FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
BRANSON ENTERTAINMENT TROUPE REACHES U.S. TROOPS IN IRAQ
SCORING DEEP STRIKES INTO THE HEART OF GOODWILL
Just back from a nearly two-week goodwill mission targeting U.S. military personnel stationed in the greater Persian Gulf region and Germany, a largely Branson-based delegation of entertainers has vivid reflections of the impact such an endeavor had on audiences and performers alike.
"It was a tremendous, life-changing trip," said Branson showman and entrepreneur Gene Bicknell, his voice evoking a proud, mission-accomplished tone. For Bicknell this was the realization of a years-long dream of traveling overseas with a contingent of entertainers to honor American troops and their service. Culminating months of painstaking planning and detail, the mission was launched late last month when an ensemble of professional performers and dignitaries boarded a charter wide-body American Airlines jet for destinations in Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain, and visits to the Ramstein Air Base and the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany.
The trip also represented what is believed to be the largest humanitarian effort ever taken into a war zone. Coordinated through Operation Iraqi Children, the mission airlifted more than 40,000 pounds of donated school supplies, footwear supplied by Croc Shoes and other goods donated by the Bicknell Family Foundation. Operation Iraqi Children is the grass-roots organization founded by author Laura Hillenbrand and actor Gary Senise to give concerned Americans a way of helping children whose lives have been disrupted by the war.
Joining Bicknell and The Mansion Theatre's spirited "Country Tonite" cast were celebrated bassist and musical director Marty Wilhite and legendary entertainer Tony Orlando, another Branson favorite, who was accompanied by his band. Based in Nashville, Country-Western stars Dennis Wilson and Corinne Chapman were part of the troupe as were Matt Snook and Phil Vandel of Vandelsnook. Also performing at some of the venues was American Airlines flight attendant Adrian Mach.
"I can't praise American Airlines and Captains Jim Palmersheim and Steve Blankenship highly enough for the extent of their generosity," Bicknell said. "This wouldn't have been possible without the support of the airline's Veterans Initiative Program which has already donated so much to assist our wounded service personnel and their families." Indeed, American, already known for its charitable involvement in the Wounded Warriors Project, contributed the use of a Boeing 757-300 to enable the overseas entertainment mission.
Among the dignitaries participating in the tour were Charles W. Hostler, former U.S. ambassador to Bahrain, Mary Eisenhower of People to People International, the organization founded by her grandfather, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and three former Miss Americas, Susan Botsford, Charlene Hawkes, and Susan Powell. Also onboard were Air Force Col. Ed Shock, director of Armed Forces Entertainment and radio talk show hosts Doug Stephan of Boston and Jeff Bolton of Dallas.
On reflection, it's hard for Gene Bicknell to know just who got the most out of the trip, the military audiences or the performers. "We were taken back by the attitude of our uniformed service personnel there in Iraq and in other centers of conflict that we visited," he said. "I was moved by our young men and women who knew they had to do something when they learned Saddam Hussein and his sons had committed such atrocities. The soldiers we met feel good about what they're accomplishing there. It was good to offer them support and consolation and to show our appreciation."
That appreciation took many forms from large stage presentations to impromptu performances in cafeterias to hospital visits. Bicknell recalls the commitment on the part of soldiers that he and his wife Rita met throughout the tour. "Even those who were wounded told us they were eager to return to their duties." One sad note he reports was a visit with a soldier hospitalized in Germany. "This young man had head injuries and was missing two legs and one arm as a result of an explosive device planted by the enemy in Iraq. His mother was there; we hugged each other and cried together."
Apart from a few dates when the entire ensemble performed, the troupe split into smaller groups to maximize their outreach to the service personnel who Bicknell described as "hungry for contact from the States." Some of the shows were staged on the decks of the Navy aircraft carrier USS Eisenhower and the guided missile cruiser USS Vicksburg, both on duty in the Persian Gulf.
"It was hard, tedious work, and long, grueling days for us," Bicknell recalls, "but it's hardly a sacrifice given the opportunity we had to show our admiration and give something back to those who fight to defend our freedoms."