From the Bars of Virginia To Bases Around the World

Officials at Camp Victory in Kuwait present Jenny Boyle with a certificate of appreciation before her band's performance during a 21-day tour last month.
Officials at Camp Victory in Kuwait present Jenny Boyle with a certificate of appreciation before her band's performance during a 21-day tour last month. (Photo From Jenny Boyle)
By Leef Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 20, 2005

Jenny Boyle didn't make it to Hollywood after her "American Idol" audition. And when the 26-year-old pediatric nurse sings in the smoky Northern Virginia bars where she's a regular act, she has to compete with the sports channel and boozy conversations for the attention of customers.

But on her overseas tours, Boyle travels with a security entourage and plays to cheering crowds. She and her four-piece band spend hours signing autographs and posing for photos with fans.

Even if it sometimes requires body armor.

Boyle, from West Springfield, was plucked from obscurity to perform on the war-zone circuit. She and more than 100 largely unknown artists like her, including about 20 groups from the Washington area, have been enlisted by an organization called Armed Forces Entertainment to play for the troops in such countries as Afghanistan, Qatar and Kuwait.

"They treat you like a superstar," said Boyle, whose Jenny Boyle Band returned earlier this month from a 21-day trip to Central Asia, parts of the Middle East and Africa, her fourth overseas tour. "I'll do the shows as long as they ask me," said Boyle, who will soon return to her job at a pediatrician's office in Burke. "I just have to wait until they call."

You've probably heard of the USO, made famous by Bob Hope and a string of celebrities who began entertaining the troops during World War II. The lesser-known Armed Forces Entertainment was founded in 1951 and today coordinates most of the overseas performances for military audiences, including providing support for USO shows. These days, many troops stationed overseas are entertained by "non-celebrity" acts, particularly in isolated areas.

This year, AFE has sent more than 100 acts, mostly singers, musicians and comedians, to U.S. military bases from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to South Korea.

"Primarily we deal with regional bands, young acts, comedians that haven't gotten national exposure," said Capt. Jesse Davidson of the U.S. Marine Corps, who is circuit manager for AFE's Southwest Asia tour. "Sometimes it feels a little bit like 'American Idol.' We have a lot of groups that are very eager, and we have to thin out the applicants."

When performers are selected, they agree to volunteer their time. In exchange, they get free travel and a $150-a-day stipend to cover food and lodging. Performers can -- and sometimes are required to -- stay on the military bases where they perform, eating and sleeping for free. It's one way artists are able to bank a little money to pay the bills when they get home to their regularly scheduled lives.

A band that sounds good and wins over the crowds might get invited back, Davidson said.

Its most recent tour was perhaps the most challenging for the Jenny Boyle Band, encompassing 13 shows in six countries, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain among them.

"It was particularly nerve-racking when Jenny would say things like, 'Don't worry about us; we've been issued body armor,' " recalled the singer's mother, Betsy Boyle. "Truthfully, I think it was scary for them, too."

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