Wesley Clark Helps Stars Earn Stripes

August 13th, 2012

US News & World Report
By Tierny Sneed
August 13, 2012

With a nearly four-decade career in the army culminating in his post as NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, four-star Gen. Wesley Clark (Ret.) now brings his battlefield acumen to NBC’s Stars Earn Stripes. The reality competition show pairs celebrities with armed forces special operatives and first responders to tackle a variety of missions, inspired by real military operations. Clark, who also ran in the Democratic presidential primary in 2004, talks the teams through the obstacles and judges their performances, with money going to veterans and first responder charities for successfully completed missions. Clark spoke to U.S. News about the show and how it honors servicemen and women:

Why did you decide to do this show?

It sounded like something that was going to be good for the men and women in uniform and veterans. The more I thought about it the more I liked it. It’s a way of honoring the skills of our extraordinary service members and special operations—broader than that, honoring the skills and dedication of men and women who have served the country in uniform. And it’s raising money for charities. And when people see the quality of these people and their leadership and how charismatic they are, I think it’s also good for the future of the armed services. I just felt really good about it.

How do the military charities benefit the show?

Each of the celebrities have to bring in a charity, and there are some good charities on there. The hope is that the earnings on the show will act as leverage for these charities. So people will see the celebrities earning money for the charities, and they’ll think ‘I like that charity, I’ll give some money to it.’ So the idea is you may earn $50,000 for a particular charity, but the viewers will each send $5 or $10, you might end up with $500,000.

How has hosting a TV show compared to all the other things you’ve done?

I’ve done quite a bit of television because I have been commenting, I’ve been on the Military History Channel as a host for a short series, so it’s not a tremendous departure. This is the first chance I had to work with something that’s called “reality television.”

First of all, I was impressed with the production team. They’re very smart. They’re very safety conscious. They’re very quick on their feet. I told them, I’d like to have them in the military. We could use some guys like that. But they grew up in Hollywood and they like the entertainment business, so there’s not much you can say about that. I liked them a lot.

I thought the celebrities that we brought on were incredibly daring and courageous to volunteer to do something like this. And the special ops people were extraordinary. I really loved working with them.

For me, it was a throwback in my career to an earlier day when I got to work more directly with troops and be coaching the troops and critiquing military training and so forth.

But it was also a step into reaching today’s youth, because some people today, they’re into social networking and reality shows. They get a lot of their education through looking at and through comparisons of people they know and respect and watching them deal with things. I thought it was a great way to expose the skills and crafts of the armed forces to a generation of young Americans who may not know it as directly as people my age did from their parents and neighbors.

What can viewers expect from the challenges?

We try to make them representative of military missions for smaller units. So the missions would require you, let’s say, be inserted by vehicle either air or land or sea, accomplish a mission, destroy a target, seize documents, take out a facility of some type. And then be extracted. And along the way you would have overcome obstacles and engage and destroy targets. That was the basic plan.

Was it exactly what we do in the military? No. Because in the military you have people do these extraordinary challenges and their lives are in danger, and some of them don’t come back. We’ve seen extraordinary performances in Iraq and Afghanistan—some of them have been written up in books, there’ve been movies about them, and so forth. But I think we came as close as to authentic missions as you could in terms of television.

How did the celebrity castmates do with these challenges? Were they in over their heads?

I didn’t think anybody was in over their heads. They were interviewed and talked to, and people made sure they could handle the challenges physically. It’s a tough challenge, so you can’t just take the average Hollywood star and throw them into something like this and expect them to cope with it. We had Olympic athletes like Picabo Street, you had someone like Todd Palin who was an experienced outdoorsman, you had a man like Dean Cain who is a three-sport letterman at Princeton and also an NBA tryout, a former NFL star like Terry Crews. You had some people who were phenomenal athletes, as well as people who had shown they were proven achievers in life. So I thought they all were very well picked and they all did an incredible job.

What role do the veteran “operatives” play?

They come in, and they’re paired with a celebrity for the entire duration of the series, so they don’t change teammates. Their job is to pass on their knowledge and skills to the celebrity and then together they have to negotiate the tasks—so they have to depend on each other. There’s some incredible bonding and coaching that took place. I think, in a microcosm, it mirrored the kind of communications that would I would like to see emerging as a consequence of the show between those in uniform and those out of uniform. When it started, these people, most of them had never met a celebrity. And the celebrities, most of them had never met a special ops guy, and when it was over, I think there was a lot of mutual respect and friendship and even, some people said, some life-long bonding going on.

Stars Earn Stripes premieres on NBC Monday at 8 p.m.

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