- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 24, 2008

FORWARD OPERATING BASE SHARANA, Afghanistan | Army 1st Lt. Tomas Rofkahr won’t be with his family this Christmas.

His temporary home at Forward Operating Base Sharana, in Paktia province along the eastern border with Pakistan, will have to do.

For him, along with 2,000 other troops stationed at this logistical center, Christmas began a week ago with a USO holiday tour that at least momentarily lifted their spirits. It was a major improvement from the situation a few days earlier when the base was hit by rockets from Taliban insurgents.

“This is a show for us,” said Lt. Rofkahr, who said his heart is still with his wife and two sons in Russellville, Ark.

“Every day is kind of like Groundhog Day for us,” he added, referring to the monotony of daily routines at the base. “Off the base, it’s dangerous, and this time of the year it’s difficult for young soldiers on their first deployment.”

At the USO concert, Grammy nominee Kid Rock didn’t hold back. A favorite of the troops, his edgy Americana music and slightly salacious style was warmly welcomed by the troops, some of whom said they were entertained by him the year before in the war zone.

“This is what it’s all about,” said Kid Rock, who played along with guitarist Zac Brown. “It’s about you.”

Country music singer and “American Idol” contestant Kellie Pickler, actress Tichina Arnold, and comedians Lewis Black, Kathleen Madigan and John Bowman spent time before and after the show signing autographs and taking pictures with the troops.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael G. Mullen, accompanied by his wife, Deborah, flew in overnight from Andrews Air Force Base, with a stop in Ramstein, Germany, where the USO performed before heading to Afghanistan.

For the chairman, it was all about giving back, he said.

“The almost universal comment I get from everyone I meet in uniform is, thanks for bringing them,” he said of the USO tour, “because it’s something that just gets their minds off it, and they really appreciate it.”

Such Christmas tours are a time-honored tradition since the USO was founded in 1941 during World War II. Past entertainers have included Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Marilyn Monroe, bringing U.S. troops far from families a bit of home during the holidays.

There was little rest for Adm. Mullen, his wife and the entertainers, who took brief naps during a full day of shows and flights.

A 9 a.m. show at Bagram Air Base outside Kabul was immediately followed by an airlift in a C-130, in the turbulent winter weather, to the much smaller Forward Operating Base Sharana, where Lt. Rofkahr helped assist with the setup.

Then the group rushed for a final show in Afghanistan’s volatile southern region of Kandahar, where more than 2,000 U.S. and coalition troops overflowed a small auditorium.

Early warnings of a possible attack almost ended the Kandahar show before it started - a sign that Afghanistan remains in the throes of a war against Taliban and al Qaeda insurgents more than seven years after a U.S.-led coalition toppled the Taliban regime.

After departing Kandahar, the group flew 6 1/2 hours to Baghdad, where Adm. Mullen met Iraqi government officials and U.S. military leaders.

However, “this trip is all about the troops,” he said.

Lt. Rofkahr said he planned on calling his family on Christmas Day, but that in the meantime, the USO helped him beat the blues.

“I guess we just want to know that we’re not forgotten,” he said.