By Danielle DeSimone
In a war zone, one of the most rewarding sights to see is a group of service members doubled over in laughter as they share a moment of levity – a moment where they can forget about the daily pressure of their jobs and the distance between them and their loved ones.
In the middle of the global COVID-19 pandemic, these breaks from reality are even more important, as deployed service members must deal with the added stress of health and safety protocols, in addition to worrying about friends and family back home.
Last week, deployed service members in the Middle East got one of these much-needed moments thanks to Craig Robinson, who participated in a USO Virtual Tour as part of the USO MVP Sessions.
Redefining Entertainment for the Troops During the COVID-19 Pandemic
Craig Robinson – the actor, comedian and musician best known for his roles as Darryl Philbin on “The Office” and Doug Judy on “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” – is no stranger to getting laughs out of the troops.
Six years ago, Robinson joined an all-star group of entertainers, including Al Roker, Jay Leno, Iliza Shlesinger and Kevin Eubanks, as part of the 2014 “Today” Show USO Comedy Tour that traveled to the Middle East region.
“It was humbling, enlightening and it was the most energy I’ve ever experienced,” Robinson said. “It was whirlwind, it was an honor and, you know, the soldiers – we lifted each other up. It was so cool to see them so hyped up to have us there.”
This year’s tour, however, looked a little different.
Due to the restrictions put in place in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, USO tours can no longer physically travel to bring entertainment to troops stationed and deployed all around the world. However, just because celebrities can’t jump on stage does not mean that the USO has given up on its mission of boosting morale and keeping service members connected to their country.
That’s why celebrities of all kinds – actors, comedians, musicians, chefs and more – have raised their hands to participate in USO Virtual Tours. While these virtual offerings can range from one-on-one calls to group Q&As, they all help provide service members and military families with unscripted and genuine moments of joy during a time of uncertainty.
Last week, Robinson joined a USO Virtual Tour via video call from his L.A. apartment and became a part of this new form of USO entertainment.
Delivering Laughter to Deployed Service Members
During the call, Robinson chatted and joked around with service members deployed to Al Asad Air Base in Iraq – the same base that, only a few months ago, suffered considerable damage in a missile attack.
Most service members on the call tuned in remotely from their personal devices, to maintain social distancing. However, a few service members and USO staff safely gathered – six feet apart – and dialed into the call from the USO center so that they could publicly ask Robinson their questions via video chat.
Robinson’s effect on the service members’ morale was undeniable. As a comedian who is beloved for his comedy roles in iconic television series and movies, the service members calling in from the USO center were visibly delighted to speak with him.
Robinson shared stories from his time on sets of television shows and films, while answering as many questions as possible from the service members at the USO center and those submitting questions from their personal devices via the text chat box. After every single answer to a question, Robinson, without fail, insisted on thanking the service member for their service.
But Robinson entertained with comedy just as much as he did with sincerity. Throughout the entire conversation, Robinson had service members roaring with laughter – a welcome distraction from the challenges of deployment and quarantines.
“It’s an honor to do this, to be asked to do this,” Robinson said. “You all are on the front lines; you’re laying down our lives for us.”
Robinson then joked that the least he could do was sit on his computer and spend an hour with these service members.
But an hour talking to a celebrity can make all the difference in the lives of our military. These interactions are once-in-a-lifetime experiences, and they remind troops that even when thousands of miles away, and even in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, they are not forgotten and that their sacrifices are appreciated.
“It’s a beautiful thing, man – to chit chat [with service members]; and if my appearance can lift somebody up, especially if you’re away from your family for God knows how long, then yeah I’m down to do that,” Robinson said. “Thank you for your questions, thank you for your service and thank you for allowing me to be here.”
When leaving the conversation, Robinson stayed true to his musical and comedy roots – rather than any formal words of goodbye, he broke out into an impromptu, soulful rendition of “America the Beautiful,” leaving service members with one more special moment of levity in an otherwise challenging time.
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