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Features May 2007: Volume 4, Number 2

Over There
By AnnaMaria Stephens, ERC '97


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Photograph by USO, Steve Manuel and Dana DePaul

Dana DePaul, M.F.A. ’02, knew she was in for an adventure. She just never imagined she’d find herself in a situation like this: Suited up in a bulletproof vest and helmet, flanked by two gunners, all conversation drowned out by a steady whoosh-whoosh-whoosh as the military chopper swooped down over Saddam Hussein’s former palaces.

In the summer of 2007, DePaul took a position as one of three producers for the USO (United Service Organizations), the non-profit organization that has staged entertainment events for the military for 67 years.

“In my interview, they asked if I’d be comfortable going to combat zones,” DePaul explains. “You sort of think to yourself, ‘Well, sure, I’m OK with that.’ But I don’t think I understood the reality of it. It wasn’t exactly, ‘You will be flying around Iraq and Afghanistan, on Blackhawk helicopters in your Kevlar gear, getting very little sleep.’”

Now, all that’s just another day on the job. “It’s definitely never dull,” she laughs. DePaul received her M.F.A. from UCSD in theatre and stage management. After a couple of years in television production, she landed a job as assistant stage manager at Washington D.C.’s Shakespeare Theatre, and later freelanced for the Discovery Channel and the Smithsonian. An ad in ARTSEARCH, a publication listing theatre-related opportunities, prompted DePaul to submit her resume to the USO, though she’d always found work word-of-mouth in the past.

Adventurous new job acquired, she relocated to Arlington, Virginia, where the USO is headquartered. Within a few months, she was embarking on the first leg of what would become a very familiar journey: a commercial flight to Kuwait, a night at the Radisson, and a pre-dawn drive to an airfield. There, she’d hop the next military airlift with enough extra room for her, the production crew, the talent, and carefully packed shipping pallets of gear.

A fixed-wing C-17 or C-130 are the usual modes of transport to Baghdad, and from there, it is travel by chopper to outlying destinations. Though the USO is non-governmental, the organization must coexist comfortably with the military. This means no special treatment for DePaul—or the celebrities she’s escorting, who have included country stars Toby Keith and Kelly Pickler, American Idol’s David Cook, comedian Dane Cook, and recently the host of The Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert.
“Sometimes in Baghdad we’ll stay at the Joint Visitors Bureau, which is the nicest quarters, but still several bunks to a room. Sometimes we’ll stay in containerized housing units—where the soldiers stay—and sometimes we’ll sleep in tents. We eat at the dining facility, sit with the soldiers, and stand in the same lines for cafeteria-style food.”

DePaul says her job, which also takes her to non-war zones, requires mostly the same skill set as a traditional stage manager.

“I do all the planning, coordinating, and set the schedules. I send out information to all parties involved, set up meetings, make travel arrangements, do all the paperwork. On the road, I’m the point person for everyone. People come to me when they need something, and I manage their expectations. I make sure the artist has a good experience, so they’ll want to come back, and I make sure that the military has a good experience.”

Steven Adler, a professor in UCSD’s Department of Theatre and Dance and the provost of Warren College, recalls his former student’s “sterling” sense of humor, which he cites as essential in such a high-pressure position.

“Would I characterize her as adventurous when she was a graduate student? Let’s put it this way: Dana is not the first person I would have envisioned wearing protective armor and potentially placing herself in harm’s way in Iraq or other hot spots.”

DePaul admits it isn’t always easy. “Fun fact,” she says. “I don’t really like to fly.” And then there’s the scorching heat, the mortars exploding too close for comfort, and the infinite list of things that could go wrong, from not having enough room for a musician’s equipment—easily remedied by a stripped-down acoustic set—to the sandstorms—not-so-easily remedied.

Working with the military presents unique challenges, as well. DePaul learned to decode infamously letter-intense acronyms, and now drops shortcuts like “FOB” (forward-operating base) with ease. She also recalls a successful “stare-down” with a captain who tried to monopolize a celebrity.

In December 2007, DePaul described her early Iraq experiences in an email to friends and family as a “rollercoaster, emotionally and physically.” Just days later, she wrote home about being aboard an “Angel Flight” transporting the fallen.

“There were four caskets with the remains of soldiers in them, draped with the flag. We got to be part of a ceremony where the ­soldiers salute and then march the coffins one-by-one to the plane … then the soldiers salute and say a prayer. I was crying my eyes out. The soldiers aren’t allowed to cry. I don’t know how they hold it together.”

Such sobering moments are tempered by uplifting ones. In June, DePaul collaborated with comedian Stephen Colbert and his production staff on four episodes of The Colbert Report (available for viewing at colbertnation.com). Filmed live in Baghdad at the Al Faw Palace, the shows were months in the making, and required a joint staff of 50 to pull off.

Meredith Bennett, the co-executive producer for The Colbert Report, watched in amazement as DePaul helmed a photo op with Colbert and hundreds of troops. “She helped wrangle an uncooperative military dog and managed to complete the event ahead of schedule. She is a wonderful force of nature who manages to lead with her head and her heart—a rare combination.”

One of the highlights of the production was a guest appearance by General Ray Odierno, commander of the U.S. troops in Iraq. When Odierno shaved Colbert’s head on direct order from a grinning President Obama (beamed in via satellite), the all-military audience was rolling in the aisles. DePaul knew about the stunt in advance, and watched from the back of the Al Faw Palace.

“It was so great,” she says. “The soldiers laughed and forgot where they were for a moment.

AnnaMaria Stephens, ERC 97, is a freelance writer. Her last article for @UCSD was Journeyman, May 2009.

Dana DePaul, M.F.A. '02, brought Stephen Colbert and other entertainers to Iraq and Afghanistan.