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Superstar to troops on the front

Jenny Boyle didn't make it to Hollywood after an "American Idol" audition. And when the 26-year-old pediatric nurse sings in the smoky bars where she's a regular act, she competes with the sports channel and boozy conversations for the attention of customers.

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Sunday, November 27, 2005

By LEEF SMITH
THE WASHINGTON POST

Jenny Boyle didn't make it to Hollywood after an "American Idol" audition. And when the 26-year-old pediatric nurse sings in the smoky bars where she's a regular act, she competes with the sports channel and boozy conversations for the attention of customers.

But on her overseas tours, Boyle travels with a security entourage and plays to cheering crowds. She and her four-piece band spend hours signing autographs and posing for photos with fans.

Even if it sometimes requires body armor.

Boyle, from West Springfield, Va., was plucked from obscurity to perform on the war-zone circuit. She has been enlisted by an organization called Armed Forces Entertainment to play for the troops in such countries as Afghanistan, Qatar and Kuwait.

"They treat you like a superstar," said Boyle, whose Jenny Boyle Band returned earlier this month from a 21-day trip to Central Asia, parts of the Middle East and Africa, her fourth overseas tour. "I'll do the shows as long as they ask me," said Boyle, who will soon return to her job at a pediatrician's office. Her employer allows her to take time off without pay to do the tours. "I just have to wait until they call."

The Armed Forces Entertainment coordinates most of the overseas performances for military audiences, including providing support for USO shows.

"Primarily we deal with regional bands, young acts, comedians that haven't gotten national exposure," said Capt. Jesse Davidson of the U.S. Marine Corps, who is circuit manager for AFE's Southwest Asia tour. "Sometimes it feels a little bit like 'American Idol.' We have a lot of groups that are very eager, and we have to thin out the applicants."

This year, AFE has sent more than 100 acts, mostly singers, musicians and comedians, to U.S. military bases from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to South Korea.

Performers volunteer their time. In exchange, they get free travel and a $150-a-day stipend to cover food and lodging. Performers can - and sometimes are required to - stay on the military bases where they perform, eating and sleeping for free. It's one way artists can bank a little money.

Its most recent tour was perhaps the most challenging for the Jenny Boyle Band, encompassing 13 shows in six countries, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain among them.

"It was particularly nerve-racking when Jenny would say things like, 'Don't worry about us; we've been issued body armor,'" recalled the singer's mother, Betsy Boyle. "Truthfully, I think it was scary for them, too."

This invitation to travel came just three weeks before the departure date, and Boyle called a longtime band mate, bassist Jeff Reed, to help gather an ensemble of young musicians who would be willing to back her up on the road.

"I was more nervous about the whole thing this time," Boyle recalled. "And it was harder to put together a group. What do you say? 'Hey, you want to go to Afghanistan?'Ÿ"

At 16, Boyle persuaded her mother to accompany her to an open mike night at a bar. Boyle has been performing in local bars ever since.

In 2001, she auditioned for a new television show called "American Idol." Boyle was one of 10 singers from the Virginia area invited to New York to perform for the producers. They were not blown away.

Soon after, Boyle sent a tape to AFE. Her first tour, in March 2004, took her and her band to Egypt, Jordan and Turkey.

"I was naïve," Boyle recalled. "I wasn't sure what was going on in the world. I just knew I wanted to see it."

The trip was an unqualified eye-opener.

"When we arrived in the Cairo airport, there were people with guns," Boyle recalled. "There was chaos all around. It was a total shocker."

Boyle has since visited an orphanage in Djibouti, where she thought hard about adopting a child, and has taken the stage in Qatar in front of 2,000 people to belt out her brand of classic-rock cover tunes. She's grown accustomed to hearing the heartbreaking stories of war, and she talks breezily about the roar of land mines detonating outside the base in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

Since she's returned home, Boyle has been recording tracks for a CD she hopes to shop around.

She said she's honored to be playing overseas - part entertainer, part goodwill ambassador, part morale booster.

She gets dozens of e-mails after each tour, mostly from men who want to thank her for coming such a long way.

"It's impossible to describe the contrast between the situations we are sometimes placed in, to just sitting back and enjoying a great show like a regular Joe," wrote a captain from the Royal Netherlands Air Force who posted a note on her Web site this month. "It's exactly that feeling that's sometimes needed to put things into perspective so we can continue on, and that's what you delivered."

Boyle said the praise is unnecessary.

"You guys are the ones fighting the war," Boyle tells them. "I'm getting to do what I love, and I get to see the world."