Tearaway Burkas & Tinplate Menorahs

What happens when you throw together a liberal comedian, a flag-waving country star, two Redskins cheerleaders, three hip-hop divas, and thousands of war-weary troops? A rowdy, randy, all-American good time.

I never served in our nation's armed forces. I was of draft age during the Vietnam War, in college from 1969 to 1973, and the Selective Service people felt, in their wisdom, that it was more important for me to complete my undergraduate education so I could prepare for my chosen profession—comedian.

Three decades later, I was asked to give back—by going on a USO Tour in 1999 to, among other places, Bosnia and Kosovo. It changed my view of the military. I returned home with nothing but admiration for our troops and their leaders. That's what happens when you go on a USO Tour. There's no way around it.

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So, this article—about my recent tour to Iraq and Afghanistan—is not going to be what you might expect from me or from this magazine. As you probably know, I've been very critical of our current president, whom I consider arrogant, dishonest, petulant, and not a teeny bit stupid. And I've been critical of the hubris that led us into the war in Iraq, particularly the way it misled the American people, isolated us from most of the rest of the world, and seemed to plan for nothing other than a best-case scenario once we arrived.

Nevertheless, this is a story of a traveling troupe of "show folk" humbly doing our best to bring a little joy, laughter, music, and Christmas cheer to the men and women who bear the burden of this administration's policies. As I said to every soldier who thanked me for coming, "It's my honor."

And a talented group of show folk we were. The Army band—every one a brilliant musician. Top country artists—Mark Wills, who had the No. 1 country hit "Nineteen Something" (okay, I've never heard it either—but he's huge), and Darryl Worley, who wrote his No. 1 single "Have You Forgotten?" after visiting our troops in Afghanistan in 2002. If you listen to the lyrics (which evidently a lot of idiots do not), "Have You Forgotten?" is an emotional and somewhat jingoistic call of support for Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and not an explicit call for the war in Iraq.

Nevertheless, Darryl does support Operation Iraqi Freedom wholeheartedly, and he told me on the last day of our trip that he'd become incensed when he first heard I was on the tour because he'd been looking forward to eight days when he didn't have to defend his position. He sees these USO Tours as a kind of vacation from controversy, and now he thought he was going to have to debate me the whole eight days.

When Darryl told me this, I asked if he'd been worried I'd start the show in Baghdad like this: "Your president lied to you, and you are dying for no reason!!! Ladies and gentlemen, Darryl Worley!"

Darryl howled. He is a hilarious guy, and I have to say, we laughed our way through Southwest Asia. I love the guy.

There were other self-proclaimed "rednecks." Darryl and Mark brought their guitarists, their mutual road manager, and personal manager. There was also Bradshaw, the World Wrestling Entertainment star from Texas, who is nowhere near as stupid as he likes to make out.

So, we had a Rednecks vs. the New York Jews dynamic set up. Which meant constant good-natured shit flying back and forth. With me, there was my brother, Owen, who was the trip's photographer; former Saturday Night Live writer Andy Breckman, who was writing the comedy portions of the show with me; and Steve Kurtz, manager of No Illusion, a three-gal "urban" singing group who are beautiful and sing like angels. They're young—19, 20, and 22—and given my rule that I don't allow myself to be sexually attracted to women younger than my daughter, I behaved paternalistically toward No Illusion. That was not entirely true with the two Washington Redskins cheerleaders. No USO Tour is complete without NFL cheerleaders, and the Redskins sent two, Kelley and Katie Cornwell, whom the troops seemed happier to see than me. As I told the soldiers, "I don't know how you guys do it for nine months. I've been over here a week, and the first thing I'm going to do when I get home is have sex with my wife—while thinking about the cheerleaders. Not so different from you guys, except I won't be alone."

I acted as co-emcee with Karri Turner, the attractive blond star of the popular CBS show JAG, which I'd never seen, but which is carried by the armed forces network and is very popular with the soldiers. So, our traveling troupe of show folk included musicians, composers, an actor, a writer, a comedian, singers, and dancers. My wife said to me before I left, "You don't see Bill O'Reilly doing a USO Tour."

"That's not fair, honey. O'Reilly has no talent."

Rounding out the show was singer Bonnie Tilley, a talented L.A. pop singer who sang on a Disney movie and happens to be the niece of the sergeant major of the Army, Jack Tilley, the leader of our tour. The sergeant major of the Army is the Army's highest-ranking enlisted soldier and as such is loved and revered by the troops. Tilley had accompanied me on one of our tours to the Balkans and was happy to have me along; nevertheless, he got peeved at me once in Baghdad and used the occasion to inform me that he is "a killer." Later in the tour, with just a hint of mist in his eyes, Tilley told me that prior to this trip, he had never met his niece. A life in the Army carries with it more than a few sacrifices.

WE TOOK OFF from Andrews Air Force Base on a cramped KC-10 (a converted DC-10 that doubles as a cargo and refueling plane) for the 14-hour flight to Kuwait, our first stop. Breckman and I wrote most of the way. The idea was to make this a variety show, a throwback to Bob Hope. After the Army band played a few songs, Karri would take the stage and say a few sincere words of her choosing, then introduce me.

Andy wrote my opening line: "Anybody here from out of town?" Then a couple more quick jokes: "Say, that Army chow isn't sitting well with me. So far I've had five MREs [meals ready-to-eat] and none of them seem to have an exit strategy."

Then into a bit with Karri, designed to get a soldier onstage.

AL: Karri, congratulations on the success of JAG.

KARRI: Thank you, Al. We're on our ninth season.

AL: Wow. Nine seasons! You must have had thousands of guest stars appear on your show.

KARRI: Not thousands. But we've had a lot of great people. We've been very lucky.

AL: Well, I've never been on the show.

KARRI: As I say, we've been very lucky.

AL: I was thinking that maybe before the ninth season is over, I could do a guest shot.

KARRI: Well, y'know, JAG is really a drama show, and you're such a terrific comedian. Maybe it's not a fit.

AL: So, anyway, I've taken the liberty of writing a little audition piece to show my range. [Handing Karri the script.] I play a prosecutor sent in by the Pentagon to shake things up around the JAG office.

KARRI: You wrote this?

AL: Yeah. I'm a writer, comedian, dramatic actor. [Beat.] It's your line.

KARRI: Oh. [Reading from script.] Lieutenant Hardgrove, what are you doing here in JAG OPS?

AL: I told you, Harriet. Call me Lance.

KARRI: Lieutenant Hardgrove, this is JAG OPS. It's all business here.

AL: Is it? Then why are you wearing that negligee?

KARRI: [Off-script.] Al, my character would never wear a negligee to the office!

AL: You would if you were madly in love with Lieutenant Lance Hardgrove.

KARRI: Al, I'm married in the show! I have two kids—

AL: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Keep reading.

KARRI: [Reading script.] Lance, I'm wearing this negligee because I want tonight to be very special. I want to give myself to you completely. Now kiss me! [Al grabs Karri and kisses her. Karri fights him off.]

KARRI: Now, wait a minute! You just wrote this so you could kiss me! If I was gonna kiss anybody, it'd be a real soldier. Like one of these brave men…or women. Who wants to help me out? You, soldier. [Karri points to soldier in front.]

AL: Okay. I guess we are here to entertain the troops.

[The soldier comes up. Al hands him script. Improvise name, rank, where you from, etc. Karri and the soldier do the script….]

KARRI: Lieutenant Hardgrove, this is JAG OPS. It's all business here.

SOLDIER: Is it? Then why are you wearing that negligee?

KARRI: Lance, I'm wearing this negligee because I want tonight to be very special. I want to give myself to you completely. Now kiss me! [They kiss a long, deep kiss. Cheers, etc. After kiss…]

AL: Wait! It's not over. There's another line.

KARRI: There is?

[Al points out line to soldier.]

AL: Go ahead. Read it.

SOLDIER: [Reading.] You know, Harriet, a woman your age should have a thorough breast examination every year. Lucky for you, Dr. Al Franken is here.

[Al approaches Karri.]

KARRI: Al!!! At ease!

AL: [Looking down at his crotch.] Too late for that now.

KARRI: Oh! Ewww. Let's just bring out our first guest.

This Hope-style bit never failed to get huge laughs and giant cheers. Each time the soldier kissed Karri, it was as if every soldier had kissed her. Sex, in general, seemed a safe bet as a subject for sure laughs. By and large, these are men and women in their early 20s, a time of life when I recall thinking about sex almost constantly.

There are at least five men for every woman serving in the Persian Gulf (observation, not raw data), and one soldier told me at a base in Afghanistan that they had just sent five women back pregnant. "After you've been in the desert a while, a 2 begins to look like a 10," he said. Actually, I saw a lot of attractive women in uniform. I particularly liked an M.P. in Kuwait named Davis who was just a little mean. And who knows, maybe it was the uniform. Mark Wills' guitarist said he was picking up some desert fatigues for his wife.

MY BROTHER, Owen, is an expatriate who lives in Paris. You probably couldn't find someone more against the war in Iraq than Owen. But during the trip, he was moved to tears on a number of occasions, and when we dropped him in Germany on the way home, he asked the whole group to sing "God Bless America" one last time. (We ended each show with it.)

It was a doubly emotional trip for both of us. Our mom had died about 10 days before the tour, and it was good that we got to spend this time together. (After it was announced in the press that my mom had died, some guy wrote this review of my latest book on Amazon: "See, if you write mean things about people, your mom might die." Six of 37 people found the review "helpful.")

We arrived in Kuwait tired. We were given some quarters, men separated from women, about three or four to a room. After a brief rest, I met with the cheerleaders and one of the girls from No Illusion to run through and choreograph the Taliban Cheerleader number.

I had borrowed some burkas from Saturday Night Live, and the idea was to introduce them saying, "All the way from Kabul, please welcome the Taliban Cheerleaders!" The girls enter in burkas, and I ask them to do a number. Through her burka, the lead Taliban Cheerleader whispers in my ear. I act puzzled. "You're not allowed to dance?" I ask. "Or even listen to music?" She shakes her head, no. "But," I point out, "we liberated Afghanistan from the Taliban. Certainly you can do one number? Whatta ya say, guys?" The troops cheer. The cheerleaders consult, and the leader nods—okay, one. "All right!" I say. "Hit it!" and we blast "Gonna Make You Sweat!" by C+C Music Factory. The girls do a bump-and-grind dance in their tearaway burkas, then peel them off and continue in their Redskins cheerleader outfits as the guys go nuts.

Worked like a charm every time.

The second day we take off in a Chinook to do meet-and-greets at various camps. Except for Kuwait City—which we were not allowed to visit (some Americans had been attacked there just before we arrived)—Kuwait is a fucking wasteland.

The troops in these outposts are incredibly appreciative. "Where you from?" I ask. "How long you been here?" "Reservist? National Guard?" They're from all over. A lot from small towns, some from the Bronx or Brooklyn. Some from Puerto Rico. A lot from the South, from Montana, Minnesota, upstate New York. I ask reservists if they plan to re-enlist. "Hell no!" more than a few say. But their re-enlistment rate is 70 percent, I'm later told. Most of all, they're grateful we came all this way.

The second night in Kuwait is our first show. At Camp Arifjan. The place isn't too bad. There's a Burger King, an equivalent of a Pizza Hut, and an Internet café where soldiers can instant-message with loved ones at home. The show lasts two and a half hours, and the troops love everything. Darryl's up last and ends his set with "Have You Forgotten?" They all know the lyrics:

Have you forgotten how it felt that day / To see your homeland under fire/ And her people blown away?…/Some say this country's just out looking for a fight. /After 9/11, man, I'd have to say that's right.

The song climaxes on an emotional high and a standing ovation. The next day Andy Breckman deadpans to Darryl: "You know what you should sing in the next show? That 9/11 song." Andy repeats that every day until our last show, when he slips a note into Darryl's guitar case: "Don't forget the 9/11 song."

That first night I got all teary-eyed when we ended with "God Bless America." In the front row I saw a black male soldier linking arms with a white male soldier and a woman soldier, swaying back and forth and really meaning it. I thought how the military could teach our colleges and universities a thing or two about affirmative action. Then I noticed that the woman soldier was holding the hand of a gay soldier, who was holding the hand of a transgender soldier.… Okay, that's not true.

Early the next morning we were off to Baghdad. The plan had been to do a show that night and the next at Baghdad International Airport, but there was a change in plan. World Wrestling Entertainment was doing a show there, and there was nowhere to put us. We would split up the group and do smaller shows at different bases around Iraq, specifically in Saddam's hometown of Tikrit, in Mosul, and at a base called Camp Junction City.

It was decided that Tikrit was the most dangerous of the three. Steve Kurtz, the manager of No Illusion, had promised the girls' parents he'd do everything possible to keep them safe. So he chose Mosul. I agreed to go to Tikrit if we could visit the hole. The hole where they had found Saddam. My goal was to get a picture of myself in the hole with the Redskins cheerleaders. Sgt. Maj. of the Army Tilley said he'd try to make it happen but couldn't guarantee anything.

Karri, the cheerleaders, the Army band, Andy, my brother, and I flew to Tikrit in two Black Hawks. My understanding was that the most dangerous part of the trip was landing and taking off from the Baghdad airport, flying across Iraq in a helicopter, then landing in Tikrit, the Baathist stronghold. Wearing flak jackets and helmets, we headed out, flying incredibly fast and incredibly low with two gunners looking for insurgents with shoulder-launched rockets designed to kill us. The point of flying low is that it makes it harder to get a bead on the chopper from the ground; in addition, we were constantly taking evasive action, swerving and making sudden changes in altitude, usually to jump power wires. A singer in the Army band threw up.

Flying over Baghdad, I had a flash of the movie Black Hawk Down. But in a good way—at least I got a glimpse of what life looked like in an impoverished Third World Arab city.

As we headed north, the country got greener. I saw shepherds grazing sheep. Two and a half days of Army food and I was already hoping for a lamb chop. An hour later, flying over Tikrit, you could see that Saddam had spread some cash around his hometown. Nice little city.

Once we landed inside the Army compound in Tikrit, we felt safe. It was an amazing complex, a couple of square miles comprised of a ridiculously huge and ornate Saddam palace and smaller guest palaces for members of the Baath Party and Uday's friends. It was easy to envision the place as a Ritz-Carlton in about 15 years, perfect for corporate conferences.

We arrived early in the afternoon and settled into Uday's guest house. We had some time before our show, so I started working on getting to the hole. The military brass was not encouraging, but I ran into a high-ranking member of the Coalition Provisional Authority, the civilian group that "runs" Iraq under Paul Bremer. This guy was in his 40s, also Jewish, and a fan of my work. He'd meet us at 3:30 to take us to the hole. But just me, Andy, and Owen. No picture of me in the hole with the cheerleaders. At 3:30, he tells us that Colonel Hickey is in a meeting, and we need his permission to go to the hole. We'll have to go in the morning. Later that night, we get the word. No hole. Fuck.

But the show that night goes great. We're doing it for the unit that actually caught Hussein, so they especially like the Saddam bit. I had borrowed a Saddam uniform, beret, and a mustache from Saturday Night Live, and Andy and I wrote a piece in the style of the old Tonight Show Mighty Carson Art Players. (As Saddam, with my faux Arabic accent, I didn't sound so different from Triumph the Insult Comic Dog.)

KARRI: For reasons you'll understand, we didn't want to announce our next guest ahead of time. He's a very special, very secret surprise. Former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein!!! [Two M.P.s lead Al up in handcuffs.]

AL: Thank you! Thank you! If they allowed me to carry an AK-47, I'd be firing it into the air. Hi, Karri. It's great to be back in Baghdad. Listen, before you say anything—I've been thinking, and I've decided to let the inspectors back in.

KARRI: Well, it's kind of late for that.

AL: Oohh! I was afraid you'd say that.

KARRI: We've been looking for you, Saddam. Where have you been the last eight months?

AL: Well, you know, basically in the Tikrit area, visiting family, friends, socializing.

KARRI: Saddam, we captured you in a tiny hole.

AL: Yes, that's true. I've been spending a lot of time in holes. I have many holes around the country. Actually the hole you found me in—that was one of my favorite holes. It's my winter hole.

KARRI: Your winter hole?

AL: Oh, Karri, you should see it. It had everything. It had the air duct. I could roll over. The dirt was very nicely packed. As you know, Karri, I used to have 20, 30 palaces. But the kids had grown. You want to downsize. So…the hole.

KARRI: I see. Anyway, I have to say, you're looking a lot better than when we first found you.

AL: Yes, you know, any mass murderer on the run sooner or later ends up looking like Ted Kaczynski.… But I've had a shave, a haircut, I've been deloused. I'm feeling great.

KARRI: You're looking great.

AL: Thank you. I've been working out in the hole. Rolling over. First this way, then that way. It's a good regimen.

KARRI: Saddam, I guess the thing that's on everyone's mind is the weapons of mass destruction.

AL: You'd like to know, wouldn't you? The WMD. Where are they? Are they in Samarra? Maybe. Are they in Kirkuk. Could be. Maybe yes, maybe no. How 'bout Tikrit? Maybe they're in my hole. Maybe while you were sleeping I put them in your hole. Who knows?

KARRI: Now, Saddam!

AL: I'm sorry. I kid. I kid because I love. I tell you what, Karri. I like you so much, I'm going to make you a deal. One time only. I give you the weapons—you leave Iraq. Let me return to power and resume killing and torturing anyone I want. Take it or leave it.

KARRI: I don't know. Whatta ya say, guys? [Nos, boos, etc.]

AL: Well, okay, forget it. The important thing is, I'm back in Baghdad.

KARRI: Yes, and now that the hiding is over, what are you looking forward to?

AL: Two things, really. One—being deloused some more. They missed some. In the pubes mainly. I don't have to tell you, Karri, what that's like. Hey, I kid. Out of love. But, seriously, most of all, I am looking forward to being reunited with my beloved sons, Uday and Qusay.

KARRI: Oh.

AL: I didn't like the sound of that "oh."

KARRI: I guess you haven't heard the news.…

AL: They're in trouble again? Don't tell me. It was Uday. Ooooh, that Uday!      

KARRI: Well…let's just say that everybody here is hoping you and your sons can be reunited very, very soon. [Applause, cheers.]

By the second day of the trip, "Ooooh, that Uday!" had become the catchphrase for the tour. It was as if Uday were just an irrepressible kid who'd broken curfew a few times.

IT TURNED OUT THAT WHILE we were in Tikrit, the three young ladies from No Illusion, who supposedly had been given the safer assignment, were in almost constant danger. That day they visited four different bases, traveling between them in convoys. In the city of Mosul, their convoy took a wrong turn, à la Jessica Lynch, and ended up at a dead end in a crowded market area, necessitating what's known in the military as a "backing out" maneuver. They were sitting ducks, and the terrified young women and Steve, their manager, were ordered to lie down on the floor of their Humvees. This is how you get killed in Iraq. But by the time they settled in for the night at a base outside Mosul, a soldier offered Steve some reassurance: "Don't worry. The two Iraqis who jumped the fence with the AK-47s have been apprehended."    

We flew back to Baghdad with $1.4 million of Saddam's cash, which was stashed in tin containers. We landed midway at an outpost to drop off a chaplain because a soldier had been killed there the day before. When we landed at the Baghdad airport, the pilots seemed more interested in getting the $1.4 million to the right place than in us, and for the first time on the trip we were dropped off nowhere in particular.

We wandered into a bombed-out terminal where a unit of infantry had set up some makeshift bunks. These weren't the guys from the public-affairs office who usually greet us, and their hollow eyes suggested they'd seen some shit—including, according to a private from Long Island, a recent suicide by a member of their unit. This was our little Apocalypse Now part of the tour, and we did a little show right there for about a dozen guys.

Reunited with our group, we did our regular show that afternoon in the same hangar where Bush had served Thanksgiving dinner. Afterward, a soldier went up to Steve and said, "It's an honor to meet you."

"No, no," Steve replied. "I'm just the manager of the three girl singers."

"You don't understand," the soldier said. "I'm a soldier. I have to be here. I met Bush, but he's the president, so he really had to come. I'd rather meet you, because you don't have to be here. You came because you care."

There was a lot of that. Our just being there meant so much to these guys. Doing the show was gravy.

THAT NIGHT WE STAYED in another of Saddam's palaces. Again, obscenely ornate, tons and tons of marble, his initials etched into every pillar and inlaid with gold. An Army chaplain had given me a Hanukkah kit comprised of a flimsy menorah and some candles. Andy said that the kit was to Hanukkah as the MREs were to food. But that night in the main room of Saddam's palace—in our little "fuck you" to Saddam—we celebrated the second night of Hanukkah under the biggest cut-glass chandelier I've ever seen.

The next day, on our way to the plane, our driver pointed to his right. "Saddam's being held in there." I wanted to ask if I could meet him. I thought I could do the Saddam bit for him and see what he thought. But since they didn't even let me go to the hole, I let it go.

The following morning, off to Afghani-stan. During the show in Kandahar, Andy called his fiancée in New York and found out that Time had just named the American Soldier as Person of the Year. Word spread fast. What a rush! To be performing to about a thousand Persons of the Year.

As we drove through Kandahar the next day, our driver, a private, saw a colonel walking up ahead of us. "That's Colonel Garrett. He runs Afghanistan."

"Let's say hi," I said from the backseat. We pulled beside him and I said, "Hi, colonel."

"Hi, Al! Great show last night! I'm headed up to the airstrip to see you guys off."

"We'll give you a lift," I said.

"No, thanks, my vehicle's up ahead about 150 yards."

"We'll give you a lift to your vehicle. We've heard how lazy you are." Our driver was suddenly freaked out.

"Yeah," added Andy. "All we've been hearing is how lazy you are."

"I'm not that lazy." The colonel got it, but acted slightly insulted. "I can make it to my vehicle."

The poor private weakly told the colonel, "I didn't say you were lazy." Colonel Garrett nodded, as if he didn't believe him, and walked ahead. As we passed him, the private told us, "Actually, he's one of the finest offi-cers I've ever known."

"Then why," I asked, "did you keep calling him lazy?"

"I didn't!"

ON THE TARMAC at Kandahar, Sgt. Major Grippe, one of many gruff Sergeant Rock knockoffs we met along the way, gave us a send-off that included references to our troops being in Tehran and Damascus same time next year. It gave the New York Jews on the trip a bit of a chill.

We had been told during a safety briefing in Afghanistan not to step off the pavement. Soviet mines. I told the briefer I was an avid bird-watcher and asked if I could find anything in the field beyond the airstrip. "Yeah," he said, "just walk till the first BOOM."

It was cold in Afghanistan, and one night about 10 of us guys stayed in a tent heated by pumped-in hot air. When the air was on, the tent was about 100 degrees. Twenty minutes after we turned it off, the temperature dropped to about 40. After a lot of arguing, I arrived at a solution. We'd turn it off before we went to sleep. The first guy to wake up to piss would turn it back on, the next guy would turn it off, etc. As it turned out, I was the first guy up, and it was fucking freezing.

Next stop was Uzbekistan—the K-2 air base across the Afghan border. As in Iraq and Afghanistan, every soldier carries a gun. But there's really no danger inside the base itself. The biggest enemy is monotony, and the soldiers call the camp "Groundhog Day" because every day is the same.

It was our last show, and during "God Bless America," there were a lot of tears on- stage. Sgt. Maj. of the Army Tilley was retiring, and this was his last hurrah. Eight days and I found myself irrationally attached to these people, including the "killer," who's lived a life totally at odds from my own. (I'm a lover.)

We didn't spend the night at K-2, flying instead to Germany, where awards were given out. I won a Distinguished Civilian Service medal from the secretary of the Army, which I plan to wear whenever I debate a conservative on TV.

We flew home and arrived at Andrews on Christmas Eve. I said goodbye to my fellow show folk and took the shuttle home to New York for Christmas with my family. But I couldn't relate to them. They hadn't been through what I had the last eight days, and they'd never know the hardships I had experienced and the horrors I had witnessed.

Actually, we had a nice dinner.