A merry season’s beatings from the Chairman Vince McMahon and his crew of bonebreakers at the WWE. The WWE’s “Tribute to the Troops” is truly one of a kind, as it is the only entertainment event broadcast from Iraq and aired on NBC.
Since 2003, WWE has traveled to the Middle East to deliver classic, old-fashioned entertainment to those serving in the Armed Forces.
Since the troops are separated from loved ones back home, the WWE’s tribute is even more poignant and gives them a chance to send some holiday warmth to the soldiers stationed there. The WWE family brings happiness to those overseas who have sacrificed so much for the love of our country.
WWE’s sixth annual Tribute to the Troops program airs Dec. 20 at 9/8 CT on NBC, featuring exciting matches from Raw, SmackDown and ECW Superstars’ live performance in the Middle East.
Monsters and Critics spoke to WWE star John Cena and Armed Forces Entertainment Director Art Myers on a conference call about their collaborative efforts.
*SIDE NOTE: Armageddon Pay-per-view is this weekend, Dec. 14 also featuring John Cena.
Chris Jericho was beat down at the Survivor Series by John Cena. Now Jericho will likely stop at nothing to feel the gold once more in his hands. There’s little doubt that the man who first came to “Save Us” and now needs saving himself has already begun plotting his resurgence at Armageddon.
How did you get involved in this event?
John Cena: Believe it or not, this was all the brainchild of a Superstar we have called John Layfield about eight years ago. He got in – was going to see troops in Kuwait and that spawned a relationship with Armed Forced Entertainment.
Mr. Layfield then approached our Chairman, Vince McMahon, about possibly taking an entire crew over there not on a handshake tour like most celebrities do, but to actually perform which is something that, you know, athletes and celebrities don’t usually get to do when they go on those good will tour into a war zone. So our Chairman loved the idea and it took a little bit of planning.
But six years ago we made our first trip over there and we filmed our first Tribute to the Troops special, and it’s been getting better every year.
That’s so cool. Do the wrestlers volunteer to do this or is it handed down by the company?
John Cena: No, completely volunteer basis and you don’t have to go if you don’t want to because obviously it is a conflict area, and there are some risks involved.
But the list has become so hard to get to be a part of. It’s like we have to turn people away every year.
Well, you had an injury this year that was pretty severe, didn’t you?
John Cena: Yeah, I broke my neck. How about that?
How important was it for you to be part of this event given that you nearly died?
John Cena: Well after saying that, I guess me being part of any event would be pretty important.
But I actually went over there last year as well with a torn pectoral muscle. That was the first time I had been seen on television since my injury last year.
And going over there, you know, fresh out of surgery – a spinal fusion surgery was – I think it’s just a testament to show much, not only I hope this trip in regard, but the entire WWE.
This is a very special event for us. We’re privileged of the fact that this year it’s on NBC and even this year the Commander in Chief himself has given us the opening of the show.
Every person over there serving their country is proud to be doing what they’re doing. So more people are getting on board with this thing and it’s a very special trip for us as a company. And obviously, me going over there pretty much injured the past two years, it shows how much I really am motivated by the trip.
What was your initial reaction when they said hey John, do you want to go over and entertain the troops?
John Cena: I absolutely said yes, first and foremost and that’s why I’ve been – the only year that I’ve missed, I was in the last day of filming on the move of The Marine.
I had a conference call with Vince McMahon to try to get any sort of transport. I even tried to get Australian military transport to try to make the show.
I was so disappointed that I couldn’t be there. But I’m the first in line every year to say that I want to go. I think it’s a great idea. I think it’s a great trip. And it’s certainly something that I’m proud to show that I support.
What is it about the WWE shows wrestling that makes the troops go crazy for you guys?
John Cena: Well they do and after being – this year was my fifth year going over there. And they are certainly very proud to be doing their jobs over there and that was the one message that they always want us to send back, that they’re doing the best they can.
This is what they signed up for and they certainly are in the best place that they possibly can be at the given moment. The problem is the redundancy. It is a bit of a Groundhog Day scenario over there.
They do the same thing over and over, and over again. So to have visitors is one thing, but to have – like I said before, to have visitors that come, set up shop and film a television show that we would normally film domestically.
I mean we bring our whole rigs over there. We bring our video boards. We bring our staging, our ring, our barricades. We set up a television show from their base.
So you want to talk about interrupting a daily routine, we do it the way the WWE would do it: over the top and loud.
I think that’s what they enjoy most is just the fact that for a couple hours on the day that we film they really get a break in their normal routine and they really get to let their hair down and relax.
The reason we go every year is we hit a new division every year that we’re over there. That way we can help a new group every single time we’re over there and meet the maximum amount of troops that we can.
Does the WWE ever scout for new recruits at these events?
John Cena: We are always scouting anywhere. It doesn’t matter where we find them. You never know who the next WWE Superstar is.
What do you think, being over there five years now, is the biggest misconception we have about the troops?
John Cena: I’ll tell you, I’ve been over there five years. I’ve been to Iraq four and I’ve been to Afghanistan one. And I’ve seen progress being made over there.
But the biggest surprise to me every single year that I go over there is morale is unbelievably high and that is across the board. I mean I’ve been to forward operating bases pretty much on the front line and these people are proud to be doing what they’re doing.
I think every once in awhile some reinforcement from the folks back home – I really am impressed with the whole Support the Troops movement. I think people here domestically have no idea what that does to everybody overseas.
The fact that people at home — whether they’re for or against what’s going on — the fact that they just support the people that are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for this great nation, I think that makes just worlds of difference to the people over there.
But that was the biggest surprise to me, the fact that morale has just been really, really high every time I’ve been over there.
How does this compare to Wrestlemania in your books?
John Cena: This is extra special because this is a broadcast for the people that can’t make it. This is a broadcast for the people who have a different agenda and their agenda is pretty much protecting the freedom of this great nation.
You know what I mean? Wrestlemania is an open forum where it – no matter what you do for your line of work, if you can buy a ticket you can make it there. And it is a big show. It’s our grandest stage of them all.
But this is the WWE’s chance to reach out to those people who have no shot at being at Wrestlemania and more importantly, no shot at being domestic for a very important holiday season.
I have a soft spot for the military so for me this ranks above Wrestlemania on my To-Do List, but even if you talk to the Chairman of our company, he’ll share my opinions on that.
It’s a very, very important trip for us and I think that’s why you see us going back every year.
How did you all get there and how long were you there?
John Cena: What our format usually is, is anywhere from a three to five day trip. We travel on a C-17 military aircraft. That is cast, crew, gear, everything.
I don’t know the names and numbers. If you’re not familiar with it, the C-17 is the second largest cargo plane in the military library, a C-5 being the biggest. And that is just pretty much an airborne aircraft carrier.
A C-17 can fit, I believe, 110,000 pounds worth of cargo. So we pretty much pack up our ring, the Titantrons, the ramps, the barricades, all the HD production stuff, our entire crew, all the Superstars.
We get on one plane. We fly over there. We spend anywhere from three to five days over there. The first two to four days are virtually the Superstars trying to meet as many of the troops as we can while our crew is building the set.
So we only do film one show, usually from a central camp. This year it was Camp Liberty. We’ve also filmed in the past from Camp Speicher.
And that’s a place where we know we can get the show out to as many troops as we can. It’s a central operating base where troops can come in from forward operating bases or scouting posts on leisure time and a lot of troops are stationed at Liberty in general.
We have from anywhere – on the day of the show, I would say 6000 to 10,000 troops attending the performance which is the goal.
But for the days leading up to the performance we break our group of Superstars down into about four mini groups and try to meet as many of the men and women that defend this country as we can.
How many Superstars and Divas made the trip this year?
John Cena: I would say anywhere from 20 to 25 is a safe estimation. We usually send out about four groups of five Superstars a piece.
Any close calls?
John Cena: Yeah, nothing with IED’s which is a big problem over there right now, which is like a landmine device. We’ve been shelled a few times with mortar fire. That was very early on, 2003 to 2005.
The conflict down there really is calming down. I talked to Major General Hammond for a bit. He’s in charge of the 4th Infantry Division.
And he was explaining that casualties are down about 75% for his deployment which that speaks volumes to the progress that everybody is making over there, that they’re not only acting as police they’re acting as administrators and setting up a network where the Iraqis can take that over themselves. They’re really doing a heck of a job over there.
When I went over there in 2003, I’m surrounded by the – I call them the bravest, most confident group of ass-kickers in the universe. I’ve never felt safer in my entire life.
They certainly take great care of us and all – I mean stepping outside of your house is always a risk. There’s a risk in everything and I know certainly that I’m in a combat zone.
But they put our safety first and foremost, even when we travel to the very front lines. They always brief us on what to do in case of an emergency, what to do if something happens.
And these men and women certainly have their areas protected. A lot of the conflict comes with when they bring their parties out on search parties or patrols.
IED’s are a big problem, which I said, which is an explosive landmine device. There’s not much incoming fire.
They’ve done a good job of suppressing that. But it is risky. I’ve never felt safer in my life. Those men and women certainly have their act together over there.
How humbling is this for you when you go?
John Cena: Well I mean I can only speak from a personal standpoint. I guess everybody has their reasons for going and getting emotional. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: I support the military.
If I wasn’t doing what I was doing I’d probably be attempting to be the best soldier I could be. I don’t know if I could hack it. They got a pretty tough life over there.
But it just gives me such a sense of great pride to be able to do something for the men and women who defend the freedom of this country. I love the United States of America. I truly believe it’s the greatest country in the world.
And those folks that are over there in the situation where yes, they did sign up for it, yes they’re proud to do their duty but like any human being you want to be in a family situation for the holiday.
They can’t be there, so what we do in the WWE is try to give them a little bit of slice of home. And in turn, they remind us how much it boosts their morale.
But they have no idea that just me being surrounded by that element is such a morale boost to myself as well.
Was there a particular moment that struck you, maybe visiting one of the members of the troops in the hospital or something that you saw?
John Cena: This year, really the thing that struck me was meeting the guy in command of the 4th Infantry Division. I mentioned his name before. It’s Major General Hammond.
He is a former football player for Southern Miss and he was the quarterback right before Brett Favre arrived over there.
Not only is a great leader — and you could just tell by his bravado — but cares so much about those serving under him and just is such a great motivator because he knows what those guys and gals are going through and he knows that they have a 15-month deployment.
And he’s just so very proud of his soldiers, very interactive on all levels. Whether you’re a Private or a Sergeant, or whatever your rank, he certainly makes it a point to try to reach out to everybody.
I really thought that was the finest example of leadership by example. Here’s a guy who really doesn’t need to be doing as much as he’s doing to reach out to the people that are working under him.
But when he does, everybody speaks so highly of him and they’re so proud to be a member of that 4th Infantry Division. His leadership just struck me. It was something that I was glad to be able to be a part of.
How has this experience changed over the years for you?
John Cena: I remember my first few years going over there, you know, you want to do as much fun stuff as you can selfishly. It’s your first time around that sort of environment and you – my first time seeing howitzer cannons and, you know, mortar fire, and 50-caliber machine guns and stuff like that. And I’m a big kid, and that’s the stuff that I’m into.
So selfishly I wanted to be as much a part of that as I could. Now, my focus has shifted to where it needs to be and that certainly is meeting as many of these men and women as possible, traveling to as many of these forward operating bases that we can get to, and really doing what we can do to boost morale.
It does nothing for the troops’ morale for me to want to fire off their weapons. You know, I mean it does everything for their morale to meet – for me to meet as many of the people as I can and really relay the message that not only myself, not only the WWE, but the United States of America is so very proud of what they do.
I know certainly that they couldn’t kick us out if they tried. As long as those folks are over there, we’re going to go back every year. And we just try to time it so we go back the same time every year because the US Army is over there on a 15-month — they’re soon to be cut back to 14-month — deployments.
Talk about the wrestlers who joined you.
John Cena: We took our giant over there with us. His name is the Big Show. He runs about 7 feet, 500 pounds. And I don’t know if it’s going to be in the program or not. I really hope it is because he decided to go crowd surfing.
I told him it was a bad idea, but those soldiers held him up, and I saw a 7-foot, 500 pound giant go crowd surfing on the United States’ finest. So they certainly got involved in the show this year.
I just think the experience, the fact that they can be involved and the fact that they can show that they’re just as excited, just as rowdy as any WWE fan. And I just – I really think it’s the whole experience.
Do you see some of the same troops over there and maybe back here?
John Cena: I get that all the time, not only at performances but at airports – all the time. We were fortunate enough – a young gentleman from the Air Force, Sergeant (Tripp), who was on the C-17 on the way there and on the way back with us, so he spent a lot of time with us.
He just recently brought his wife and his family. they’re all big fans. He got to go to the Raw broadcast in Philadelphia last night.
Talk about your military souvenir collection.
John Cena: I think the word has gotten out over there that I’m a little bit of a stooge for military souvenirs because – one thing I always try to get for myself is – a little (key tick) that I have myself is a combat fired shell of munitions, whether it be a 762 or 50-caliber, or, whatever I can find that’s actually been used.
I kind of fill it with dirt from Iraq. So I got five of those at my house, one for every year that I’ve been over there which is kind of something that I take for me. But the biggest thing over there is military coins and combat patches. Units, divisions have certain military coins that represent their division or their unit, or their operation, or whatever they do.
You’re given these coins by usually ranking officers. Generals or Commanders, or Colonels, or people in charge. Soldiers will often give me their combat badges which are – that’s a pretty esteemed honor because you’re not supposed to have them unless you’ve served in combat over in the war zone.
So it’s an honor when somebody hands you a coin or a patch because it’s almost like you’re accepted into the group. And that is the utmost form of flattery.
It’s the utmost show of respect. And I have a ton of them from this year. They came pouring out.
There was a portion where they were raining down on us in the ring on the show, so it was pretty good.