Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Going Global: Thoughts on Performing For the Military

In the past four months, I have had the privilege to embark on two tours entertaining US troops and State Department personnel who were deployed abroad.  Before I went on these tours, my international travel had basically been limited to nighttime trips to border cities in Canada and Mexico (Most of these trips were to Tijuana.  Good times.).  Many of my college friends would tell me tales of their exotic journeys to Europe and Asia, and I could only counter with stories about the cultural practices of folks in the South and Midwest of the United States (I have had to educate many of my peers about such things as sweet tea, hush puppies, muddin', and float trips.).  Anyways, I figured I would write about my military tours.  These tours were incredibly fun and enlightening, and it has been a long time since I've written a blog.

My first tour took place from Dec. 24-Jan.4., and this tour took Justin Berkman, "the Jew", to Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Egypt.  I only mention being of Jewish descent because I'm pretty sure that most American Jews don't take their first overseas trips to Beirut and Amman.  Also, traveling to the Middle East caused way too much anxiety for my stereotypically neurotic Jewish parents.  They assumed I was going to be staying with radical, anti-Semites, and that I would be the target of every jihad in the region.

I'm happy to report that my experiences in these countries were pleasant, and that I was not forced to wear a Jewish star when I went through customs.  The tour started off in Beirut, and our first show was at the US Embassy in Lebanon.  From there, we went to Jordan for two shows for the Tennessee and North Carolina National Guards, followed by one show in Adana, Turkey at an Air Force base, and then we closed out the tour with two shows in Egypt for MFOs (Multinational Forces and Observers).  All of the shows were fun, but the one in Adana stood out.  As a comedian, you cherish the shows like the one we had in Adana.  The venue was spectacular, and we performed for a sold-out, enthusiastic crowd that appreciated comedy and treated me and my tour mates to a vigorous standing ovation at the show's conclusion.

Besides the shows, there were many other fun times on this trip.  I stood in the Dead Sea.  I snorkeled in the Red Sea. I took a pic next to the Mediterranean Sea.  I played softball with the troops in Egypt.  I rode in a Black Hawk helicopter.  I rode a camel.  I joked around with a Kiwi general and the US Ambassador to Lebanon.  And the food was tasty!!  Pita, falafel, hummus, and shwarama, oh my!

My next tour was from March 13-29.  This tour was less cultural and more tropical.  In order, we visited Greenland, the Bahamas, Curacao, Guantanamo, Puerto Rico and Honduras.  Greenland was definitely the outlier on the trip.  It was not tropical.  You can only get to Thule, Greenland via a military plane, and there is nothing to see there other than snow and rocks. And fjords (google "fjords", if necessary).  Once we survived the Greenland cold, the rest of the trip consisted of great weather, beaches, and tan acquisition (true story).  Again, the shows were great, and I truly enjoyed all my performances.

Here were the off-stage highlights from this tour. I kayaked in the Bahamas. I drove a Coast Guard boat in Guantanamo.  I did some flipping and twisting off a diving board in Honduras (still got it).  I was kicked out of a casino in Puerto Rico (I believe I was asked to leave because I was giving my friend blackjack tips, and he was winning money).  I ate more tasty food.  Paella, ceviche, and empanadas, que rico!!!

I'm so grateful to have had the opportunity to have gone on these tours.  Besides the good shows, quality food, and super cool recreational activities, these were extremely educational and enriching experiences.  Specifically, I learned that GTMO is much more than a detention center, but also an enormous naval base with great amenities, including a kick-ass Jamaican restaurant.  Puerto Rico is an ideal vacation destination due to its culture, environment, food, weather, and you don't need a passport to go there (I hope you knew that).  I became more acutely aware of how our deployed soldiers live and the many sacrifices they make to serve.  I saw the effects of sequestration first-hand; budget cuts were being implemented, many of which are decreasing the quality of life for our troops.  I learned about our missions in all these various countries, and talked to military folks about US foreign policy.

While I appreciated having had these opportunities, the troops were equally appreciative to have us there.  At times, I feel like what I do is fairly insignificant and inconsequential, but for many of these troops, watching a comedy show is a much-needed diversion.  Never have so many people come up to me after my shows and expressed such sincere gratitude to me for merely showing up to perform.  I was embarrassed that the troops were thanking me since what they do is much more deserving of gratitude, so I would always thank them, too.

I look forward to doing another one of these tours in the future, and I'll try to keep you posted about all the places my comedy journey takes me.  Finally, I have to acknowledge Mark Serritella, Johnny Cardinale, David Forseth, and Luchana Gatica, my fellow comedians who accompanied me on these trips.  They are quality comedians and excellent traveling companions.

OK, this blog is too long.  I'm done.

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