There are times when giggling is appropriate, and then there's the moment someone hands you the controls to a massive bomb-dismantling device. Julia Roberts seemed to confuse the two while visiting U.S. troops at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey with the cast of Ocean's Eleven on Dec. 7. "When she started it up, she spouted off in laughter," says Air Force Staff Sgt. Robert Whitehurst, 24, who guided Roberts as she operated the remote-controlled vehicle -- a robotic machine that looks like a downsized bulldozer -- to the delight of the assembled troops. But the actress caught on quickly, even impressing her costar George Clooney. "He walked up and yelled, 'Hey, Jules, where are you going with that?' and she was like, 'I don't know. I'm just driving it,' " recalls Whitehurst. "Then he replied, 'Well, why don't you stop by BK and pick us up some burgers?' She had it down pat."
Fact is, Roberts could have wrecked the thing and still won the hearts of the 1,600 permanently assigned troops and their families based at Incirlik. "I got a chance to hug Julia Roberts!" bragged 17-year-old Mark Johnson, the son of Air Force parents who attends high school at the base, where F-15, F-16, Jaguar and C-17 planes fly out every night to patrol the skies over Iraq. The female troops had something to be excited about too: Clooney's other cohorts included Ocean's stars Brad Pitt, Matt Damon and Andy Garcia. Given all the emotions of the times, some soldiers even got a little misty. "Soldiers were crying, their dependents were crying," producer Jerry Weintraub says of the 13-hour visit during which they showed their film, signed autographs and mingled. "The kids were hugging the actors, the actors were hugging the kids. It was very emotional."
Such scenes have been repeated at bases across Europe and the U.S. since Sept. 11, as celebs, patriotically donning the Bob Hope mantle, have mobilized to toast the troops. The United Service Organizations, or USO, has sponsored 46 such trips so far this year -- double the number from 2000 -- with six more planned before the end of the year. While the Gulf War had Hope, Marie Osmond and the Pointer Sisters, the war against terrorism has attracted everyone from small-caliber stars to Hollywood's big guns, many of whom have opened up their wallets to support post-Sept. 11 charities as well. In addition to the Ocean's gang, Tom Cruise pressed the flesh on a reserve base in Fort Worth; Mariah Carey warbled in Kosovo; Jennifer Lopez, Kid Rock and rapper Ja Rule performed in Germany; Garth Brooks rocked on an aircraft carrier in Norfolk, Va.; and Wayne Newton, Bo Derek, Rob Schneider, Shaggy and Jessica Simpson cut a swath through Italy and Bosnia. "We're getting more requests from celebrities than we did before, no doubt about that," says retired Army Gen. John H. Tilelli Jr., president of the 60-year-old nonprofit USO, which helped organize most of the visits. "The fact that terrorists directly attacked New York and Washington has an impact."
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