KABUL, Afghanistan - Robin Williams and Lance Armstrong took a swipe at the French, Kid Rock strummed "Sweet Home Alabama," comedian Lewis Black grumbled about the falling snow and Miss USA told the troops to keep "kicking butt."
Some 500 American soldiers watched an all-star USO cast perform under a steady snowstorm at a U.S. base in Kabul late yesterday. The stop was part of a six-day, 14-show tour that saw the entertainers begin their day with a performance in Iraq.
The audience of soldiers - bundled in hooded jackets and warm hats - stood in the snow before a makeshift stage waiting for Williams and company to arrive after the performers were delayed by rough weather.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who was traveling with the group, took the microphone first, telling the soldiers it was a tough time to be away from home.
"We brought a few celebrities tonight to try and lift your spirits," he said before introducing Miss USA Rachel Smith, to a burst of cheers.
Armstrong, a seven-time winner of the Tour de France, told the soldiers that the entertainers had gotten stuck in Tikrit, Iraq, because of a sandstorm and had to bunk in the same room. Black started snoring 60 seconds after the lights were turned out, Armstrong said.
"Then Robin was above me snoring so all night I was punching the bunk trying to get him to stop," he said.
After winning the world's most prestigious bike race seven times in a row, Armstrong said he was the most hated man in France. He then said he didn't think "there's that many French people around here anyway" - a statement that could be interpreted as a dig at the French military, which is stationed in the relatively peaceful north of Afghanistan.
Armstrong later said he walked offstage and promptly ran into several French soldiers.
Williams, a USO veteran making his fourth trip to Afghanistan, told the soldiers he woke up on Thursday in the desert sands of Iraq and closed out his day with snow in Kabul. "From sand to snow, mother nature is having hot flashes."
Then he, too, took a dig at the French.
"They're the only people who go into combat wearing a chef's hat. It's amazing," he said.
Among the many soldiers in the crowd wearing wide smiles on their faces was Lt. Col. Larry Terranova.
"Afghanistan is sometimes called the forgotten war and we don't get a lot of attention here and conditions are pretty miserable so it means a lot," said Terranova, 48, who is based out of Fort Sill, Okla.
He said he would miss his four children and four grandchildren over the holidays.
Williams, Armstrong and company have already performed in Qatar, Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan and will perform in Kyrgyzstan and Europe before returning home.
Wayne Newton, head of talent recruitment for the USO, says the USO has had trouble recruiting entertainers for trips overseas. But John Hanson, USO spokesman, said that wasn't the case, noting the all-star cast now on tour. He said there have been 52 USO tours in 2007 that performed more than 300 shows.
"We don't want people to think there aren't people willing to come out here. There are," Hanson said, noting that entertainers must commit 10 days to two weeks for each tour.
Rock, who performed on acoustic guitar and had soldiers sing the chorus to "Sweet Home Alabama," said he volunteers for the sake of the soldiers.
"I'm here for one reason, to entertain these guys," he said in an interview after the show. "To be a source of entertainment, give them a slice of home.
"How can you not come?" he asked.
"Especially at Christmas," Williams said, "to let people know they're not forgotten."
Smith, who was born on a military base in Panama, said she wanted to give something back because she knows what the troops are going through. She said the troops' work was invaluable.
"We wouldn't have the opportunities and freedoms that we have back at home if you guys weren't over here kicking butt," Smith said.
Armstrong said he was first introduced to USO tours through Williams, a longtime friend.
"I feel like it's important for us as entertainers or sports figures to step up and support our troops regardless of what you think or don't think of the conflict," Armstrong said. "The bottom line is that they sign up to defend our country." *