News: ‘Tops in Blue’ is tops in Basra
Story by Sgt. Benjamin Kibbey
COB BASRA, Iraq – Stifling humidity and heat hovering above 100 degrees did little to keep people away from the U.S. Air Force’s “Tops in Blue” performance July 13 at Contingency Operating Base Basra.
The crowd clustered around the Morale, Welfare and Recreation stage presented one of the largest turn-outs Jenny Sullivan, a community recreation officer with the United States Division-South’s MWR office, has seen on COB Basra.
“This was one of the best,” she said. “I think this probably ties with the body-building competition to have the most attendance that I’ve seen. This is great support.”
The Charleston, S.C., native, who has been at her current job for three-and-a-half months, said she has coordinated 30 to 40 performances around southern Iraq.
“Tops in Blue” — one of the oldest and most widely-traveled groups of its kind, according to www.TopsinBlue.com — treated the audience of service members and civilians to songs, medleys and musical sketches during the show.
These kinds of shows give the service members and civilians on COB Basra a break from the various stresses they face, Sullivan said.
“That’s why I do my job: just to give them a few minutes of relief, and I believe that’s why “Tops in Blue” comes,” she said. “They know the importance of a little bit of escape when Soldiers are out here for their year-long or 15-month deployment."
“If they can provide that and make one person smile, then they’ve done their job.”
Master Sgt. Marvin Dooley, Division Headquarters and Headquarters Battalion, 1st Infantry Division, has been to several of the shows put on in the past at the MWR stage. Dooley, who works with the contracting office on base, said he comes to show his support and to step away from the daily grind of deployment life.
“I try to come out as much as possible and support the activities that they have,” he said, “to support the activities that they’re bringing on for the Soldiers and the people that are coming out and spending their time coming to Iraq, to support them, as well as just to take a little bit of time to get my head, my mind, outside of Iraq.”
“I’ve seen a couple of the Soldier shows,” said the Little Rock, Ark. native. “I wanted to see how the Air Force did.”
Capt. Kanika Davila, a dentist with the 257th Medical Company out of Fort Bragg, N.C., is new to the COB Basra MWR concert scene.
“This is actually my first one that I came to out here,” said the Newport News, Va., native. “It was great; I’m glad I actually came out for it.”
Currently plying her dental trade at the COB Basra Troop Medical Clinic, Davila said shows such as “Tops in Blue” serve an important purpose.
“This is definitely a morale-booster,” she said. “It’s kind of nice to see something like this, you know, see other people out there getting on stage and performing. They did a really great job.”
Giving the troops a mental and emotional break is the goal of the show, said Edward Jones, the performance director for “Tops in Blue,” which is based out of Lackland Air Force Base, Texas.
“For 90 minutes — from the first song to the last song — we want to remove them from the environment, bring a little bit of home to them, and then, after it’s over, shake some hands, thank them for doing their service, and then we pack up and go to the next place to do the same thing,” Jones said.
The fact group members may have walked, or likely will walk, in the same shoes as the audience, reinforces the “Tops in Blue” concept of “family entertaining family.”
“Some of the members, actually, have been deployed to these places that we’re going to and will be deployed when they get home,” Jones said.
“We have security forces members, we have dental technicians, we have a Korean linguist, we have a C-130 crew chief, we have electricians, we have an instructor on the tour as well, we have a missilier,” he said.
“They come from backgrounds like singing in the church choir, high school, playing in bands – different things like that.”
As part of the greater theme of entertaining the troops from an insider perspective, the group members spend much of the show engaging the audience directly by going into the audience and bringing audience members up onto the stage.
“We don’t want people looking at us just like they’re looking at a normal stage show,” Jones said. “We’re Air Force people; we are each other. So we like to get down into the audience, break those walls down, touch some people, smile in their face.”
“If I’m a singer and it says ‘family entertaining family’ – where my family’s performing, I can always sing along with them, we can have fun and that’s what we create at our show,” he said.
Jones, who acts as the road manager during tours, is a veteran when it comes to entertaining service members.
“I started as a performer 20 years ago, as a singer in the show,” he said. “Since , I’ve been doing the vocals and the choreography for the show.”
The former airman and native of Natchez, Miss., started just like the current performers: every year, there is a competition, open to the entire Air Force, to select the next Tops in Blue.
“We bring anywhere from 60 to 80, depending on the year and then we select about 35 from that,” Jones said.
Those selected rehearse for two months, do a tour with the group and then return to their regular jobs in the Air Force, he said.
“We build the show, and then we put them on the road for one year,” he said. “And then, when that year is over, it culminates back in San Antonio [at Lackland AFB] with a huge finale show.”
Each cycle, the team that tours is almost completely composed of new entertainers, Jones said. Of Tops in Blue 2010, only two of the airmen on stage have toured previously, both in 2007.
And learning to perform as a group is not their only challenge. The group travels with 32 tons of equipment, Jones said, and act as their own grips, setting-up and tearing-down the sets at every show.
The attitude of the group is key to its success, he said, especially with the hours of physical labor they put in before and after their 90-minute set, which is a lively and athletic display.
The current group stands out in that regard, Jones said.
“They’re doing exceptionally well at it,” he said. “I’d say they’re one of the best I’ve worked with: they have great attitudes; they always want to work and do what’s required.”