Expeditionary entertainer returns to Tucson
By Capt. Gabe Johnson, 162nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs
/ Published April 03, 2009
TUCSON, Ariz. -- For one Arizona Air Guardsman a year-long tour with the 2008 Tops in Blue team wasn't about talent, it was about a mission.
In mid March, Tech. Sgt. Chandra Smith, a personnel specialist assigned to the 162nd Fighter Wing's Alert Detachment at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, returned home to family and friends.
"I went into this thinking I would sing and dance my way around the world, but it ended up being way more than that. In the end it was about the mission," said Sergeant Smith. "We raised the morale of troops and communities around the world for nine months. And that, to me, was the mission - the job."
During what Smith calls the most "incredibly challenging and most rewarding" year of her life, she and her team of 27 dancers, singers and musicians performed about 140 shows at virtually every U.S. air base around the world.
Afghanistan, Iraq, Kyrgyzstan, Greenland, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Germany, Italy and Spain were just a few stops on the Tops in Blue tour.
"We saw Chandra with Tops in Blue while we were deployed to Baghdad International Airport last year," said Maj. Steve Weatherford, who led the 162nd's Security Forces Squadron from Tucson to Iraq on a six-month deployment. "The show was great, and Chandra was terrific. It meant a lot to us to see one of our fellow wing members in that show. You almost forget where you are when you see them perform."
Smith had several encounters with 162nd members during her travels. The wing's medical group watched her perform in the 4th of July show and she ran into wing maintainers in Kuwait. "It's a small world. It was comforting to see all those people from home," she said.
In January, Tops in Blue visited Soto Cano Air Base, Honduras. It turned out to be the source of Sergeant Smith's most memorable experience on tour.
"We were able to visit three orphanages there. It was a very touching experience," said Smith. "The kids didn't know who we were or even that we had candy in our pockets. They just wanted to hug us. We were able to interact with them and sing songs for them. And even though they didn't speak English, they had a great time. I wish I could have brought home 10 of them."
As the Air Force's expeditionary entertainers, the team found themselves in extremely remote locations. The most distant of all was Shemya, Alaska, the outer-most of the Aleutian Islands. It's the most western part of the United States and home to roughly 150 U.S. government employees. "You could almost see Russia, we were so far out there," said the sergeant. "It ended up being one of the best places we visited. The people were the most welcoming and appreciative."
Now with enough memories and stories to last a lifetime, Smith is easing back into the life she lived only 12 months ago.
"I'm enjoying time with family and friends right now," she said. "I definitely missed my husband Adam incredibly... first and foremost. I also missed my Guard family at the alert detachment. There were times when I was on the road that I couldn't imagine having a normal work routine again, but now that I'm home I'm ready for a normal life."
"I want to give a huge thank you to the unit and everybody who supported me through this process," she added. "While I was away, the love, support and prayers from all of the people at my unit really meant a lot."
As a former member of the performance team, Sergeant Smith is part of Tops in Blue Priors, the group's alumni association. They hold reunions every 10 years and often help at the World-Wide Talent Competitions held annually at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas.
"These are my brothers and sisters they are going to forever live in my memory. We'll see each other again. We're part of a legacy now. We were all given goblets, a Tops in Blue tradition. So when future teams come to play at Davis-Monthan, I'll help them however I can and I'll toast the team after their show."
Smith's advice to the 2009 Tops in Blue team is to take care of each other, do the best they can, keep a good attitude and cherish every moment... it will be gone before they know it.
As for Sergeant Smith's singing career, she says she will be around to sing for the 162nd any time. "I do want to continue to use my voice... not on such a large scale, but maybe in the community. Musical theater would be great. Maybe I can join a band," she said.