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As Long as We Remember...

December 4, 2007

Raquel, Where are you?

Norman M. Covert

Nostalgia has a way of striking down the old folks when they least expect it. I saw an interview with Edward Powell, chief executive officer of the United Service Organization (USO), and was taken aback by his excuses why no big-name stars would entertain the troops in Iraq or Afghanistan this Christmas.

Col. Mark Hoke would have described Mr. Powell’s response as “weasel wording.” That’s about what it was. Mr. Powell seemed little moved by the lack of holiday entertainment for our troops in Southwest Asia, but promised in a desultory tone to “see what we can do.”

Mr. Powell was asked by Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly: “What major stars do you have lined up to visit the troops this Christmas? Can you tell me?”

Mr. Powell stammered, hemmed and hawed, then blurted out several names of persons who are probably entertainers, but none we, nor the troops, may have ever seen on our screens. What a shame! Not one big name!

We don’t have a Bob Hope today. He is sadly in a well-earned eternal rest. Las Vegas Superstar Wayne Newton has taken several groups to Southwest Asia in recent years. There is no explanation why Mr. Newton is not scheduled. He was known to be disenchanted with USO’s previous handling of his dangerous excursions.

I had an up-close-and-personal look at the USO in 1967 while stationed at the U.S. Army Chaplain School, Fort Hamilton, Brooklyn, N.Y. There was no question where we would go as soon as the Saturday morning inspection was finished. It was two blocks to the subway, one transfer and then we were at Times Square Station, downtown Manhattan.

No more than a short walk took us to the USO just around the corner from the New York Times Building and its rolling news projections.

I could buy my old employer’s news sheet, the Newport News (Va.) Daily Press, at a nearby newsstand and just about any short-lived pleasure with just a word and cash. It was the Class A U.S. Army uniform that really made us stand out, but of course we were outdone by the regular sidewalk clientele. It was the Sixties, after all.

Three of us visited the United Nations one Saturday. When we came out, a couple thousand demonstrators yelled, “The War is over!” When the cop wouldn’t assure us we would be safe, we tried to get out of there, but were accosted and told we could take off the uniforms and go home. Seems they had “Undeclared” the war. I hear the same logic today.

Anyway, the USO was wonderful. The snacks were there, sodas and munchies, coffee, tea and hostesses, who managed to make us feel welcome without the tawdry come-ons just up the street. Times Square in those days was a din of discotheques, bars with topless dancers, Triple-X and more movie houses and the interesting Automat, where you could afford a hot roast beef sandwich.

The USO also handed out tickets to plays, concerts and – in November/December 1967 – the New York Giants played two home football games at Yankee Stadium. Good seats, too. I never tried for Press comps; the USO seats were better.

I could never thank the USO enough for its stateside support to us. I never saw them again in my stint in Germany, but the troops in Vietnam had great shows and they earned the headliners.

Those days, Bob Hope organized grand shows featuring the top female acts, surrounded by his usual tried-and-true sidemen, Jerry Colonna, the Les Brown "Band of Renown" and many others. He often didn’t have room for all who wanted to go with him to Vietnam.

In Christmas 1967, Mr. Hope’s troupe included the likes of Raquel Welch, Barbara McNair, “Miss World” Madeline Hartog Bel and actress Irene Dunn. They troops wanted to see what the World War II guys called “Pinups.”

Bob’s great line was always, “This is what you’re fighting for!” as he gave the girls the limelight.

Bob Hope in Vietnam
The accompanying photo was taken from the 25th Infantry Division Newspaper’s “Tropic Lighting News” from December 1967. It features Bob Hope (center) flanked by Ms. Welch, Ms. McNair, Ms. Hartog Bel and Ms. Dunn. When the troupe’s aircraft was fired on by the enemy as it took off from Cu Chi, South Vietnam, Bob reportedly said: “Even the ‘Cong gets sore when you don’t leave the girls behind!”

None of that will occur in Iraq or Afghanistan this year unless something happens quickly. It may be the Hollywood superstars don’t think our troops are worthy of such entertainment. They are worth the effort!

A lot of first-class entertainers – including those “you’re fighting for” – would readily agree to go if simply asked by the USO.

The Department of Defense can mobilize quickly and lots of independent financial backers would cough up the money needed to underwrite such a wonderful sortie to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Perhaps Mr. Powell and the USO no longer understand their mission and just don’t have the courage to go the extra mile. Maybe they are afraid to lose some dollars from anti-war cronies, but Times Square, New York City, is an easy gig for the USO. Southwest Asia is another thing. Too bad!

If you’ve seen Raquel Welch recently (age has treated her nicely), one might suppose the troops would welcome her on stage. She's a true entertainer and predictably would be better than some of the current crop of Hollywood females, who may be unable to go because they await rehab or jail time.

Raquel, where are you?

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