From a USMC Captain stationed near Fallujah, on the modern-day successors to Bob Hope's USO tours:
I've finally experienced something of interest that I can write about with no concern for breaching our operational security. Recently, Ted Nugent and Toby Keith came out to Camp Fallujah as part of their multi-stop, month long USO tour. Yes, you heard it right: Ted Nugent, Mr. Cat Scratch Fever himself, and Toby Keith, America's post-9/11 Leading Country Man played to a packed house of Marines and sailors at Camp Fallujah from 2330 until
0100 the next morning. Their schedule was rigorous; before their late-night arrival, they spent the last night in Afghanistan, stopped over in Baghdad, played a show at another base, and then came out to Camp Fallujah before leaving for yet another show. When they arrived at our base, they had only slept briefly on an airplane for the past 36 hours.
In this environment overseas, it's difficult to understand what would motivate someone to travel thousands of miles and risk their lives simply to entertain. Being a natural skeptic, I figured it was mostly a publicity stunt. Now, having experienced it from the end of someone involved in the backstage planning, and having seen these guys up close and personal, I've got a different and very positive perspective.
Most of the crowd out here was interested in an opportunity to see and meet Toby Keith. It may sound funny, but sometimes I forget a bit what it's like to be a young Marine... half of these kids out here were just heading off to boot camp when Keith penned his ode to patriotism and payback "Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue" that received so much airplay after 9/11. For my part, I've long respected Nugent's ardent pro-American and pro-environment stances. A lover of the outdoors, Nugent has passionately lived and expressed the ideal that every human being has a moral responsibility to live their lives in order to "be the best they can be". He is often quoted saying that he expects his friends, his associates, and even his children to "live their lives like Marines." His vision of the American dream combined with his opinions and lifestyle choices made him uncommon among the Hollywood crowd over the years.
Because of his recent popularity with the younger Marines, the MEF Headquarters Group had a long list of volunteers willing to escort Toby Keith. However, only a handful of Marines - mostly the "30 or over" crowd -
had ever even heard of the guy we began simply calling "The Nuge". Since I had an interest, I became a liaison officer assisting the entourage and escorting Ted while he was onboard the Camp.
Typical of all matters involving any military operation, nothing happened according to plan. The helicopters landed in the Landing Zone (LZ) right at 2215. One problem: they were the wrong helos... the VIPs had been delayed, and nobody knew when, or if, they were coming in. One show had already been cancelled that day, and the original schedule had placed the VIP party at their overnight site by 2200. I figured they probably wouldn't show up; after all, these guys were celebrities who needed to be taken care of, right? Certainly their handlers would force them to get their beauty sleep, wouldn't they?
Around 2330, we heard the distinctive whirring of inbound helicopters, and a pair of Army Blackhawks screamed down into the LZ. In the glow of a nearly-full moon, I approached the LZ hoping these were our guys... I knew there were a couple thousand people back at one of our buildings whose morale had skyrocketed at the thought of watching the pair perform. After the LZ landed, a figure in a pair of baggy trousers, a t-shirt, and a scruffy beard jumped out of the Blackhawk and wondered out in the general direction. Even though the man wore civilian clothes, I wasn't sure if we had our team... this guy could have been a reporter, or had any number of reasons for his style of clothing. Besides, he seemed to be the only one walking off the bird. Celebrities wouldn't just stroll around in a war zone... would they? It had to be a stagehand or something.
The figure approached me in the dark and pumped my hand; in the shadows, I still couldn't see his face. "Hey man, I'm Toby Keith." Roger that. Welcome to Camp Fallujah, Mr. Keith.
Keith looked over his shoulder and gave a thumbs-up to the rest of the posse, along with the international hand-and-arm signal for "follow me"... clearly he was a driving force in the entire operation. The entourage moved off the bird and over to our escort party. The Nuge was a little further back in the crowd; we shook hands and both he and Toby immediately began engaging the Marines in photo-ops, handshakes, and we're-so-damn-proud-of-yous to the Marines standing by for security. Nobody was here to see this. There was no red carpet, no news reporters, and the Public Affairs Office hadn't started snapping their photos yet. These guys weren't looking for a photo op; they were out here standing around in shorts and t-shirts and jeans high-fiving Marines on a dusty LZ for only one reason: they cared. And it showed. Once things settled down and we were ready to drive from the LZ to the concert area, Nugent took a seat in a Humvee and I sat down next to him. We chatted briefly about a few things, but I had a bigger concern: after inquiring about the state of his hunger, it turned out The Nuge hadn't had any chow for several hours. I knew refreshments were set up at the backstage area, but I also realized these guys would be mobbed. The thing of it is... they expected it. And they really didn't care. They wouldn't sleep until 0300 at the earliest, and they knew they'd be back onstage at 0800 the next day. So, I did what any Marine of any rank would have done in the same situation: I ripped open a couple of MREs, rifled through them, and grabbed the items that were easiest to eat in a hurry.
The Nuge was impressed: "Yeah man! Improvise, adapt, and overcome, baby!!"
As a Marine, I couldn't help but enjoy being around someone whose wild side is well-advertised, but who takes such unabashed pride in pouring their heart and soul into their life. One of the doors on the Humvee kept slipping ajar, and in a move reminiscent of any Lance Corporal, Ted whipped out his Gerber multi-tool and jimmied with the hinge until it was fixed to his satisfaction. Furthermore, Ted kept telling me that if we took incoming, "my Glock 10 is loaded and I'm ready to rock and roll!" Being well inside the perimeter of our base; Nugent and his Glock 10 probably wouldn't do much against a mortar or rocket attack. I made a mental note that if anything happened, I would have to dive on top of The Nuge and pin him down, if for no other reason than to keep him from endangering my Marines or himself (rock star or not, Marines don't react well to weapons pointed in their direction).
The show itself was a huge success. Toby and "Uncle Ted" obviously enjoyed being together and playing together; Nugent wisecracked they were "just like Lennon and McCartney, only with guns!" It was amazing to see: two major stars accustomed to performing in ornate stadiums and with sound systems that would blow the ears off a dozen jumbo elephants, standing around on a bare stage with nothing but two acoustic guitars and two microphones. They hadn't showered in about three days. There was no manager, no make-up person, and no costume changes. It was clear that these two entertainers were saying thanks not only by playing for Marines, but by playing for Marines on Marine terms. They were tired, hungry, and dirty. But they were enjoying every minute of it. And so were we.
Ted and I chatted more after the show, and I got a picture snapped with him before he and Toby Keith jumped back onto the Blackhawk at 0145. Nugent isn't a man who is shy about his opinion, and even in the times when I found myself generally agreeing with his points, I could see how people who pride themselves on being refined or intellectual would be put off by his brash and aggressive nature. For me... well, Marines are aggressive by nature, and Ted fit in with our crowd just fine.
As I waved goodbye and reflected on my time with The Nuge, I realized I didn't remember much of his music. I'm sure most of his songs were grand odes to wine, women, and song. I don't know if he ever sang anything that exuded nobility. But I know this: Ted Nugent and Toby Keith earned my respect as men tonight. The pair of entertainers, their assistants, and two USO workers set foot in a war zone where anything could happen; they knew they could be attacked at any time. For these civilians, that risk was worth the reward of expressing the gratitude of America towards those sent into harm's way. They did it because they cared.
Thanks guys. You can rock and roll with us any time. But, Ted, if you plan to come back, bring a rifle instead of a Glock and stay a couple of days. It sounds to me like we need to work you into the watch rotation out on the