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8 Ways the USO Connects Troops To Home

A service member uses the internet at the USO.

From the moment they step into boot camp to the time when they transition to civilian life, troops rely on the USO to help them stay connected to their to friends and family. Here’s eight of the ways the USO does it.

1. Getting troops online: Free Internet access is one of the most popular services at USO centers today. While some USO centers offer computers for troops to use, nearly all of them offer free WiFi for people who bring their own devices. Even our Mobile USO units, like the ones we sent to Brooklyn to comfort troops cleaning up after Superstorm Sandy, are WiFi-enabled so troops serving in remote locations can get online.

2. Skyping into the delivery room: Did you know that the USO helps expecting military dads Skype into the delivery room for their baby’s birth, even if they’re abroad? Marine Capt. Nick Whitefield experienced this USO service first-hand when he watched his wife Laura deliver the couples’ second child, Ethan Whitefield, via a USO-provided Skype connection at Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan.

“The fact that I could be there, electronically, over Skype was huge,” Nick said. “It was great. It was a phenomenal experience.”

A troop makes a call from the USO in Bagram, Afghanistan. USO photo by Dave Gatley

3. Free phone calls home: In 2003, the USO launched Operation Phone Home to provide troops with free phone cards so they can call their loved ones at no cost — even when they’re in remote locations. Some USO centers abroad also offer troops access to a private phone network so they can call home on a safe, secure and reliable line inside the center.

One of these free phone calls even helped a new dad hear his baby girl’s first cries in 2006.

“The USO made that call possible for me,” said former Marine Alexander Carpenter. “And to this day I have never said thank you. … Thank you USO.”

4. Keeping story time alive: Thanks to the USO partnership with United Through Reading, deployed troops can record themselves reading a storybook at a USO center and send the DVD recording back home for their children to watch and digitally connect with them in their absence.

Navy Lt. Matthew Stroup records himself reading a book to his children during a United Through Reading event in Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of Matthew Stroup

Navy Lt. Matthew Stroup records himself reading a book to his children. Photo courtesy of Matthew Stroup

While preparing for a deployment form Japan to the Middle East in 2012, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Victor Glover told his squad about the United Through Reading program and received an overwhelming number of requests to participate. He even recorded stories for his own children.

“It was important. They really got a kick out of being able to see me,” Glover said. “At the end of the recordings, I said a message to them. I used each of their names and I said something to the effect of ‘I love you, be good, be supportive to your mom and goodnight’ because I imagined they’d do the books right before bedtime.”

5. Giving the gift of gaming: Video games are one of our younger service members’ favorite ways to unwind. That’s why most USO centers have gaming stations featuring popular video games like “Call of Duty” and “Halo.” At some centers, service members can even play the games against friends and family around the globe online in real time.

But troops aren’t always stationed near brick-and-mortar USO centers. With that in mind, the USO developed the Mobile Entertainment Gaming System (MEGS) so service members can enjoy video games no matter their location.

6. Serving up comfort foods from home: Sometimes, all it takes to make service members feel connected to home is taste of their favorite foods. That’s why USO patrons can always find a variety of snack, drink and meal options at centers around the world. Some centers, like USO Great Lakes, provide a free, home-cooked meals for troops, while others, like many Southwest Asia centers, always seem to be churning out comforting sweet treats, like homemade ice cream.

A Halloween/Thanksgiving USO Holiday Box from 2011.

A Halloween/Thanksgiving USO Holiday Box from 2011.

7. Bringing the holidays to troops abroad: Being deployed during a special holiday can make troops feel even further from home. That’s why many USO centers host a number special parties and events around those red calendar days.

Troops in remote areas far from a USO center can even get in on the fun, too, thanks to the USO Holiday Boxes program. These special seasonal boxes, filled with games, decorations and other festive supplies are designed to help service members celebrate the year’s special days in any location. There are four seasonal boxes units can request throughout the year, including a Halloween/Thanksgiving box that helped a handful of service members have a spooky Halloween back in 2011.

8. Welcoming troops home: Even though a homecoming is already a joyful occasion for military families, the USO has a history of stepping in to make the day even more memorable. From helping arriving troops freshen up before reuniting with their loved ones to coordinating surprise homecomings like this, this, and this, the USO there to celebrate military families finally reconnecting after a long deployment apart.

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Worldwide USO Teamwork Helps Bring Marine Home for Grandfather’s Funeral

A old photo of J.D. Scott during his military service. Photo courtesy Bryant Scott

A old photo of J.D. Scott during his military service. Photo courtesy Marine Lance Cpl. Bryant Scott

Bryant Scott knew he was in for a long trip, a lot of waiting and some personal grief.

But he didn’t expect the two people holding the sign.

The Marine lance corporal was stationed on Okinawa, Japan, in April when his grandfather — Korean War veteran J.D. Scott — suffered a stroke and unexpectedly passed away.

Bryant put in a request for emergency leave so he could travel to Granbury, Texas, to attend the funeral. Once his command approved the request, Bryant waited three days at Kadena Air Base before securing a seat on a military flight to Travis Air Force Base, California.

“I had no real logistical plan besides return stateside and improvise as much as possible,” Bryant wrote in an email.

During a layover in Hawaii, Bryant called a cab company and arranged for it pick him up at Travis and drive him to the Sacramento International Airport — the closest commercial airport to the base — where he’d try to find a flight home. That’s when the USO stepped in.

Lance Cpl. Bryant Scott. Photo courtesy Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Bryant Scott

Lance Cpl. Bryant Scott. Photo courtesy Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Bryant Scott

While Bryant was flying over the ocean, his family readiness officer told the USO Pacific office about the situation. USO staff there reached out to the USO Regional Office back in the United States to see if anyone at USO Bay Area could drive Bryant to Sacramento so he wouldn’t have to pay for a long, expensive cab ride late at night. Chris and Mary Ann Mezzapelle, who were volunteering at USO Travis at the time, heard about the Marine’s situation and offered to pick him up and drive him wherever he needed to go.

Bryant landed at Travis around 10:30 p.m. and — much to his surprise — saw the Mezzapelles, who were waiting for him with a “Lance Cpl. Bryant Scott” sign and a USO gift basket.

“I was still somewhat shocked,” Bryant wrote. “I think I asked for their identification to make sure they were legitimate [USO volunteers], or something along those lines.”

After a series of explanations, introductions and assuring Bryant that he wouldn’t have to pay for any cab rides that night, the Mezzapelles helped the Marine book a more convenient flight home out of San Francisco International Airport for the next morning and drove him to that airport. At some point during the drive, the Mezzapelles stopped at Denny’s and treat Bryant to a meal.

“They didn’t ask for anything in return, no matter the amount of times I offered to pay them for gas, food and their time,” Bryant wrote. “I still am just so overwhelmed by their kindness.”

The Mezzapelles pose in front of the USO logo. Photo courtesy Chris Mezzapelle

The Mezzapelles pose in front of the USO logo. Photo courtesy Chris Mezzapelle

Once they arrived at San Francisco International, where the Mezzapelles also volunteer, Mary Ann escorted Bryant to the 24-hour USO center so he could get some rest before his early flight the next morning.

“It sounds kind of selfish, but it makes us feel great,” Chris said. “We really enjoy doing [volunteer work at the USO]. I used the USO when I was in the service back in the early seventies.”

The next morning, rested and refueled with USO refreshments, Bryant took off for Texas, making it home in time to pay his respects to his grandfather.

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“After all the horrible events that had happened to my family, along with the animosity and adversity I encountered while trying to make it home, I was overcome with heartfelt joy and gratitude,” Bryant wrote. “I didn’t know what to say to show my appreciation, hopefully my face and constant ‘thank you’s (which probably became annoying after a while) was enough to show how truly appreciative I am/was.”

Bryant even wrote a poem in honor of the Mezzapelles:

A miracle does not always have to be a mighty act of God
Or some great deed
Or overcoming the impossible
Or walking barefoot on the sea
Miracles come unexpectedly
As an answer to a prayer
To how an act of love
And that someone truly cares
It can be lending a hand to a neighbor
It can be helping a friend in need
It can be doing someone a favor
Without asking for anything
With any act of kindness
Mighty, great, or small
Miracles can happen all the time
When you reach out and lift other from despair
I know because there was a time when I was in need
and you were the ones who were truly there

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26 Years Later, Military Spouse Renews Family Tradition By Painting a Children’s Mural at USO Guam

A panoramic view of part of the children's room at USO Guam. USO photos

A panoramic view of part of the children’s room at USO Guam. USO photo

Kasia Bennett has come full circle.

A lifelong artist, the beachy blonde describes herself as a flower child of the 1970s who was so against the Vietnam War that she admits to vilifying returning troops then because she thought “they were a part of the ‘problem.’”

That was until a Marine pilot swept her off her feet. The transition to military life changed the mother of two’s perspective. Now, while’s he’s flying a commercial airliner at 30,000 feet, Kasia is down on Earth pouring her heart into a new acrylic mural inside the children’s room at USO Guam.

“Honestly I am ashamed of my former beliefs and attitudes,” she wrote in an email interview with the USO. “I have learned about and come to appreciate the depth of commitment the enlisted men and women give. Paying if needed, the ultimate price and giving their lives for our nation.

“The time that I give volunteering at the USO to make a soldier or their family’s day a little easier or more pleasant will never be too much to ask.”

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The full-room work of three-dimensional art honors the local Chamorro people, highlights the cultural beauty of Guam and brings life-size Sesame Street characters to the walls to welcome military children.

“What was once designed as a USO for single service members, the Pacific pivot means more and more families are coming to Guam with very different needs,” said Leigh Leilani Graham, Area Director of USO Hawaii and Guam

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Graham described USO Guam as a “destination center” with more of an island spa feel as opposed to the more traditional USO centers military families are used to at airports and bases.

Bennett, a USO volunteer, has spent more than 200 hours creating the mural. And it’s not the first time her family helped paint the building. It was actually the discovery of an old newspaper clipping of her husband, Craig, 26 years ago, painting a USO Guam wall that motivated her.

“The location of the facility has changed, [but] we are keeping volunteering at the USO a family tradition,” Bennett wrote in an email. The USO has moved from Piti to The Royal Orchid on Tumon Bay between the time her husband painted the roof and now.

“It felt fantastic to give my time,” she wrote. “I was made to feel appreciated and supported during the entire endeavor by the Guam USO staff.”

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Almay Helps the USO While Highlighting the Strength and Determination of Military Women

https://twitter.com/hannahstormespn/status/590587190201229312

Our blog readers will be familiar with the story of Margaux Mange, a former military police officer who suffered a traumatic brain injury and PTSD after a pair of bombings in 2006 and 2007, the second of which killed three of her close friends. Her lingering injuries put her in a constant state of pain and depression. 

But Mange has been a model of resiliency. She had nearly 130 hyperbaric oxygen treatments that have helped diminish her pain and let her be active again. In the last several years, she’s won medals at the Warrior Games, trekked to the South Pole and recently attempted to summit Denali in Alaska.

Her strength and determination mirrors the values trumpeted by USO partner Almay. The cosmetics giant is celebrating female service members with their Simply American campaign. As part of the initiative, Almay is donating $250,000 to the USO and creating a #SimplyAmerican social push to raise additional funds and awareness.

Almay was so impressed by Mange that they wanted to hold her up as an example of the Simply American spirit. So when it came time to talk about their USO partnership on ABC’s “The View” this spring, Mange was front and center.

“I was in pain trying to climb up a flight of stairs, so I thought that the couch would be my best friend,” Mange said about the years after her injuries. “But after remembering that three of my best friends died in Iraq, I couldn’t live that way for them. So, with their memories, I chose to live instead.”

Almay will continue highlighting women like Mange throughout the summer in two unique ways.

First, they’re embarking on a summer-long road trip to fairs and festivals to create what they’re calling a Simply American experience that celebrates female service members, military wives and their families.

Almay also is soliciting photos depicting “Simply American moments.” The company will donate one dollar for every like or share on social media that uses the hashtag #SimplyAmerican up to a total of $10,000.

“Almay celebrates the spirit of American beauty,” Almay Vice President of Marketing Jill Krakowski said. “This fresh, uncomplicated, all-American beauty look. And there is no better embodiment of this spirit than the women of the U.S. military.”

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Starbucks Hosts USO Transition 360 Alliance Event in Seattle

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SEATTLE–Coffee titan and USO partner Starbucks hosted a USO Transition 360 Alliance Career Opportunity Day on Thursday at Starbucks Center.

The synergy at Thursday’s event was ideal, as Starbucks — which has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars in product to troops through the USO — has committed to hiring 10,000 former service members and their family members by 2018.

“I’m really excited about the opportunity for [the USO Transition 360 Alliance],” Starbucks Military Talent Acquisition Director Tom Tice said in an interview last month. “This venture into employment for the USO in partnership with other organizations like Hire Heroes USA really brings a new value to what the USO is doing for service members and their families.

“Starbucks is really honored from a military recruiting perspective to be a part of that. And I think we’re going to be able to build a relationship that can last.”

Career Opportunity Days, a joint venture between the USO and Hire Heroes USA, give transitioning service members the chance to do mock interviews and get real-time feedback with perspective employers. Sometimes, those interviews turn into real jobs.

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USO Partner Kroger Hosts 13 Red, White and BBQ Events for Troops and Families Around the World

Kroger — a longtime USO partner — understands how many family dinners America’s troops miss while they’re deployed. As a gesture of their appreciation, the grocery giant hosted Red, White and BBQ events in 10 cities and towns across the United States and three additional celebrations on U.S. bases in Germany and Kuwait serving roughly 7,000 troops and their families.

Kroger has been a USO partner since 2010, raising more than $11.9 million through its Honoring Our Heroes program. The funds support USO programs and services that help troops and military families from the moment they join, through deployments and as they transition into civilian life.