Have You Got 72 hours To Spare?
About 5 years ago I started to work with the USO of Metropolitan Washington DC. That's when I went on my first 'tour' with them. The word tour is in quotation marks because I live in the unsung world of animation voice over. So my tour was not to Iraq. My first tour was stateside. Yes, I am the type of celebrity that is able to eat in restaurants almost every day and am NEVER bothered for my autograph. Now I will admit that if I want to play around with kids I simply whip out a little "Maya" or "Dexter" or "Mrs. Wakeman" or "Cheese" or "Coco" behind their backs and let them wonder who it came out of...
Anonymity serves me. I act because I love to - and not for any fame it may provide. OK. That, and the check. My lack of TV recognition for anything other than the plethora of on-camera commercials I have done has never caused me a moment's concern - until my first USO tour.
I arrived at Washington Dulles airport and was met by a woman holding a USO sign with my name below the logo. I have not ever felt so unworthy of a sign and a free ride. I murmured while on the way to Walter Reed Medical Hospital that I didn't think any of our soldiers would know my voices, let alone who I was. I was assured by my driver Dick that they would. And that, in the big picture it really didn't matter. I wouldn't understand that last sentiment until I got there.
When we arrived at Walter Reed a young man took my ID and then asked our driver to pull to the side. He was heavily armed and I was a little worried. Do you think my moving violations preceded me? When we pulled over he asked me to exit the vehicle. I was nervous. I got out of the car and the soldier grasped me in the biggest bear hug and told me that he proposed to his wife while watching an episode of Dexter's Lab. And then he took his picture with me and waved us in. We pulled up to the USO spot reserved in the front of the hospital and a staff of three people awaited my arrival. When I got out they shook my hand and hugged me, grinning from ear to ear. This one's 5-year-old loved me in Maya & Miguel. This other one loved The Flea from Mucha Lucha. I was feeling less insecure.
We entered the building and my ID was processed, my phone confiscated and we grabbed the first elevator up to the admitting ward. I was handed off to a sergeant who led me around for the rest of the day and held my hands when I couldn't enter another room. The drill was that I was robed and gloved before entering any returning warrior's room. First permission was asked of their family - and then we were asked to come in. I was prompted not to ask how they were doing - but to thank them for their service, welcome them home, give them a photo, any goodies I had brought with me, and then take a Polaroid snapshot with them if they wanted.
The first room I entered was a boy's. It had to be a boy. His chest was torn apart and had been stitched together. He was missing an eye and his head was swathed in bandages. He wanted to meet me. I walked in and saw him and the first words out of my mouth were, "How are you?" And he told me. It had been less than 48 hours since his surgery and less time than that since his airlift from Iraq. He had come in contact with an IED - and it had torn the holes in him. All I remember besides his sweet, sexy smile was that he couldn't wait to get back to his unit. We took a photo - I gave him an autographed one of me, left a message in one of my voices for his cell phone and climbed into his bed for our Polaroid. He was loving it. He wanted to make his wife jealous. She had apparently stepped out to grab a bite to eat. He was 19.
The way it goes, I learned from him and others that day, is when you are injured you are assessed in the field. They decide right there if you can make it through the airlift to Germany. If you can, you are immediately taken from the field to Germany. There they make another assessment and get you immediately to the USA - and into Walter Reed or Bethesda Hospital. You are then worked on - and either 24 or 48 hours later some woman who does cartoon voices is climbing into bed with you. There is one image seared into my mind - the wounded able to walk arriving through the front doors of Walter Reed Hospital with their gear still in their hands.
Next room. Traumatic head injury. This man was a firefighter from Massachusetts with four young children when a device exploded and a balcony collapsed on him. He communicated by blinking and small movements of his index finger. After leaving him with a million bits of swag and a hug - and stuff for all of his children surrounding him I walked out grinning and collapsed myself into the arms of the sergeant. Twelve more rooms to go. Twelve more brave young people who had given all for us. The others on the ward too sick or exhausted or traumatized to see the likes of me.
Each person I visited was grateful to be alive and excited, willing and as soon as they were able - wanting to get back to their unit and support their efforts. The cart following me from room to room with the goodies sent by Cartoon Network was slowly emptying. But we weren't done.
I was whisked in the van from Walter Reed to Bethesda where the same thing happened. I was greeted by hospital brass, de-phoned and sent room to room. More amazing strong and brave warriors.
From there I went to a children's ward and sat and colored with the children too young to really understand the concept of a grown woman making funny voices for a living. I want you to know I colored a little bit better than the 4-year-olds. Thank you.
I was then taken back to my room and allowed to rest. The next day I visited Ft. Meade and Indian Head - to visit and sign autographs for children. It was July and the weather was stifling but these children, hundreds and hundreds of them, lined up quietly and patiently to get their autograph, a hug from me and some goodies. I spoke with the spouses of deployed personnel and asked them how they coped. It was as hard as you imagine.
I then had a quick bite of a sandwich, some popcorn and a bit of spun cotton candy and moved on to Quantico - where I met with many many many fans of The Flea. I signed autographs and made jokes and then I was done.
I had a bite alone at the Old Ebbitt Grill in downtown Washington DC - which is now my favorite restaurant in Washington. and just the act of being silent and alone allowed all the feelings, the signals, the emotions, the events of the past 48 hours to wash over me. Just so you know, THIS is where I first learned to say I was crying because my dog died...
The last day I was taken to one last base filled with kids anxious to meet me before I was whisked back to Dulles to fly home. I don't recall the base - but I recall noticing the tireless and fearless work the men and women of the USO were doing. They had arranged all the goodies that the kids were allowed to pick from, were manning the tables, had prepared and were serving the lunch the kids were eating, were supervising the cartoons being shown prior to my arrival and were cleaning up after the close to 300 children who had passed through the door.
I ran out of photos to sign and ended up signing my name to toys and t-shirts and napkins. I was thanked for not forgetting them, for thinking enough of them to fly myself out, for considering returning and finally for the work I do.
I thought back to the first day that I arrived and saw the USO sign with my name below. I had felt unworthy of the attention. But I now got what Dick meant about fame not mattering in this case. It didn't. What mattered was that I cared enough to come and say thank you. In 72 hours I had met people with true courage, true grace and true humility, and they were thanking me. Wow.
I committed right then to serving the USO of Metropolitan Washington DC - and have been back 7 more times to visit with our troops. I brought others with me - both voice over and TV stars - and I called us the "Toons on Tour." I even got an award for most miles traveled (their cute way of thanking me for my dedication) at a dinner with Jon Stewart.
I haven't been back for a bit because the economy made it impossible to rustle up a team of 'toon' travelers or to wrangle the studio goodies that once came so easily. But recently I reconnected with my friends there and am putting together another trip. I've put out the calls - but so far only 1 person has said a definitive yes.
Here is my challenge to you: If you have all of your limbs, a beautiful family, your health, a job and a life you look forward to every single day - I think you need to ask yourself - do you have 72 hours to spare?
Mr. Tucci - want to come with me this May?
You know you love me - Candi