While the Iraq War continues to divide the nation, Americans are united in their support for the troops deployed to the Middle East. That's evident from slogans on bumper stickers to organized efforts to send "care packages" overseas. Reporter Mike Osborne introduces us to a woman who is personally delivering some unexpected gifts from home.
Judy Seale has toured American military bases so remote even the Pentagon might have trouble finding them. She isn't a soldier and doesn't carry a gun, but she has it on good authority that her visits do save lives. She recalls, "We had a colonel tell us on the first tour, he said, 'Tonight you boosted morale and low morale kills my soldiers, so you saved lives tonight.'"
Seale is a veteran booking agent and show promoter who's been arranging overseas tours for American celebrities for years, including a lot of shows designed to entertain U.S. troops. Most of those tours involved big artists doing big shows at big bases. "But then I would meet people who would say, ''We're at some little base or camp and we read about them going to Baghdad all the time but we never get anything here. Why can't somebody come see us?'" In 2003, Seale formed a charity to meet that need. She named it Stars for Stripes.
"I'll email the people on the ground in Afghanistan or Iraq and say, 'Can't you just chopper me and the celebrity with a guitar or a fiddle player, whatever?'" she explains. "And we ask to go to the really small camps that don't normally get entertainment from the bigger artists. And we've gotten in to some places that have never had civilian visits before and those are the best," she says with a laugh.
The artists who travel with Stars for Stripes do so without pay. Most are American country music artists, old friends that Seale has worked with in the past. "But I do some classic rock and [I'm] getting into a little heavy metal," she says, adding "I've taken some NFL players, I took a comedy tour last year."
One recent Stars for Stripes performers was recording artist and American Idol finalist Bo Bice. Initially, the southern rocker says, he and his band members had some reservations about touring a war zone. "I said to them, 'Y'know, these people we're going over to entertain and to meet, they don't have any choice and they have families too. And these people are dying?for us. The least we can do?you know, we ain't gotta carry a gun or crawl through a ditch! We're just goin' over there to play a guitar and say thank you'."
His favorite memory of the tour is the evening he spent with the troops in their recreation hall singing karaoke together. "When you're standing up on stage and you're there performing for them, you're still?there's some kind of distance. They look at you as you are on TV. But I think once you put your hand in theirs and let 'em know how appreciative you are? I think that meant more to them than me coming over there and playing guitar and puttin' on a show for 45 minutes or whatever, y'know." Bice and his band enjoyed their first tour so much, on the trip home he made arrangements with Seale to go back again this fall.
But getting to know the soldiers so well can lead to heartbreak for Judy Seale and the artists she recruits. She recalls a night when country music star Chely Wright met an especially memorable young soldier while signing autographs. "After the show a guy came up to her and said his [last] name was Henry. And she said, 'My mother's maiden name was Henry. We may be related!' And he goes, 'Oh man! Does that mean we can't date?' And they talked and chatted and the next day we flew to Taji and I had an e-mail from the commander of the camp and he said, 'I've had a really hard day today. I lost one of my soldiers.'" It was the young trooper Chely Wright had laughed and chatted with just hours earlier.
But Judy Seale has no intention of stopping. She holds America's fighting men and women in far too high a regard to stop now. "They're just the finest human beings. We're gonna look back on this and know that these were the finest men and women ever to serve our country. So, I mean, it's life changing for me. I'm so blessed and so lucky to get to do this." She adds with a laugh, "If I didn't have to work for a living, this is all I would do, take entertainment to the troops!"
Stars for Stripes has completed 23 tours in just four years and has more tours planned this fall.