Recalling the Day When Lee Greenwood Brought ‘USA’ to Panama

Greg Markley


Last week, legendary country and traditional singers Crystal Gayle and Lee Greenwood brought their musical artistry to the Gogue Performing Arts Center at Auburn University. It was quite likely one of the best performances at the 3-and-a-half-year-old facility. It reminded me of June 1989 when Greenwood toured American military sites in Panama. 

I had been stationed there since August 1988 as assistant editor of The Tropic Times, the U.S. military newspaper. We did not have a “hot war” on our hands, but the prelude was tense. There were regular clashes with the Panamanian Defense Forces under the control of the country’s de facto leader, Gen. Manual Noriega.=== Greenwood’s USO tour was a much-needed salve.

Once, another soldier and I were traveling through Panama City and were stopped by police. They asked what we had in the back of the Army truck; we said, “work supplies.” Lucky for us, the man did not do a search. He would have found a thousand “illegal Yankee” newspapers. As the only English-language paper, we were termed enemies of the state. Panamanians were harassed or tortured if found with even one or two of our newspapers. What could happen to us?

Now age 80, Greenwood was born near Los Angeles, California. He began to write his own songs and sing professionally by 1962. He has charted seven No. 1s; among the top songs, two of my favorites are “I.O.U.” and “Hearts Aren’t Made to Break (They’re Made to Love).”

In August 1984, the military band of Fort McPherson, Georgia, had a performance and the main singer said, “Next we present a new song by Lee Greenwood called ‘God Bless the USA.’” I loved the tune — it was inspirational and patriotic. It was a touchstone of the Gulf War (1990 to 1991) and after 9/11 (2001). (Many people mistakenly call it “I’m Proud to be an American.”)

A memory of my first hearing “God Bless the USA” was at that performance at Fort McPherson. I talked to six veterans in wheelchairs; one asked me if I could push them closer to the stage, uphill. A friend and I each pushed three of these heroes. People saw us doing this, but no one volunteered to help. That is unusual for soldiers and their dependents. But we managed.

I was thrown by these lyrics of “USA”: “And I’d gladly stand up next to you and defend her still today, ‘cause there ain’t no doubt I love this land, God bless the USA.” I looked at the veterans in wheelchairs and felt for sure that these men, if not disabled, would “gladly stand up and defend her still today.” True heroes.

In 1989, as Greenwood prepared for his show, I requested an interview. Three hours before his performance, it was approved. The caveat: Talk for only 30 minutes and wear your Class A uniform. A recruit, Matthew Broderick, said in “Biloxi Blues” about the South: “This is not just hot, it’s Africa hot.” Most dress uniforms were rarely worn in the tropics. I substituted a friend’s jacket; it was two sizes too big, but I met Greenwood on time.

Two of my questions were the most intriguing. The first was if Greenwood sang “God Bless the USA” while performing in foreign countries. He said, “Before I sing that song, I tell them I am playing ‘USA’ for the Americans, just as they play their country’s patriotic songs when there is a mixed audience. I like to do the same.” USO audiences understand and clap.

The second fascinating answer came when Greenwood compared himself to USO legend Bob Hope. “I am the age (46 years) when Bob Hope became the spokesman.” Greenwood aspired to be a longtime USO entertainer. With the high number of appearances he makes to charitable groups, Greenwood does not have time for the extensive USO role Hope had.

Greenwood’s plans for leadership of the USO’s roster of performers has been dented; it is now run by “Mister Las Vegas.” Wayne Newton has chaired the USO Celebrity Circle since 2000. The circle consists of celebrity entertainers who participate in USO celebrity entertainment tours, help with celebrity recruitment and increase overall awareness of USO.

After my talk with Greenwood, I saw at his show how soldiers and family members reacted. In Panama, the cloud of imminent war was present even when I arrived in August 1988. Despite those concerns, I enjoyed the country with its tropical beauty and enchanting international flair. For a few days, our fears were reduced by Greenwood and his ultra-patriotic song. God bless the USA, and Greenwood, too.

Greg Markley moved to Lee County in 1996. He has a master’s in education from AUM anda master’s in historyfrom Auburn University. He taught politics as an adjunct in Georgia and Alabama. An award-winning writer in the Army and civilian life, he has contributed to The Observer since 2011. He writes on politics, education and books.


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