July 19, 2012 -- It started out like any other day at the Kandahar Airfield. With the distant roar of military aircraft taking off in the distance, hundreds of Marines in Afghanistan set about beginning their daily, monotonous routine: Wake, shower, eat, train, work. Always in that order. The same routine, all day, every day, the same way it had been for months
By midday, however, all hell had broken loose.
A group of airmen were break-dancing in the hangar. Stern looking soldiers in workout tees and shorts were singing while offloading sandbags. And at least one service member was caught doing "the worm" -- the 1980s dance move where you wriggle backwards with stomach on floor -- to the tune of Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe."
Eric Raum still laughs when he thinks about it.
"I'd just returned to Kandahar from the U.S.," he says. "We thought it would be a good way to boost their morale."
It seems they may have done a whole lot more.
Raum and his longtime friend Randy Moresi, both employees with the nonprofit United Service Organizations (USO), came up with a plan. They were going to ask the service members on base to do a group lip-dub, to the tune of Jepsen's mega-hit.
The idea was to show troops in a more positive, light-hearted way, away from the controversies that have dogged the U.S. mission for the past several months. In February, for instance, U.S. troops "mistakenly" burned copies of the Quran at a U.S. base near Kabul, setting off nationwide protests and riots that left dozens dead. A month earlier, a leaked video online showed Marines urinating on Afghan corpses.
"It's a side of the military that you don't get to see," Raum says of the project. "Showing the human side on the other side of the rifles is a great opportunity."
Jepsen's song proved to be a perfect fit. It has already led to several famous renditions, all the way from Colin Powell to Sesame Street's Cookie Monster. There's even a mash-up of President Obama singing the tune.
"We just put our heads together and figured out what we wanted to do," he says.
The plan was simple: Raum, who has been an amateur photographer for years, would do the shooting on his small handheld camera. Moresi, a former cheerleader, would choreograph all the dance moves. Thanks to her connections on base, the Marine commander agreed to let them shoot the video, but with a catch:
They would only get one hour with each group.
It meant they had to introduce themselves, explain the whole point of the video, teach them the dance moves, and shoot several re-takes of each sequence, all within an hour.
Despite the time constraints, Raum and Moresi, a former cheerleader, had an even bigger worry: The troops themselves
Troops enlist for many reasons: An exciting career, defending the country, a chance to make a difference in people's lives. Getting jiggy with it usually doesn't make the list.
When they met the first group, a dozen or so airmen, airwomen and maintenance staff, they were busy fixing a fighter jet. With the imposing aircraft in the background, they faced their first challenge.
Could they get the troops to dance?
Raum thought the service members would need coercing, but the troops proved more than eager to be in the video, if only to have a memento of their service to send to family back home.
"When the clock started ticking, [Moresi] started teaching them the first step of the dance move," he says.
They picked it up quickly. At one point, Raum asked the troops to gather in a circle "and look like you're having fun."
"I barely had the words out of my mouth," he says, laughing, "and they were like, 'Yup, I'll go first."
As soon as the hour was up, they were back to fixing the jet in the background.
The next group, outside near a C-130 plane, proved more of a challenge. "They hadn't really been told what it was being asked of them," Raum says.
When they tried explaining the concept, the troops gave them a puzzled stare, one of those, "Is this for real?" kind of moments.
But orders were orders. And the Marine commander had given explicit orders that everyone was to do whatever Raum and Moresi requested. So they did.
"They said, 'If our sergeant says we're going to dance, teach us the moves, we're going to dance.'"
The end result, a three-minute video posted to YouTube, already has 72,000 views and has all the makings of a viral hit. Among the highlights: Five marines singing while on a shooting range, an airman doing the robot and another doing the "Batman" move John Travolta made famous in Pulp Fiction.
The video is winning rave reviews. In response to Raum's blog on Facebook, one poster wrote "I love it ... props to all of you for being able to do that in such little time; I shared it ?.. everyone loved it, and thanks for making our day ;)."
Another commenter on YouTube had a different twist:
"This should be a recruitment video," the poster wrote.
But Raum was worried the images would make it look like troops in Kandahar had nothing better to do than shoot lip-dub videos, something that couldn't be further from the truth.
"This war's been going on for so many years," he says. "People are starting to get de-sensitized, us having troops here and what that means. These are still our kids and sons and daughters.
"In the video, they're having fun and if that makes you smile, great," he adds. "They'll know they're doing their job well."