By Michelle Tauber
December 24, 2001 12:00 PM

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.”

The fact that movie stars and pop singers have films and CDs to promote can’t be entirely overlooked either. “When the 11th hit, you had the people who wanted to jump on the bandwagon: ‘I want to go, I want to go,’ ” says singer and Las Vegas godfather Newton, 59, who earlier this year took over from the 98-year-old Hope as chairman of the USO Celebrity Circle, a group that recruits other stars to pitch in. Not that anyone is grousing about motivation. “Anytime performers are bringing entertainment to our men and women in the armed forces, it’s a positive,” Newton says.

The USO confined the trips mostly to Europe because of security issues, but a trip to a U.S. military base is still no limo ride. “We tell them to bring lots of warm clothes, that it’s going to be noisy in the helicopters, that they may have to walk across mud,” says USO tour manager David Beecham. So much for that advice: Squeezed into a formfitting, cleavage-baring jumpsuit—think anticamouflage—Mariah Carey found herself on unfamiliar terrain during her Dec. 4 trip to three different isolated peacekeeping stations in Kosovo. In one spot “there was a big ditch on one side and a big barbwire fence and rocks on the other, and I was in my version of army boots,” says Carey, 32. “Not a stiletto heel,” she adds with a laugh. But not exactly Army issue either: “For me, they were rugged.”

Though Carey traveled in a chartered airbus from London to an airport in Macedonia, she roughed it between bases in a Chinook military helicopter. Even that was deluxe compared to the C-17 transport plane that Newton, Derek, Simpson, Schneider, Shaggy and six members of the Dallas Cowboys cheerleading squad piled into for their eight-day Thanksgiving tour of Italy and Bosnia. Bedding down under blankets on the cabin floor—”like sardines,” says Derek—the group bonded over microwaved meals from a portable ice chest. “We were all just like a family,” says Cowboy cheerleader Kelly Kirchoff, 24. “It was pillow fights on the plane!”

Such discomfort is a no-go for J.Lo, who stayed at the five-star Steigenberger Frankfurter hotel in Frankfurt, Germany. At the Ramstein Air Base, a two-hour drive away, she performed to appreciative howls alongside Kid Rock, Ja Rule and Carson Daly at a Dec. 8 concert set to air Jan. 1 on MTV, simulcast with the Armed Forces Network. The day before the show, Lopez—dressed in a white J. Mendel fur coat set off by dozens of diamonds and holding hands with her new husband and choreographer, Cris Judd, 32—turned up at the officers’ Christmas party, where “she was just as friendly as you could imagine,” says Brigadier Gen. Mark Volcheff, 48, commander of the Air Force’s 86th Airlift Wing. How did Judd regard the hordes of soldiers ogling his wife? “He has nothing to worry about,” says Lopez, 32, whose father, David, was stationed in Europe with the Army in 1959. “It’s all entertainment.”

Indeed, while most servicemen very much approve of the notion of Jennifer Lopez in hot pants, times have changed since Betty Grable was a pinup and Hope delivered jokes with a nudge and a wink. Considering that 14 percent of U.S. troops are women, the armed forces “look like every dating bar—20 guys and six girls,” says Tonight Show host Jay Leno, who is heading overseas for the USO—even he doesn’t know exactly where yet—on Dec. 21. “This idea of the old, silly kind of sex jokes, that’s outdated now.” The increase in women troops was more than apparent at the Carswell Naval Air Station in Fort Worth when Cruise paid a three-hour visit Dec. 6. Says Naval Petty Officer First Class Steven Pape: “It was like being at an ‘N Sync concert. Here are members of the armed forces, and they’re yelling, ‘Tom! Tom!’ I got the giggles watching it all.”

The crowd at Incirlik had plenty of names to choose from during the Ocean’s tour, which had a packed schedule. The tour began at 8 a.m. when the cast—who had arrived on a chartered 757 and briefly bunked in deluxe officers quarters at a nearby hotel—had breakfast alongside various group commanders. (The trip was paid for by Warner Bros., which distributed the film and, like PEOPLE, is owned by AOL Time Warner.) Then they visited students at the base’s high school before a tour of the airplane hangars, where Clooney, 40, scored Mardi Gras-style beaded necklaces from a New Orleans unit. “He was saying, ‘I know where I’m going to party next: New Orleans!’ ” recalls Air Force Maj. Shawn Brake, 38. The cast hit the Sultan’s Inn dining facility on base for lunch. In between bites on two cheeseburgers, Pitt, 38, chatted with a pair of female enlistees, while Roberts, 34—who brought her boyfriend, cameraman Danny Moder, along for the tour of duty—nibbled on a BLT before being mobbed for photos. After a 2 p.m. screening, the stars took in a demonstration of military dogs that perform patrol and police work. Each celeb donned a protective arm wrap as part of a training exercise. “We thought it would be fun for them to be able to feel a dog biting,” says Air Force Staff Sgt. Jeff Stuart, 25. “Brad Pitt said, ‘Wow! These dogs actually bite pretty hard!’ ”

If the Ocean’s tour was run like a precision military operation, the USO’s Italy-Bosnia tour was its free-form counterpoint. For those celebs without previous USO experience, “the first day it was kind of like, ‘What do I do?’ ” recalls cheerleader Kirchoff. Derek, 45, got it down to a routine. “I usually talked to the crowd and flirted,” she says. “Generally the first thing a soldier said was, ‘I love you. I want to marry you.’ That automatically started a fun conversation.” Kid Rock took a similarly chatty approach with the largely twentysomething troops in Germany. “I’m here to hang out and say, ‘Hello, where are you from?’ ” says Rock, 30. “It’s almost kind of selfish because it makes me feel great.”

It goes both ways, and that’s the point. “You can’t imagine the boost in morale to have a popular actor tell us how much he appreciates and admires all that we’re doing,” says Laura Dermarderosian-Smith, who saw Cruise, 39, in Fort Worth. A little glitz goes a long way too. During her 50-minute concert before 1,200 soldiers at Camp Bondsteel in Ferizaj, Kosovo, Carey changed into three shimmery getups. “I felt like it was important to try and bring a little bit of glamor there,” she says, “just to spice it up.”

After signing their last autographs, the Ocean’s group left Incirlik at 9:45 p.m. for the film’s London premiere—but not without leaving a few prized memories behind. “Andy Garcia brought his own camera and said, ‘I want a picture of the group of you guys,’ ” recalls Air Force Lt. Col. Jim Browne, 39. “It made us feel like stars too.”

Michelle Tauber

Peter Mikelbank in Kosovo, Molly Fahner in London, Karen Nickel Anhalt at Ramstein Air Base. Macon Morehouse in Washington, D.C., K.C. Baker in New York City, Michael Fleeman and Pamela Warrick in Los Angeles and Magda Salazar in Fort Worth