In addition to all the boxes of goodies for troops, school supplies and soccer balls for Iraqi kids, this trip included a large group of entertainers who put on fantastic shows on the USS Eisenhower based off Bahrain and at Camp Liberty in Baghdad.
Gene Bicknell is a huge hearted, very successful businessman that loves the music business and owns alot of the theaters in Branson, Missouri.
Gene was the first to demonstrate his ability to entertain. Gene, who is on the positive side of 65, sang "I Just Don't Look Naked Anymore" to all of us to get us in the mood before we left the USA.
Gene arranged for the top rated show in Branson, Country Tonite, along with several other amazing singers to make the trip at his expense.
He also arranged for the headliner. Tony Orlando and his band, The Lefty Brothers.
If you are under 40, you might ask "Tony who?"
Tony Orlando and Dawn were a huge act in the 70s. A breakthru in the fact that he is Hispanic and his backup singers were African American.
They topped the charts with "Candida", "Knock Three Times", and his most famous song, "Tie a Yellow Ribbon".
That song popularized the symbol of a yellow ribbon for troops away from home.
We had a yellow ribbon in our front yard for Pete.
Tony is 65, has more energy than a 3 year old, and is the most decent, caring, giving man and entertainer I have ever seen. He knows his song is part of American history, and he has been giving back to the military his entire career.
The last night in Baghdad, the entertainers put on a big show at Camp Liberty.
Vandel-Snook. Country Tonite. Lee Ann Tweeden, one of the most beautiful women on earth. (Just Google her if you don't already know. The troops knew her very well.)
The two angels from American Airlines that put this entire trip together, Jim Palmersheim and Steve Blankenship, conducted a "Baghdad Idol" competition that featured audience members from the Marines, Navy, Air Force, Army, and Coast Guard.
It was a huge hit.
Then Tony and his band took the stage. And I mean took it.
Tony had expressed quietly his concern of his relevance to the young audience. One of those young audience members was my son Zac. He had no clue. Had never heard the songs.
The energy of Tony and his band and their musical prowess put the audience in the palm of Tony's hand from the first note.
For two hours in the desert night, he sang, danced, told jokes, and featured every member of his amazing band. They played Led Zeppelin. Black Sabbath. The Beatles. The best cover band in history.
Then Tony introduced Tony Wine, one of the keyboard players. I had recalled seeing her on the trip and wondering whose grandmother she was.
One of the most accomplished singers and songwriters in history. "Candida". "Groovy Kind of Love". "Sugar, Sugar". Several McDonald's jingles. Sang backup with almost every member of the Rock Hall of Fame. And was the voice that sang "Meow, Meow, Meow, Meow" for Meow Mix television spots.
Tony Orlando was born in Hells Kitchen, New York. Met Clive Davis and went to work for him as a talent scout in his early twenties. He signed Blood, Sweat and Tears. Barry Manilow. James Taylor. He knows talent. And, he has plenty himself.
The troops loved them and they loved them back. It was so genuine. The night before, a rap act had been thru. The guys I talked to said they had wondered about Tony Orlando. After the show, they said he kicked ass compared to the previous night's show. Tony's show was for them and they felt it.
During the show, Zac was mingling with the audience because he is their age. He was making buddies and asking questions all night.
Every branch. Officer and enlisted. MPs. The fire department.
During the show, the fire guys took off in a hurry. Zac was talking to them. All he knew was that something had happened that needed their attention.
A mortar had landed 200 yard away. None of us knew it until much later in the evening. It is such a common occurence for our military that they don't even flinch.
After the show, the entertainers invited everyone in attendance to come backstage for photos and autographs. The line was long, orderly and took almost two hours to get everyone thru.
Exhilirated and exhausted, the group returned to the creep house for some much needed rest.