Point of pride: Pro wrestlers raising troop morale in Iraq

Sun reporter

It has been a tough year to be a pro wrestling fan.

In addition to the usual snickering from friends and co-workers over the genre's farcical nature and low-brow humor, fans endured the media's sensationalistic coverage of the Chris Benoit double murder-suicide, as well as a steroid scandal. Tonight, however, World Wrestling Entertainment supporters can take pride in being pro wrestling fans. At 9 on USA Network, WWE will broadcast its fifth annual Tribute to the Troops.

The show, which was taped earlier this month and is hosted by Armed Forces Entertainment, features WWE stars performing for military personnel in Iraq. WWE chairman Vince McMahon and 19 of his wrestlers visited 20 bases there over three days.

On Tribute to the Troops, WWE mostly puts its story lines on hold and focuses on the men and women of the military, who are given an opportunity to send holiday wishes to their loved ones back home.

WWE has been doing these shows in the Middle East during the holiday season every year since 2003. Think of it as a Bob Hope USO tour, except instead of the legendary comedian swinging a golf club, there's a hulking wrestler swinging a steel chair.

No matter how one feels about WWE or the war, there's no denying these visits mean the world to the troops.

"Keeping troop morale high is one of the most important functions of Armed Forces Entertainment," U.S. Air Force Col. Edward Shock, chief of Armed Forces Entertainment, said in a news release, "and during the holiday season, when troops are missing the comforts of home, WWE stands tall and brings a piece of America to our military men and women."

The idea for Tribute to the Troops came from wrestler John Layfield, known as JBL to wrestling fans. After visiting the troops in Iraq not long after the invasion, Layfield suggested to McMahon that WWE should entertain the troops during the holidays.

"There was a feeling of guilt that these guys are the ones over there doing what they're doing and serving their country, and we're reaping the rewards," Layfield said. "The main thing to us is that people understand that this is just about the troops. There's no politics, there's no agenda. This is us trying to put the spotlight on what these guys are doing in a rotten place serving the country."

For fans, WrestleMania -- the Super Bowl of pro wrestling -- is the biggest show of the year, but Layfield said the most important event for him on WWE's calendar is Tribute to the Troops. Layfield, who has been on seven tours of the Middle East overall, said that it is a humbling experience to see how much the wrestlers' visits mean to the troops.

He described one particular meeting he had with a wounded soldier a few years ago in Balad, Iraq, as "life-changing." The victim of a suicide bomber, the soldier's face had been disfigured and he was about to go in for surgery to have shrapnel removed from his leg when he asked to speak to Layfield.

"I'm holding his hand so he knew I was there, because he was blinded by the blast, and I said, `You're going to be OK,' " Layfield said. "He said, `Oh, yes sir. I did this to protect my kid brother. I did this to protect my family -- and you. I'm proud to have served my country and I can't wait to go back.' And then he said, `Thanks for coming.'

"There's never enough thank you that I can give those guys for being over there. You get caught up in thinking your world is so important, and it really isn't."

I'll be thinking about Layfield's last statement as I watch the show tonight. And I'll also be thinking about how proud I am to be a wrestling fan.


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