets hundreds of photo requests from fans standing just beyond the barriers of the show’s outdoor studio in the heart of Manhattan.
In October, Roker was the one asking for the photos.
As part of the “Today” Shine a Light initiative, Roker helped assemble the “Today”/USO Comedy Tour, taking a band of Hollywood talent and NBC cameras and producers to Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan. Once on the ground, Roker, Jay Leno, Craig Robinson, Iliza Shlesinger and Kevin Eubanks entertained American service members with a series of live shots on “Today,” followed by a more traditional USO show.
“Normally when you’re doing a remote, people come up and they want to take your picture,” Roker said. “This is different. You want to have your picture taken with [service members] because of what they’re doing. That’s not to say I don’t want to have my picture taken with regular folks, but here are people who are sacrificing so much day in and day out.”
It was a trip 50 years in the making for Roker, who grew up a fan of Bob Hope’s USO shows he watched on television with his parents. Roker and “Today” co-host Matt Lauer did “Today” segments from Afghanistan in late 2009, and that got the famous weatherman thinking about doing his own USO show for troops downrange. When the Shine a Light initiative came along, Roker saw it as a way to fulfill his dream and help out the military at the same time.
As part of the tour, Roker established a Crowdrise page that is still raising funds for the USO. While the USO’s entertainment operation often gets the headlines, the organization’s core mission is to provide programs and resources for troops and their families at more than 160 locations around the world.
“When I first proposed this, in a sense the war in Afghanistan was winding down and I think people had forgotten that there are still soldiers there,” he said. “With everything that’s been going on … with Iraq and Afghanistan and [the Islamic State] … I think their role has become more front and center.”
Despite the gravity of the current Mideast situation, Roker said the mood on the trip was upbeat compared to his December 2009 reporting trip to Kabul, which came a week after the announcement of the U.S. troop surge into Afghanistan.
“I had Jay Leno and Kevin Eubanks and Craig Robinson and Iliza Shlesinger [on this trip]. And together we had this kind of camaraderie and this sense of purpose that we were going in to do this and take care of these troops,” he said. “Again, it was a short period of time, but it was something really worthwhile.
“The idea that you can put a smile on their face … that’s why you’re doing it. Their face lights up. And you’re like ‘wow, I am making a difference for these people.’”
–Eric Brandner is the USO’s director of story development.
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