KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan - Temperatures over 100 degrees could not slow down the Operation Honoring Our Troops team. Chef Charles Carroll, founder and producer of Operation H.O.T., is a veteran of Afghanistan. Not by way of military service, but by his dedication to bring a "taste of home" to deployed troops in Bagram during Operation H.O.T. 2011.
As part of this year's tour, the chefs and performers brought along over two tons of gifts to give away during meet and greets held at the Kandahar Airfield USO and three forward operating bases.
"It's our mission, tomorrow, to remind everyone that we are constantly thinking of all of you that are representing us over here and taking care of us and keeping us safe," Carroll said following a dinner held June 6.
As the stage took shape overnight and into the early morning hours, the wind began to pick up. For the residents of Kandahar Airfield it is nothing new, but the residents of Kandahar Airfield
aren't setting up stages with lights and walls of monitors either.
Shortly before the team was set to arrive for sound checks it happened. A gust of wind brought the rear set of lights down on the two walls of monitors.
While the team moved on to the USO to meet with service members, the audio-visual crew, with the help of several soldiers, began to salvage what they could of the damaged equipment and rebuild the stage for the evening's show.
"Are they all here to see us?" could be heard as the bus rounded the corner and the USO came into view.
A snaking line of several hundred service members were standing in the hot, midday sun outside of the doors to the air-conditioned interior of the USO. Inside, tables were arranged and stacked with everything from cigars and sunglasses to energy drinks and t-shirts. Chef Robert Irvine, owner of Restaurant R'evolution and star of such shows as Dinner Impossible and Restaurant Impossible, stood before a table piled high with kitchen utensils, pots and pans.
For more than two hours Coach Lou Holtz, self-made multimillionaire Steve Kaplan, Chef Irvine, comedian Carmen Barton, The Incredible Boris, and TV host Laura McIntosh greeted, laughed, shook hands with, and gave hugs to a countless number of men and women in uniform.
"A taste of home" on this tour also meant a Cajun Creole meal for 5000 service members served in the Luxembourg dining facility. The cooking was accomplished under the watchful eye of Chef Chris Lusk from Restaurant R'evolution, located in the heart of New Orleans' French Quarter.
Once dinner was done it was time for the show to start. First to take the stage was 3rd Infantry Division's own rock band, 28 Campaigns, lead by Staff Sgt. Dana Fischl.
Next up was Operation H.O.T. founder, and master of ceremonies, Chef Carroll who brought Fischl back to center stage to officially start the evening's events by singing the national anthem.
The other acts to follow included Kaplan and Holtz who both spoke about how to get what you want in life and how to maximize the skills you learn as a soldier to get there.
"When you're down you've got two choices," explained Holtz. "You stay down or you pick yourself up. Ladies and gentlemen, you can succeed when no one believes in you. You have no chance to succeed if you don't believe in yourself. Enjoy what you're doing."
Of course, what's a show without some laughs? Barton brought smiles to the troops with true stories of herself and children, and hypnotist The Incredible Boris had several members from the audience not quite acting themselves.
Not all of the well wishes were live on stage. Former Mayor of New York City Rudy Giuliani and former President Bill Clinton both recorded messages specifically for the troops at the show in Kandahar Airfield.
"You and your families make tremendous sacrifices for our nation, for our allies and for the future we all leave for our children," President Clinton's message said.
What happens when you bring world-renowned Chef Irvine to Afghanistan? You learn how to turn a Meal Ready to Eat (MRE) into a gourmet meal. And then he brings two, three-member teams to the stage for an impromptu MRE cook off.
With two MREs and two additional, fresh ingredients, the teams were challenged to create a main dish and a desert. After which a panel of three judges from the audience were brought on stage to judge their culinary creations.
At the end of 15 minutes, the judges were summoned to risk their taste buds on the gourmet MREs. Much to everyone's surprise, it was a split decision for the win. One team had the better main dish with their chicken pesto shepard's pie, and the other winning the desert category with their blueberry, banana cobbler.
In closing, Chef Irvine left the stage with a powerful message for the service members in attendance.
"It was a lot of fun to do that, but not because you wanted to cook. No matter what uniform you wear, you're all winners. I've got to tell you the last four days we have been here and to the forward operating bases, you have changed people's lives that have never ever been to a base before. People that read about what you do here at home, we are going to change their thoughts about that. Trust me. You do an amazing job no matter what uniform you wear or what country you come from," he said.
After all of the hard work, Afghan heat and short nights every member of the Operation H.O.T. crew couldn't express their appreciation enough for the freedoms afforded to them by the men and women who serve and the hospitality they received during their tour.