Cheering the troops
By Aubrey Whelan
May 30, 2008
>The A-10 fighter jet — nicknamed “the warthog” — loomed large and imposing on the runway, engines revving as it slowly made its way into position for takeoff. A small group of people gathered nearby shielded their eyes, adjusted their earplugs and waited.
Then the pilot leaned out of the cockpit and flashed a thumbs-up sign. His other hand waved a small sign reading “Go Eagles!”
Instantly, five Philadelphia Eagles cheerleaders waved their pompoms in the air, their excited cheers just barely audible over the engine’s whine. Then the plane took off, disappearing into the distance beyond the Willow Grove Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base in Horsham.
During a visit to the base Friday, the five Eagles cheerleaders got a taste of military life — which will serve them well come Sunday night, when they leave for Iraq on a 12-day tour to entertain troops.
“I’m excited about how much of a humbling experience it’s going to be,” said cheerleader Nikki Bell, whose two sisters are also on the Eagles squad.
The cheerleaders will spend their time in Iraq entertaining troops with a 45-minute show they’ve prepared for the occasion, visiting at least two bases a day with a performance every night, said cheerleader Kjersti Soberg, 21, a Collegeville resident and a dance performance major at the University of the Arts.
Friday at the base, the cheerleaders met with various military personnel, performed a small routine on the runway before watching fighter jets take off on a training mission and posed for pictures with servicemen — some of whom had served or were about to serve overseas.
One of those was Air Force Lt. Col. Jeff Godfrey, who said he’d been in Iraq for six tours of duty. Entertainers from back home, he said, are “a breath of fresh air.”
“You’re out there in the sun and the heat — and it’s like homecoming to you,” he said. “(The cheerleaders) will probably be very well received.”
Air Force Maj. Thomas Fennell, who later flew in Friday’s training mission, posed for a picture with the cheerleaders before taking off.
“Get closer, ladies,” he said, laughing. “That’ll be in those pictures my girl doesn’t see.”
Capt. Rick Cline, the commanding officer of the Navy Operational Support Center at Willow Grove, escorted the cheerleaders around the base.
“It’s a great day,” he said. “Beautiful weather, beautiful girls, beautiful airplanes — it’s a perfect day.”
Cheerleader Rachel Washburn, a Midwesterner and an Army ROTC cadet at Drexel University, said the visit gave her a behind-the-scenes look at life in the military.
“It’s kind of nice that I can see what deployed life is like from a civilian approach,” she said. “And it’s a nice warm-up to see people at home and prepare for what it’s like in Iraq.”
Some of the servicemen gave the girls tips on how to get by in-country.
“They told me to stay really hydrated, use sunblock,” said Laura Jenkins, 22, of Philadelphia, who will celebrate her 23rd birthday while overseas entertaining the troops.
“You get an idea, in a sense, of the severity (of the trip),” Soberg said. She said one of the servicemen told her to “put your oven on 150 degrees and step inside” to get a sense of Iraq’s desert climate.
Eagles director of cheerleading Barbara Zaun said that while sending the cheerleaders to entertain in Iraq comes with its fair share of risk, “we’ve done a great deal of research, and we do feel that it’s going to be secure,” she said.
Soberg said she’s not nervous at all for her trip overseas. After Friday’s visit, she said, the fact that she’s leaving in two days for Iraq is “starting to sink in.”
“I feel like everyone is nervous enough for me,” she said, laughing. “I think that’d take away from the experience, and I really want to soak it all up.”