NEW YORK – This week a plane left Washington, D.C., carrying a vital and much-awaited cargo for the soldiers, sailors and pilots waging the war on terror.
The cargo wasn't cruise missiles, warplane parts or even Meals-Ready-to-Eat. It was Wayne Newton, pop singer Jessica Simpson and more than a dozen other celebrities.
A war almost doesn't seem real until the United Service Organizations, better known as the USO, comes on board to entertain overseas troops with glitzy dance numbers, comedy routines and visits from the glamour girl of the moment. This week, for the first time since Operation Enduring Freedom was launched, the USO has joined the troops fighting in the field.
"Everyone's very enthusiastic, very patriotic," USO spokeswoman Pat Messer, herself a retired Marine lieutenant colonel, said. "They may bring the troops gifts."
The USO team, lead by Las Vegas lounge fixture Newton, will be overseas for a week. The precise locations and schedules for the shows can't be revealed for security reasons, Messer said, but every branch of the military service will get its USO visit.
The stars on the tour include Bo Derek, the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders, Miss USA Kandace Krueger, Ally McBeal actor Peter MacNicol, country singer Neil McCoy, former Saturday Night Live regular Rob Schneider, and reggae singer Shaggy.
Newton, who recently replaced Bob Hope as the USO's lead celebrity, will decide the show's program, Messer said.
"What will happen is first doing rehearsals overseas," Messer said. "What they do is up to Wayne Newton. They'll give a fabulous show."
The USO's president and CEO, Gen. John H. Tilelli Jr., will also be on hand, she said.
The USO has been the military personnel's comforter and entertainer since 1941, when it was created as a non-governmental, non-profit agency at the request of Franklin Roosevelt. Entertainers put on shows during World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Persian Gulf War, and even during the peacekeeping mission in Somalia.
But this war, as everyone acknowledges, is different.
The group has gone from busing in girls for soldiers to dance with at dance halls to providing calling cards, cellular phones and Internet cafes for troops to keep in touch with their families. And instead of focusing just on the fighting men and women now, the USO also provides services to soldiers' husbands, wives and children back home.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, the USO gave shelter and solace to the families of soldiers killed at the Pentagon. It brought celebrities to visit with rescue workers at the ruins of the World Trade Center. The Ritz-Carlton linked up with the group to hold a bake sale with cake and cookie recipes supplied by people including first lady Laura Bush and celebrity chef Bobby Flay.
However, updating the USO's services doesn't mean that the old-fashioned show made famous by Glenn Miller and carried on by Hope has gone away, said Myra Olshansky, executive director of the USO chapter of Philadelphia. The USO plans to double its live shows and overseas tours.
"Sure, they have TV overseas now, but nothing beats a live USO show," Olshansky said. "Seeing America filtered through on a screen is just not the same as seeing live entertainers go to the front and give of themselves. You just ask any troop, whether they are from the Korean era or the '90s, they will tell you how much it is appreciated."
Messer said the USO was confident it would once again succeed in keeping up the morale of America's armed services in this latest overseas mission, no matter how the faces and stakes have changed.
"We've entertained the troops for 60 years in every way, so this time we'll just adapt ourselves to make sure we can entertain the troops the best we can," she said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.