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First Person

Troops Rally Around Soap Star

January 07, 2002|JAMES REYNOLDS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When I got the call from the USO asking if I would be interested in going to the Middle East to visit American troops stationed there, I felt the sense of a circle completed. Thirty years before, I had been a teenage Marine in Vietnam anxious for the break from routine and patrols that a USO show always meant.

Those shows, of course, offered us a view of the famous, or, as in the case of the "Gold Diggers," the beautiful. But most of all it reminded us of home and some of the things special about the States. Now here it was 2001 and another war halfway around the world required another generation to be entertained by the shows and people provided to the military by the USO.

I wasn't expected to put on a show. The USO had the idea of a handshake tour--greet the troops, sign autographs and have pictures taken. These were, they explained, young men and women who had grown up watching "Days of Our Lives." After nearly 19 years on the NBC show, I had gotten used to being told, "I grew up watching you." The other celebrity on our handshake tour would be the rapper Coolio. He was a veteran, having spent Thanksgiving entertaining the troops along the DMZ in Korea.

The USO told us we would not know where we were going until just before our departure day. I was given several choices of dates and decided that the Christmas holidays would be the best time.

My son, Jed, a college senior, was able to accompany me and agreed to be my photographer and assistant. It would turn out that he would be a bigger attraction to some of the female soldiers than Coolio and I. We were both ready for what the USO promised would be a life-altering experience.

Twenty-three hours after leaving Los Angeles, our British Airways plane touched down at the Kuwait City airport. It was 6 a.m. in Kuwait and my wife was just going to dinner with friends in L.A. While her day was ending, ours was just beginning.

Our first stop was Camp Doha, the largest of the American bases in Kuwait. One of the first things we noticed was the security--concrete barriers and automatic steel gates creating a formidable obstacle course to the entrance of every place we visited. Stone-faced young men in full combat gear met us at each entrance and checked our security badges. Finally, we were asked to get out of our vehicle while dogs and bomb detectors swept over it and our possessions.

Inside the recreation hall at Camp Doha, we were led to a stage and got a warm greeting from a couple of hundred soldiers, Marines and airmen. Sprinkled about the crowd were a few British and Australians. After being presented with a personalized bush hat, Coolio and I sat at a table provided and began signing autographs and posing for pictures. The line curved around the recreation hall and never seemed to diminish. For three hours we signed, posed and talked--about home and the holidays.

I looked at each soldier's face as I asked their name and where they were from. So often looking back at me was a teenager younger than my own son.

Frequently a young woman in fatigues and toting a rifle would tell me how her mother had taught her to love "Days of Our Lives." An officer would mention he liked the way I stood up to Stephano (the archvillain of the show).

One sergeant told me his wife e-mails him the plots of each episode. I signed hats and shirts. One young man quietly asked if I could give him romantic advice. He knew I would have the perfect gift for his wife. I suggested poetry.

No End Date for Kuwait Stays

Camp Doha was the first time we realized that many of the young men and women have no idea how long they will be staying in Kuwait. Most have no end date for their assignments. Some know that they will leave in the spring. One unit from the Big Red One at Ft. Riley, Kan., had just returned to Kuwait after going home at the end of August and thinking they had seen the last of the desert.

Being homesick was universal among the American troops there. Almost every one of the men and women mentioned how much they missed home or a loved one. They talked of going home--whenever that would be.

Having watched "Days of Our Lives" for years with mothers, girlfriends, fathers and brothers, many of the soldiers intended to use Coolio's and my autographed photos as Christmas presents. Because of Ramadan, Americans were locked down on their bases, so gift shopping was limited to the PX.

The pairing of the soap actor and the rapper on this trip did not look to be inspired thinking at first. But it turned out to be a perfect blend. I found Coolio to be an extremely pleasant and talented man who is instantly likable. About 10 minutes with Coolio would dissipate any stereotype about rappers. He is a voracious reader who was comfortable discussing religion, philosophy, literature and many other subjects while we moved from outpost to outpost.

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