When the Jenny Boyle Band played "Sweet Home Alabama" at North Camp, Egypt, the soldiers danced, sang along and acted like they were somewhere else. That was the purpose of the band's tour through bases in Egypt, Jordan and Turkey, as it played for military support personnel or soldiers on their way to or back from the war in Iraq.
The band's mission was simple: Entertain the troops, and help them forget for just a little bit. Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama" did just that.
"For the tour, we'd play cover songs," Boyle said. "I'd go down and dance in the crowd."
Gabe Gawen, the band's manager, had the mission in mind.
"We'd play anything they can dance or sing along with. Hopefully, we'd take them back to another place, so they'd forget about where they are," Gawen said.
When the band played James Brown's "Sex Machine," "Jenny was down dancing with a colonel," Gawen said.
Drummer Sean Bradley experienced the friendly environment as well. "Before and after the shows, we met as many as possible," he said.
The Fairfax-based band embarked on the Armed Forces Entertainment Tour, courtesy of Uncle Sam. Boyle left on March 26 with band members Chris Roque and Jeff Reed from Baltimore, Josh Burgess from Waterford, Sean Bradley of Herndon, and Gawen. Boyle is from Springfield and graduated from West Springfield High School in 1997, and Bradley is a 2000 graduate of Herndon High School.
The band landed in Cairo, Egypt, and traveled by bus to military establishments around Egypt and Jordan, and then Turkey, before returning to the United States on April 8.
Although the bases they went to were away from the Iraqi battle zone, Boyle knew she wasn't near home when she saw policemen with AK-47s from the band's bullet-proof van. In addition to being a performer, Boyle tried to comfort the soldiers.
"I didn't really know what to expect," she said. "I spent more time looking at pictures of family and girlfriends. One guy was going to propose to his girlfriend when he got home."
WHEN THE BAND arrived at a place called "South Camp," which was occupied by a National Guard Unit out of Michigan, it encountered a sign of the current war: "weekend soldiers" who had been called up to serve.
"There was a lot of middle-aged guys," Gawen said.
By talking to them, Boyle could tell their lives were dominated by things other than the military. These soldiers were not "lifers," a military term for soldiers destined to stay until retirement.
"These people had lives outside the military. They needed a hug the most," Boyle said.
Bradley could tell a change in attitude from the men in South Camp from the men in North Camp. North Camp was predominantly regular Army and seemed more in tune with the combat situation, said Bradley. South Camp was different.
"You could tell they really missed home," Bradley said.
BEING IN the Middle East, Boyle encountered a different attitude toward women to some extent. In one airport, she had to be searched and scanned with a metal detector in another area, separate from the men. On the streets in Cairo with no burka, a garment customarily worn by women in some Islamic nations, Boyle heard remarks.
"Walking down the streets of Cairo, there were comments and people looking," she said.
Band members also saw some signs of political unrest, although they stayed close to U.S. military bases. Gawen did notice an airplane trip that took longer than it should have.
"On our plane ride to Jordan, we flew around Israel," Gawen said.
"I never really got a hint of danger, though we were close to the Gaza Strip," Bradley said.
While on the tour, band members focused on their music and avoided voicing opinions on the war or taking political stances, as the Dixie Chicks did in earlier performances. Their band did have a Dixie Chicks song on their play list.
"We planned ahead of time and basically avoided playing that," Boyle said, sticking to the red, white and blue attitude.
"They're our people over there. We had to support them regardless," she said.