Project Salute seals troop-biz bond

Guest column

Out of a respectfully quiet but electrified audience of thousands came a single strong voice … “We love you, sir!”

The place and the time. Central Command, Qatar late in the evening of June 20.

It was the final, energy-charged performance of a very special group of entertainers. I was there for that moment; the initiative that put me there, Project Salute.

On Dec. 6, 2002, Robert DeNiro brought a special screening of “Analyze That” to Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Florida.

Together with Billy Crystal, Robin Williams, Tribeca’s Jane Rosenthal and Craig Hatkoff, Paul Hastings, Marty Edelman and a group of generous and caring New Yorkers, this visit became the launch pad for the Tribeca Film Institute’s Project Salute.

Aptly named by Hatkoff and Edelman, Project Salute’s mandate was simply to bring celebrities and filmed entertainment to military bases to say “thank you” to the men and women in service to the nation.

Led by DeNiro, “General” Edelman, and a driven set of organizers, a unique partnership was formed just as coalition forces stormed toward Baghdad.

Vanity Fair, MTV, the NBA, and the Intrepid Museum Foundation were joined by the USO and Armed Forces Entertainment to create Project Salute’s own coalition.

And what a force was mounted.

Led by DeNiro and Wayne Newton, the team included Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, John Stamos, Gary Sinise, Kid Rock, Alyssa Milano, Paul Rodriquez, Brittany Murphy, Leeann Tweeden, Lee Ann Womack, Chely Wright and Neal McCoy. The group also included Rap artists like Nappy Roots and NBA players, including Ervin Johnson.

Project Salute was about to storm the desert sands to meet, greet and perform for America’s best.

The celebrities and organizers departed Andrews Air Force Base on June 16 aboard a 747 donated by Northwest Airlines. The destination, Kuwait, with multiple visits and performances set for Qatar, the USS Nimitz and Iraq, including Baghdad.

One afternoon a small group traveled to Camp Commando, the desert headquarters of the Marine Expeditionary Force. With temperatures hovering between 120 and 140 degrees, photos were being taken and autographs signed for Marines whose morale was amazingly high considering the dangerous wind down that continued to take American lives.

I stood with Col. Tom Collins, an infantry battalion commanding officer, and his sergeant major. Both were combat-hardened vets who were part of the lead run to Baghdad. They asked who I was and what Project Salute was about. I said we’re here to say thank you for what they and their fellow Marines had committed to and gotten done.

I added a personal note that I was a Marine officer in Vietnam in 1968. Their response to me, thank you, sir. Other Marines also gathered to thank me for my experience thirty-five years past. I was tearfully stunned as I cherished this very special moment.

The next day I was part of a group that flew to Baghdad by C-130 for another meet and greet.

At the Saddam International Airport where combat operations are part of the daily routine, we were led to a huge open hangar not at all expecting what was there. The hangar was filled to capacity with 6,000 troops awaiting our arrival. A small stage was built. Speakers and a mike were in place.

All the while these thousands of troops, weapons in hand and gritty from the dirt and heat, without prompting, chanted USA, USA.

And then it happened. Kid Rock mounted the stage grabbed the mike and led an impromptu concert supported by John Stamos on Drums, Chely Wright in a duet and Romijn Stamos singing back-up. The house rocked.

Gary Sinise, Forrest Gump’s Lt. Dan as everyone knew him, thanked everyone followed by Madsen who, after a few inspiring words of gratitude, threw himself off the stage into the crowd to be passed across the hangar held up by the powerful hands of the 3rd and 4th Infantry Divisions.

The energy was powerful and the joy was overwhelming. And The Kid made the moment happen.

Finally, it came to Friday night and the big closing concert at Central Command in Qatar. Wayne Newton MC’d and performed. DeNiro thanked everyone.

And all the talent rose to the moment for this last important show before departure. A presentation was added from three very special guests who were impacted by 9/11 and the attack on the World Trade Center.

Christy Ferer and Ginny Bauer both lost their husbands, and John Vigiano lost his only two sons, one a New York City fireman, the other a policeman. A warm, reflecting silence filled the arena as Christy called General Franks to the stage to receive an engraved piece of steel from the World Trade Center. He held the mike while the applause exploded from the thousands gathered to thank him for his leadership. Then once again, silence.

Out of this respectfully quiet but electrified audience came a single strong voice… “We love you, sir!”

General Franks turned, his emotions evident, while his troops thundered an ovation. This was a moment, an American moment, I will never forget.

Vanity Fair’s Sara Marks, the NBA’s Jared Franzreb, The Intrepid’s Bill White, Tribeca’s Craig Hatkoff and the USO’s Ned Powell and Sara Farnsworth were Project Salute’s committed team leaders.

And the celebrities and performers who freely gave so generously of their time and talent made me appreciate even more the entertainment industry and the good it so often quietly provides to support those Americans who place themselves in harm’s way to protect our precious freedom. I was proud to be part of the team.

(Gerry Byrne, the former publisher of Variety, is currently an industry consultant.)

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