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Peyton Manning, Stevie Nicks And Other Stars Shine at USO of Metropolitan Washington-Baltimore’s 33rd Annual Awards Dinner

ARLINGTON, Va. — For Peyton Manning, Stevie Nicks, Sebastian Junger and Seema Reza, it was a night to remember.

The four stars, along with nearly 30 Medal of Honor recipients, were honored last night for their contributions to the military community at the USO of Metropolitan Washington-Baltimore’s 33rd Annual Awards Dinner.

Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning accepts the USO-Metro Merit Award. USO Photo by Mike Theiler

Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning accepts the USO-Metro Merit Award. USO Photo by Mike Theiler

Manning, who traveled to Europe and the Persian Gulf on the USO Vice Chairman’s tour in 2013, has been an active supporter of the military throughout his entire NFL career.

“I really had a life-changing experience on my USO tour two years ago,” Manning said. “Just how they’re protecting our freedom, their service to our country, [it’s] very inspiring and I’m really glad that I took the trip.”

The Denver Broncos quarterback received the USO-Metro Merit Award for dedicating his time to help lift the spirits of troops all around the world

Stevie Nicks accepts the USO Achievement Award.

Stevie Nicks accepts the USO Achievement Award.

Five years ago, Nicks received a last-minute invitation to visit troops at Naval Support Activity Bethesda — home of Walter Reed National Military Medical Center — and has committed to spending time with wounded, ill and recovering service members ever since.

Nicks, who wrote the 2011 song, “Soldier’s Angel,” about her numerous visits with wounded troops as part of USO-Metro’s celebrity handshake tours, received the USO Achievement Award for donating her time, talent and treasure to helping bring smiles to recovering troops.

Sebastian Junger accepts the Legacy of Hope Award. USO Photo by Mike Theiler

Sebastian Junger accepts the Legacy of Hope Award. USO Photo by Mike Theiler

Junger, a war correspondent, best-selling author and Oscar-nominated filmmaker received the Legacy of Hope Award for his heart-wrenching storytelling. His most recent documentary works – “Restrepo,” “Korengal” and “The Last Patrol” – focus on the challenges military members endure during combat and upon returning home.

“I was thrilled to sort of discover that those works were very helpful to soldiers [and] emotionally useful to soldiers,” Junger said.

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Seema Reza (far left) poses for photos before the USO of Metropolitan Washington-Baltimore’s 33rd Annual Awards Dinner.

Reza, a poet and essayist, has spent years working with wounded, ill and injured service members at military hospitals and USO Warrior and Family Centers at Fort Belvoir, Virginia and Bethesda, Maryland.

She conducts art workshops for service members recovering from visible and invisible wounds and said “the work that I’ve been able to do is its own reward.”

Reza received the Col. John Gioia Patriot Award for her outstanding commitment to helping recovering troops navigate the healing process.

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USO Reunites Green Beret Team for Purple Heart Ceremony to Remember

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Army Special Forces teams are tight. When one person goes down, the entire team reels.

When Green Beret Sgt. 1st Class Joseph Lowery was shot in the head fighting in Afghanistan on July 7, even the battalion surgeon was unsure of Lowery’s prognosis when the team loaded him onto a C-17 at 3 a.m. The last thing the group did was present his Purple Heart to him in a hasty, bedside ceremony Lowery would never remember.

Then the Green Berets went back at work, doing their mission, completely unaware of the GoFund Me page Lowery’s mother had posted.

“Joseph used his eyes to communicate to me and others this week. One blink means yes!” Darlene Lowery, wrote on the page last summer.

Six months after Lowery was shot in the head outside a village West of Kandahar, Afghanistan, he had progressed to near-full cognitive recovery. When his fellow Green Berets got word that he was conscious and communicating, they asked for leave to go visit.

Unfortunately, battalion surgeon Maj. Kenneth Johnson could only get tickets for himself, the medic who rendered care to Lowery and the two junior engineers on the team who worked closest to him. The whole team wanted to go, but the Army had its limits.

Frustrated, the battalion surgeon called Priya Butler, USO Director of Operations in Southwest Asia, for help getting his nine team members from Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, to Palo Alto, California, where they could present their friend with the Purple Heart in a ceremony he’d remember.

Butler reached out to USO Bay Area Director Jeff Herndon who contacted Piper Hardin, a USO major gifts director. Hardin called David Haddad, USO Arizona advisor and founder of the Friends of Freedom nonprofit. Haddad not only flew the entire team to San Francisco, but also used his connections to put all 10 men up at the Four Seasons.

“Within an hour my board approved everything and within 24 hours we were making arrangements to get the entire team there,” Haddad said.

Less than one day and 27 emails later, the mission was set. The team was booked to San Francisco where Haddad and Mike Conklin of Sentinels of Freedom hosted 150 people at a Purple Heart ceremony and barbecue.

Most of the Green Berets on the team had only talked to Lowery over Skype after the injury, and they were excited to see he’d regained many of his motor functions.

“He gets frustrated that he’s not recovering fast enough, and we have to explain that most people don’t recover from a gunshot wound to the head at all,” said Capt. Sean Barrett, Lowery’s team leader. “But that’s still not good enough for him. He’s a tough dude. The best part for us is that he didn’t lose any memory except for the memory of that day. His personality is exactly the same. As soon as we showed up he was cracking jokes about guys on the team without skipping a beat. It was awesome.”

Haddad, who claims to be nothing more than “your average American,” says the story of the connections from Conklin to Butler, Herndon and Hardin demonstrates how powerful a network the USO can be for helping troops.

“I felt more satisfaction in that encapsulated moment than just about any other moment in my career,” Haddad said, “because in this little moment everything worked, and that’s all in the mission of the USO. That’s why it works. It’s a great network of average Americans.”

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After Father’s Sudden Death, Soldier Turns to the USO for A Crucial Assist

Photo courtesy Army Spc. Austin Hunsinger

Army Spc. Austin Hunsinger at work. Photo courtesy Army Spc. Austin Hunsinger

Losing a parent can be devastating.

But losing a parent while on military duty adds a new set of obstacles that can overwhelm the most prepared soldier. Army Spc. Austin Hunsinger knows this all too well.

In December 2012, after learning his father suddenly passed way, Hunsinger — who was stationed in Fort Bragg, North Carolina — had to juggle an emergency leave request, funeral arrangements and booking last-minute flights all in a matter of hours.

When he finally arrived at the airport to go back to Rochester, New York, he was exhausted. He’d been up all night speaking with his family. So he sat down in the airport, fell asleep and missed his flight.

When Hunsinger woke up and realized what had happened, he knew he needed help fast. He headed straight to the Charlotte-Douglas International Airport USO. A little shaken up and worried he wouldn’t be able to get another flight in time for the funeral, Hunsinger explained what happened to the USO staff.

The grave of Charles Hunsinger, Army Spc. Austin Hunsinger's father. Photo courtesy Army Spc. Austin Hunsinger

The grave of Charles Hunsinger, Army Spc. Austin Hunsinger’s father. Photo courtesy Army Spc. Austin Hunsinger

“The USO is always there and they’re always the first people I go to when I’m traveling,” Hunsinger said.

Within a matter of minutes, a USO volunteer helped Hunsinger re-book his flight to Rochester, getting him home just in time for his father’s services the next day.

“That was a really hectic time for me and [the USO] just relieved the stress at the right point,” Hunsinger said.

“[The USO had] perfect timing, for them to be there and for them to help me get a flight and to provide me with a place to rest my head [was great].”

USO Fort Drum‘s Allen Jones contributed to this story.

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USO’s Phil Parisi Receives 2015 Nonprofit CFO of the Year Award

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USO Chief Financial Officer Phil Parisi was recognized as the 2015 Nonprofit CFO of the Year at the Nonprofit CFO of the Year Awards on March 6 in Washington.

The award honors the best and brightest financial executives in the nonprofit sector who demonstrate operational excellence, innovation in finance and management and exceptional leadership and commitment to financial accountability.

“[Parisi] has a continuing record of providing outstanding financial analysis and advice while navigating a rapidly changing non-profit landscape,” said USO CEO and President Dr. J.D. Crouch II. “His expertise in strategic planning in international settings, financial planning, customer relationships and business development made it possible for the USO to grow stronger, be more responsive and more relevant.”

“Parisi’s understanding of key business drivers helps improve accounting and reporting responsibilities and has bolstered the USO’s corporate stability,”USO Chairman of the Board retired Gen. Richard B. Myers said. “The USO is a stronger, more vital organization since Phil’s arrival.”

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12 Things You May Not Know About Women in the Military

Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester stands at attention before receiving the Silver Star on June 16, 2005, at Camp Liberty, Iraq. DOD photo

Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester stands at attention before receiving the Silver Star on June 16, 2005, at Camp Liberty, Iraq. DOD photo

In honor of Women’s History Month, we gathered 12 pieces of trivia about the legacy of women in the U.S. military. See if you know them:

1. Although they weren’t officially enlisted at first, women have served in the U.S. Army since 1775. In the 18th century, American women tended to the wounded, washed and mended clothing and cooked for male troops.

Mary_Edwards_Walker

Mary E. Walker

2. In 1779, Margaret Corbin became the first woman to receive a military pension. During the Revolutionary War, Corbin manned her husband’s canon after he was shot and killed in battle. Corbin was subsequently injured in the same battle and never fully recovered from her wounds.

3. After the Civil War, Dr. Mary E. Walker was awarded the Medal of Honor for her work as a contract surgeon in the Union Army. She’s the only woman to receive this award. In 1917, Walker was stripped of her medal due to changes in regulations. After many appeals, her medal was reinstated in 1977.

4. In 1866, Cathay Williams was the first African American woman to enlist in the Army, doing so under the pseudonym William Cathay. She was assigned to the 38th U.S. Infantry. Despite being hospitalized for illness several times, she managed to hide her gender for almost two years before a post surgeon discovered she was a female, leading to her discharge.

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Twin sisters Genevieve and Lucille Baker

Twins Genevieve and Lucille Baker. DOD photo

5. Women were officially allowed to join the U.S. military during last two years of World War I, and 33,000 of them signed up to work as nurses and in other support roles. More than 400 nurses died serving America during the Great War.

6. In 1918, twins Genevieve and Lucille Baker became two of the first women to serve in the Coast Guard.

7. Navy Rear Adm. Grace Hopper was one of the first — and most influential — computer programmers. Hopper played an important role in the development of the COBOL programming language and helped shape how programmers code today. Also, she’s often credited with popularizing the term “debugging.”

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Navy Adm. Grace Hopper at work. DOD photo

8. During World War II, 88 American women were captured and held as prisoners of war.

9. Brig. Gen. Hazel W. Johnson-Brown was the first African American woman to become an Army general. Brown enlisted in 1955 and later became the chief of the Army Nurse Corps.

10. Females weren’t allowed to attend the four service academies until 1976. The USO’s magazine On Patrol profiled some of these women in its Spring 2012 issue.

Col. Linda McTague

Col. Linda McTague.

11. In 2004, Col. Linda McTague became the first woman commander of an Air National Guard wing and also the first woman to command an Air Force fighter squadron.

12. In 2005, Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester (pictured at the beginning of this story) became the first woman since World War II to receive the Silver Star for combat actions.

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The Stories Behind Military Challenge Coins

CoinRack_blog

They’re one good deed and an open palm away. And they can be kinda heavy.

Challenge coins permeate the military. Almost everyone with a significant rank doles them out. Even the commander-in-chief has one.

If you’ve been in the military for a while, you probably have a case or a rack (or a vintage sea chest) to display your coins. Last week, the coins reared their heads (or tails) in mainstream culture when the popular design podcast 99% Invisible did an episode on their existence, purpose and history. The podcast even highlighted an oft-repeated awkward civilian moment: the first time a service member shakes their hand and simultaneously plants a coin in their palm.

At the USO, we know a handful of people who have a few (hundred) coins from their years both serving in the military and serving troops. And behind every coin is a pretty cool story. Here are five of them:

Rachel Tischler

Three of the scores of coins Rachel Tischler has received during her tenure as USO Vice President of Entertainment.

Three of the coins Rachel Tischler has received during her tenure with the USO. USO photos by Eric Brandner

Rachel Tischler has taken more flights into the Middle East than a lot of service members. The USO’s Vice President of Entertainment has traveled the world supporting USO tours, including 15 trips to Iraq. She’s collected a lot of coins along the way, too. Here are the stories behind the three pictured above:

Dempsey and Tischler. DOD photo

Tischler with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin E. Dempsey. DOD photo

  • Top of the World: “That’s from Greenland, from the Vice Chairman [of the Joint Chief’s of Staff] tour,” Tishler said. “You can only land there a couple times of year because the runway is frozen ice. And it’s 200 people in the middle of nowhere. I can’t even imagine [a full] deployment.”
  • Gen. Ray Odierno’s coin: “Gen. Odierno was a permanent institution. I saw him every time we went over there,” Tischler said. “I think about it as [a symbol of] all the good work the USO did in Iraq and specifically his support of the USO and entertainment.”
  • The South Park coin: “I don’t know if it’s even appropriate to have this one [on display for this story] but I do love it,” Tischler said laughing. She received the coin with a take on the signature “South Park” line on it from a unit during a USO entertainment tour to Iraq. “I just loved it because I love ‘South Park.’ … You have to admit that is a good sense of humor for [being deployed].”

Glenn Welling

USO Vice President of Operations Glenn Welling holds his personal coin, which he's carried since he deployed to Iraq in 2008. USO photo

The personal coin of USO Vice President of Operations Glenn Welling who is also a command master chief petty officer in the Navy Reserve. Welling has kept the coin in his pocket every day since he deployed to Iraq in 2008.

Glenn Welling always has a challenge coin on hand. It’s his own.

Glenn Welling

Glenn Welling

“For the first 20 years of my Navy career, I had no concept what [challenge coins were about],” said Welling, the USO’s Vice President of Operations and a command master chief petty officer in the Navy Reserve. “When I was selected to be a command master chief in the Navy, I decided it would be a good idea to have my own coin minted so I could recognize sailors that were part of my organization for exceptional service.”

Welling had 100 personal coins minted before deploying to Iraq in 2008.

“This particular coin has been in my pocket every single day since June of 2008, which is when I left for Iraq,” he said.

Welling's sea chest, where he keeps his coin collection.

Welling’s vintage sea chest, which he bought to display his coin collection.

Welling said the coin, along with a prayer stone his neighbor gave him that he also still carries each day, “provided me comfort and security while I was deployed.”

He’s scheduled to retire in October after 37 years in the Navy. But he won’t be taking his coin out of his pocket.

“I may not be in uniform anymore, but I’ll always be a sailor,” he said, smiling. “Til the day I die, I’ll carry my coin with me.”

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Dr. JD Crouch II

USO CEO and President Dr. J.D. Crouch II holds his recently minted personal coin.

USO CEO and President Dr. J.D. Crouch II holds his recently minted personal coin.

USO CEO and President J.D. Crouch II had a clear direction in mind for his first personal coin.

USO President and CEO Dr. J.D. Crouch II shakes volunteers' hands. USO photo by Gretchen Ertl

Crouch greets USO volunteers last fall. USO photo by Gretchen Ertl

“[The USO is] a strong support center for that military family – for spouses, for children as well as the people who sort of orbit around that military family,” Crouch said. “So I thought having that at the center of my coin reflects everything we do: The service members themselves and the family members that also serve in their own way.

“I wanted this to be something that was both reflective of the values [of the USO] and also reflective of the emphasis that I want to place on things while I’m here.”

Valerie Donegan and Jonathan Matthews

USO Director of Information Technology Val Donegan, left, and USO Director of Logistics and Facilities Jonathan Matthews hold up a coin they both received in 2012 for their work building the USO Warrior and Family Center on Fort Belvoir, Virginia.

USO Director of Information Technology Valerie Donegan, left, and USO Director of Logistics and Facilities Jonathan Matthews display a coin they both received in 2012 for their on the USO Warrior and Family Center on Fort Belvoir, Virginia.

Valerie Donegan and Jonathan Matthews are critical to planning the USO’s computer and facilities infrastructures around the globe, which puts them in some interesting places.

In the photo above, Donegan is holding the coin then-Joint Force Headquarters-National Capital Region commander Maj. Gen. Michael T. Linnington gave them to commemorate their roles in building the USO Warrior and Family Center at Fort Belvoir, Virginia.

Donegan holds a coin she received in Iraq in 2009.

Donegan holds a coin she received in Iraq in 2009.

Donegan and Matthews were installing the USO’s downrange satellite communication system in 2009 when they received the coin in the inset photo at then-Balad Air Base in Iraq. It was a trip they’ll never forget for sobering reasons, including their leg in Afghanistan.

“[That trip was] also where I saw my first dignified transfer,” Donegan said. “We hadn’t been at the [USO Pat Tillman Center] for two hours …”

“And everybody stopped,” Matthews interjected.

“Everybody stopped and you lined up,” Donegan said. “That was my first time ever to see a [dignified transfer] out to a flight line.

“There’s nothing as powerful as standing on that flight line watching those coffins go by. … I think that’s really the first time I understood the role [the USO] plays.”


Joseph Andrew Lee

Joseph Andrew Lee holds up the coin President Barack Obama gave him in 2011.

Joseph Andrew Lee holds up the coin President Barack Obama gave him in 2011.

Joseph Andrew Lee has a knack for being in the right place at the right time. It’s a great skill to have if you’re a multimedia journalist like Lee, a gregarious former public affairs Marine who chronicles USO stories.

Joseph Andrew Lee

On Aug. 9, 2011, Lee was working at Dover Air Force Base in the wake of the greatest single-event loss of life U.S. Special Operations has experienced. Three days earlier, a Chinook helicopter carrying 38 coalition troops — including 31 Americans — was shot down in Afghanistan, killing everyone on board. That included 25 special operators. Lee traveled with several fellow employees from the USO’s Arlington, Virginia, offices to do whatever he could to support the mass dignified transfer through USO Delaware. He took a role refilling a cooler of drinks for families, service members and senior officials.

“Our task was to get these grieving families anything they needed,” Lee said.

Three hours in and soaked with sweat after unloading another palate, someone tapped Lee on the shoulder and asked “Hey, you mind if I grab one of those?”

“I looked up and it was the President of the United States,” Lee said.

President Barack Obama took the drink Lee handed him, recognized the USO logo on Lee’s shirt, and struck up a conversation.

“The first words out of his mouth were ‘Thank you for what you do. The USO’s a great organization,'” Lee said.

Lee told Obama that his USO experiences during his 10 years in the Marine Corps were the reason he decided to work for the nonprofit.

Obama then looked over at an aide who handed him something, turned back, and shook Lee’s hand, placing his presidential challenge coin in Lee’s palm in the process.

“He said ‘Thank you for your service and thank you even more for what you do for the USO today,'” Lee said. “And I thought that was pretty special.

“Obviously that day was nothing to celebrate. … Like a lot of medals that Marines receive, it was kind of a reminder of one of the saddest days I’ve served.”

Want to share your own challenge coin story? Send it to us at usomoments.org/stories.