The New York Observer - David Letterman Article

David Letterman’s stealthy, whirlwind Christmas visit to U.S. troops in Afghanistan was a surprise even to people close to the Late Show host.

Accompanied by Paul Schaffer and stage manager Biff Henderson, Mr. Letterman left New York on Monday, Dec. 23, and travelled to Kandahar, where he spent Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with members of the armed forces. For a high-profile guy, Mr. Letterman’s Afghanistan trip was a well-kept secret. Only a handful of staffers knew he was going. It’s not certain if CBS president Leslie Moonves knew—he was away on vacation Dec. 27 and unreachable—but it’s clear that Mr. Letterman didn’t want to kick up a lot of fuss about his plan, which he briefly discussed on the air during a Dec. 26 Late Show taped just hours after he, Mr. Schaffer and Mr. Henderson returned to New York.

"This was a very personal affair for Dave," said U.S.O. director of entertainment Mitch Marovitz, who helped orchestrate Mr. Letterman’s visit and accompanied the Late Show trio to the U.S. base in Kandahar. "He just wanted to go out and say thank you. He certainly didn’t want anyone to have the slightest inkling or feeling that he was doing this for publicity. This was personal."Mr. Letterman was clearly moved by the experience. "These people over there truly are America’s best," he said when he talked about the trip on the Late Show.

With Mr. Henderson, a Vietnam veteran, seated beside him, he showed off a handful of snapshots he took himself and joked that the troops were unimpressed by his show-business background."Hey, TV boy, where do you think you’re sleeping tonight?" Mr. Letterman said in a mocking voice as he displayed a photo of an Army tent in the desert. He also showed a photo of himself sharing a cigar with the troops. "If my cardiologist is watching," Mr. Letterman said, "that’s not a cigar.

"Mr. Letterman’s trip was arranged on very short notice—barely two weeks. In December, his agents at C.A.A. contacted the U.S.O. about a possible visit to troops overseas, said Mr. Marovitz. The Pentagon was thrilled about the idea, Mr. Marovitz continued, and a Christmas visit was scheduled, since it coincided with a break in Mr. Letterman’s Late Show schedule.Mr. Marovitz said that Mr. Letterman flew himself, Mr. Henderson and Mr. Schaffer to Oman on Dec. 23 via private jet. From Oman, the Late Show group hopped a ride aboard a fat-bellied C-130 military transport plane and arrived in Afghanistan on Christmas Eve night. Once they were there, Mr. Letterman spent a lot of time talking to soldiers and obliging photograph and autograph requests.

A number of soldiers brought him Top 10 lists, some with jokes not suitable for broadcast. "He was a regular guy—easy to approach, easy to talk to," Mr. Marovitz said. "He had no trouble coming up to the soldiers, and the soldiers felt totally at ease coming up to him."Later that night, the Late Show bunch met with more than 2,000 troops inside an old hangar on the base.

On a makeshift wooden stage, Mr. Schaffer—who brought his own keyboard along—played a couple of Christmas carols, including "Silent Night," as the soldiers sang along. Then Mr. Letterman spoke. According to Mr. Marovitz, the Late Show host’s speech was more a heartfelt thank-you than a Bob Hope–style one-liner fest. In his brief remarks, he expressed his gratitude to the men and women in the armed forces, and thanked them for their hospitality.

Then he, Mr. Schaffer and Mr. Henderson signed autographs for everyone in the crowd. Mr. Letterman also brought gifts: 5,000 T-shirts with "LATE SHOW AFGHANISTAN" printed on them. And, though it might pain his cardiologist even further to hear, he delivered something else for the troops: cigars. "He brought them over," Mr. Marovitz said. On Christmas morning, Mr. Letterman and his Late Show cohorts spent some more time with the troops in Afghanistan before heading back to Oman, where they had a dinner with military personnel there. (Mr. Letterman had also been scheduled to visit a base in Bagram, but a runway closure forced the group to cancel).

After their Oman stopover, Mr. Letterman, Mr. Schaffer and Mr. Henderson flew back to New York, where they arrived in time to tape two shows in the Ed Sullivan Theater on Dec. 26. Though Mr. Letterman has a history with the armed forces—he has featured troops in his shows and is known to enjoy having the enthusiastic servicemen and -women in his audience—this was his first official troop visit through the U.S.O., Mr. Marovitz said. And since Sept. 11, Mr. Letterman has shown a particular passion on issues related to the War on Terror, from his poignant Sept. 17, 2001, broadcast to his continued bookings of journalists, authors and other non-showbiz guests to discuss the current unrest.Mr. Marovitz, whom Mr. Letterman thanked by name during his Dec. 26 broadcast, said it was obvious that the Afghanistan visit was important to the Late Show host. "We all recognized how he is a pretty private person, and how much this whole event must have meant to him," he said.
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January 1st 2003
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"Road to Kandahar: Letterman’s Trip Planned by U.S.O."