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13 Uniquely American Things to Do on July Fourth Weekend

American troops have served for more than two centuries to keep our nation free. And while we should always honor their sacrifices, it’s also important to take time to enjoy the freedoms they provide. Here are 13 ways you can do just that this July Fourth weekend.

1. Eat a hot dog (and watch the Nathan’s Famous International Hot Dog Eating Contest).

2. Ring a bell. Then-President John F. Kennedy introduced this Fourth of July concept just months before his assassination in 1963.

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3. Go lawnmower racing in Oregon.

4. Read a biography about a founding father. (Or read this much shorter piece about a founding father-inspired hip-hop musical.)

5. Cheer on your favorite at the lobster races in Bar Harbor, Maine.

6. Sign up to volunteer at the USO and have fun while you’re giving back.

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7. Make s’mores. (Fun fact: The first known s’mores recipe appeared in a 1927 Girl Scout publication.)

8. Attend the Ocean Beach Marshmallow War in San Diego. (But behave.)

9. Watch a baseball game.

10. Read the Declaration of Independence. (Bonus fact: Button Gwinnett, who signed the Declaration, has one of the most sought-after and expensive autographs in the modern world. Only 51 documents with his signature are known to exist.)

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11. Use the holiday as an excuse to dress up your dog. (We know some of you want to.)

12. Fireworks! (OK, maybe they’re not “uniquely American,” but we’re making an exception today.)

13. Visit a national park. (Seriously. They’re amazing.)

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Mobile USO Helps Troops Through Long Summer Training Days

Images from the Mobile USO's stop in Oklahoma. Courtesy of Spc. Tyler Davis

Images from the Mobile USO’s stop in Oklahoma. Courtesy of Spc. Tyler Davis

Spending three weeks in the field on a military exercise can make you feel like you’re in another country – even if you never leave your home state.

Ask Army National Guard Spc. Tyler Davis, a 21-year-old from Lawton, Oklahoma, who took to Instagram last week to show his appreciation when his unit, the 160th Field Artillery Brigade, received a surprise visit from a Mobile USO while conducting annual training.

“It was a huge relief to get a break from the heat and to get away from all the brass,” Davis said. “We just got to lay back and chill. It felt incredible.”

Davis, who’s been in the Guard for more than four years, was pulling 48-hour shifts in the blazing sun wearing bulky laser simulation gear when the Mobile USO arrived.

“When we’re out here in the field we’re adapting to the military lifestyle and you get completely engulfed in it,” Davis said. “You better believe when we first caught wind of the [Mobile USO] coming I made sure to get everyone in my squad signed up.”

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A USO center on wheels, Mobile USO units offer troops the same kind of support provided at stationary centers, including a canteen, video games, movies, Wi-Fi and the most important amenity of all when training in the Oklahoma desert: air conditioning.

The fleet of USO vehicles is on the road throughout the continental U.S., serving troops and raising awareness about the USO.

“God bless you guys at the USO,” Davis said. “Without you, a lot of us would probably go insane.”

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Daddy’s Home! USO Helps with Surprise Father’s Day Weekend Homecoming for Seabee

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Spencer Bouchard came to the USO to record a video. He left with a rapidly forming plan.

Bouchard, a construction electrician petty officer third class in the Navy Seabees, stopped by USO Yokosuka earlier this spring to record a USO/United Through Reading Military Program video for his infant son, Noah. While there, he spoke with the USO staff about surprising his family back in the states. He had a special date in mind: June 20. Not only was it the Saturday before Father’s Day, but it was also Noah’s first birthday party. The USO staff at Yokosuka helped set him up to record the video, which he ended by asking his wife, Courtney, to turn around, knowing he’d be behind her to greet her.

Bouchard’s parents were in on the surprise and helped facilitate the plan while keeping it secret from his wife, Courtney, for three months.

“It was quite the process,” Bouchard said. “I had to be cautious [about what I said] when I Skyped Courtney.”

The Seabee flew from Japan to San Francisco and finally to Cleveland on June 20, where he was greeted by a trio of USO of Northern Ohio volunteers and his parents around 6 a.m. Bouchard’s mom and dad snuck him into their home — which is across the street from Courtney’s parents’ house, where she and Noah are living during the deployment.

By the time Bouchard woke up, Noah’s Mickey Mouse-themed party was already coming to life, with about 40 guests and a few photographers trickling in. Around 1:30 p.m., Bouchard’s mother, Tamara, asked everyone to face the garage where Courtney and Noah were going to watch a special greeting from her son. Bouchard’s father, Paul, was on the phone with him when the DVD started playing and gave him his cue to walk over.

Just as the video was wrapping up, he walked in.

Happiness ensued.

“[She was] shocked and incredibly happy,” Bouchard said. “She was just crying. All the stress she had from [coordinating] Noah’s birthday party and all the stress she had from me being away kind of just disappeared in that one second she saw me.”

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Bruno Mars to Headline USO Fourth of July Concert at the White House

Bruno Mars will play a USO show at the White House on July 4. Courtesy photo

Bruno Mars will play a USO show at the White House on July 4. Courtesy photo

Bruno Mars will bring his “Uptown Funk” to downtown Washington on July 4. But you’ll need a special invitation to get into the exclusive party at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Mars announced this afternoon that he’ll be playing an exclusive USO show for military families at The White House this July 4. The announcement took place during a Twitter exchange with First Lady Michelle Obama.

This is the seventh consecutive year the White House has partnered with the USO and hosted its “Salute to the Military” concert. Last year’s event featured Pitbull, while acts like fun., Cedric The Entertainer, The Killers, Brandi Carlile, Brad Paisley, Train, Amos Lee, Jimmy Fallon, the Foo Fighters and Michelle Branch have also played the South Lawn on Independence Day.

“The USO is thrilled to once again be partnering with the White House and hosting a USO concert featuring superstar Bruno Mars this Independence Day,” USO CEO and President J.D. Crouch said in a release. “There is no better time or place to celebrate the birth of our nation than on the Fourth in our nation’s capital, surrounded by hundreds of America’s troops and military families. And with Bruno’s help, it is sure to be the ultimate ‘thank you’ to those who serve our nation and sacrifice their lives daily.”

Mars has won multiple Grammys and played the NFL’s Super Bowl Halftime Show in 2014. He was Billboard’s 2013 Artist of the Year.

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USO, Corporate Partners Assemble Comfort Crew Deployment Kits for Marine Families

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ARLINGTON, Virginia–The USO hosted some of its corporate partners for a summit this week outside the nation’s capital. And after they exchanged ideas, they walked to another conference room and did what they do best together: give back to troops.

The USO and its corporate partners assembled With You All The Way Deployment Kits designed by the Comfort Crew for Military Kids. The kits will be distributed to families of Marines who are about to deploy out of Camp LeJeune, North Carolina. The group assembled 100 kits.

The Comfort Crew is part of the recently announced USO Transition 360 Alliance, which provides a holistic approach to transitioning from the military to civilian life.

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First Lady Michelle Obama Visits Troops and Spouses at a USO Event in Italy

First Lady Michelle Obama made a surprise visit to U.S. Army Garrison Vicenza on Friday for a USO ice cream social among other activities with the troops.

Obama went on to co-host a surprise baby shower for expectant moms at the base. You can see a full slideshow of her visit over at stripes.com.

“We want you to know we’ve got your backs when you’re going through this part of your lives,” she told military spouses during her visit, according to ABC News. “You’re not alone.”