A command of country music
By PAUL DE LA GARZA, Times Staff Writer
TAMPA -- That sound at MacDill Air Force Base is not the thump of war drums but the wail of country music.
Gen. Tommy R. Franks, commander of U.S. Central Command, is a die-hard fan of the honky-tonk blues. As he and his staff fine-tune war plans for Iraq, Franks has been inviting his country music pals to CentCom to help boost morale.
The list of recent performers includes Randy Travis, Charlie Daniels, Ricky Skaggs and Neal McCoy. CentCom staff joke that the base is becoming "ol' Nashville."
Franks himself has been known to serenade his wife, Cathy, and his charges. "He doesn't have a second career looming," Mrs. Franks concedes.
The base already has gone Hollywood.
Last December, Robert DeNiro, Billy Crystal and Kevin Spacey held a screening of their comedy, Analyze That, at CentCom.
DeNiro had contacted Franks last summer and offered to do something for the troops. Franks, his wife and DeNiro met for lunch at the Pentagon and agreed on the visit to Tampa.
Lt. Col. Jim Yonts, a CentCom spokesman, said the visits help lift spirits on base.
"They are busy people, and for them to spend a day, or a few hours with us, that really makes us feel good," Yonts said. "They really appreciate the work service members are doing for the country."
When the celebrities address CentCom staff, Yonts said, "It's truly from the heart.
"It's not for show."
DeNiro, for example, who arrived at MacDill via private jet, was passionate in his remarks to the troops during his visit.
"I watched the Trade Towers come down," he said, "and I thank you for protecting my children."
McCoy met Franks through the USO, the organization that provides a morale boost to the military, often through big-name entertainment.
In a telephone interview this week from his home in Longview, Texas, McCoy said he visited MacDill last week because he wanted to do his part to support the U.S. military.
"It just does your heart good to be able to entertain them," McCoy said. "I tell them, 'Whatever you're getting out of this, multiply it by 100, and imagine how I feel.' "
During McCoy's hourlong performance, Franks -- decked out in desert fatigues and a black beret -- and Mrs. Franks began dancing.
When they visit MacDill, the celebrities often meet with Franks and his staff, and get a briefing about CentCom operations, which stretch from the Middle East to parts of Asia. They also perform, sign autographs and pose for photos with base personnel.
During the screening of Analyze That, Mrs. Franks sat between DeNiro and the general.
She was tickled, to say the least.
"Bob really wanted to put his arm around me during the movie," Mrs. Franks said, "but my husband was right there. He behaved himself."
Franks, 57, often lets his crewcut down when his celebrity pals pass through.
During a recent weekend visit by Skaggs, Franks says Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld teased him about his casual attire.
For the occasion, the man in charge of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf donned a Hawaiian shirt, which staffers teasingly describe as "parrot colors" -- very green and very yellow.
During a video teleconference with Rumsfeld, Franks said Rumsfeld complimented the shirt.
"Being a military man," Franks quipped, "I'm always in camouflage, sir."
Franks' taste in music is rooted in his upbringing. He was born in Oklahoma and raised in Texas.
When he exercises on his treadmill at home, he listens to a tape of country music, compiled for him by his wife.
Franks also likes classical music, but he draws the line at rap. "Let's just say that's not his generation," Mrs. Franks said.
Franks' favorite country artist is Charley Pride.
Before McCoy started performing last week, Franks gave the crowd a thrill. With microphone in hand, and singing a cappella, he belted out a little number by his idol, Is Anybody Going to San Antone?
The troops erupted with laughter, cheering and hooting. "We have to take our jobs very seriously," Franks declared, "but we should never take ourselves too seriously."
Franks could never be accused of that.
A few months ago, over the telephone, he sang for Pride the same song he did last week.
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