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A Major League Experience: Chicago Cubs Pitcher Edwin Jackson Hosts Military Families at Wrigley Field

Cubs’ Edwin Jackson with military families from the USO of Illinois. Photo courtesy of the Chicago Cubs.

Chicago Cubs pitcher Edwin Jackson — second row above the USO banner — sits with military families from the USO of Illinois. Photo courtesy of the Chicago Cubs.

Edwin Jackson knows what it’s like to be the new kid on the block. From growing up in a military family to playing in the big leagues, the Chicago Cubs pitcher is used to packing up and moving with very short notice.

So, to help military kids who also face frequent changes and moves, Jackson and the USO of Illinois hosted several military families at Wrigley Field as part of Edwin’s Entourage earlier this August.

“Any time you have a chance to give back to the community, especially with kids that comprehend a lifestyle you were brought up in, it’s special,” Jackson said. “It’s not like their parents giving them advice. They’re looking at someone closer to their age, and someone they can relate to a little bit more.”

Cubs pitchers Edwin Jackson and Wesley Wright signed autographs and posed for photos with the USO group. Photo courtesy of the Chicago Cubs

Cubs pitchers Edwin Jackson and Wesley Wright signed autographs and posed for photos with the USO group. Photo courtesy of the Chicago Cubs

The military families watched the Cubs batting practice Aug. 11 and met with Jackson, 30, as he spoke about his appreciation for the military and the importance of pursuing dreams.

“The messages are pretty firm and to the point, but it’s delivered in a fun way, a way in which they can understand how important it is to focus on their dreams and not give up,” Jackson said. “Anytime I have a chance to bring those kids out here and let them know that I went through the same lifestyle — the moving, the traveling, the picking up and bouncing around from city to city and being the new guy — it’s just a little bit of encouragement [and] a little bit of motivation to remind them they can still do whatever they want to do.”

Jackson also held a Q&A session with the families, a trivia contest with prizes, signed autographs and took photos with the participants before the game.

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Our Youngest Donor Ever? 1-Year-Old’s Birthday Celebration Raises Funds to Buy In-Kind Snacks for Troops at USO Osan

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A birthday is a great reason to celebrate — and give back.

That’s exactly why Cherie and Air Force Capt. James Bell, parents of Collette Cruz Bell, decided to ask for donations to USO Osan in lieu of presents at their daughter’s first birthday. The Bells, who live on Osan Air Base, South Korea, raised nearly $100 to donate in Collette’s name, making her one of the youngest USO donors ever.

“My husband and I feel very blessed in that we are able to adequately feed and clothe our daughter,” Cherie Bell wrote in an email interview. “Consequently we thought that donations to the USO would be much better utilized than gifts for her first birthday.”

“We also wanted her to be able to have the memory later on of doing some great for others so that she will hopefully learn the joy in giving.”

Collette’s parents took the money and made an in-kind donation to USO Osan in the form of snacks, drinks and food for troops and their families to enjoy — something the Bell family knows will be appreciated.

“My husband and I have spent countless hours enjoying USO locations in airports and military installations,” Bell wrote. “Donating to the USO was our way of expressing gratitude to an organization that has always been there for us while also teaching our daughter a valuable lesson about giving.”

In addition to asking for donations to the USO for their daughter’s big day, the Bells threw a “Despicable Me”-themed barbecue for their friends, complete with a special banana-and-applesauce cake for Collette. The Bells also made a family trip to the beach as part of the birthday festivities.

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USO Entertainers Stephen Colbert, Katy Perry and Others Win Big at Emmys, MTV VMAs

Gen. Ray Odierno gives Stephen Colbert a haircut during Colbert's performance for U.S. military personnel June 7, 2009, in Baghdad. USO Photo by Steve Manuel

Gen. Ray Odierno gives Stephen Colbert a haircut during Colbert’s performance for U.S. military personnel June 7, 2009, in Baghdad. USO Photo by Steve Manuel

It was a big two days for USO entertainers, who brought home a total of six Primetime Emmy Awards and two MTV Video Music Awards on Sunday and Monday.

Stephen Colbert — whose “The Colbert Report” took home Emmys for Outstanding Variety Series and Outstanding Writing for a Variety Series — went on a high-profile USO tour to Iraq in 2009. Colbert’s mentor Jon Stewart‘s “The Daily Show” also won an Emmy for Outstanding Picture Editing for Short-Form Segments and Variety Specials. Stewart went downrange for the USO in the summer of 2011. And last year, former interim “The Daily Show” host John Oliver and a trio of show writers and producers visited troops in Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Comedians Jimmy Fallon and Louis C.K. also took home awards. Fallon — who emceed the USO-coordinated Fourth of July concert at the White House in 2009 — won Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series for hosting “Saturday Night Live.” Louis C.K. garnered Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series honors for “Louie.” He has gone on two USO tours — including a 13-base trip to Afghanistan in 2008 — and even worked the USO into an episode of his hit FX show.

“The Big Bang Theory” won Outstanding Multi-Camera Picture Editing for a Comedy Series. Actors from the show went on a USO tour to meet troops in the Pacific in 2012.

 Katy Perry salutes service members before performing "Firework"

Katy Perry salutes service members before performing “Firework” at the “VH1 Divas Salute The Troops” show in 2010. Courtesy photo

Meanwhile, Katy Perry took home Best Female Video at Sunday’s MTV Video Music Awards for “Dark Horse.” Haley Williams – lead singer of Paramore – also took home a VMA, winning the MTV Clubland Award for her EDM collaboration with Zedd on “Stay the Night.” Both women were part of the 2010 “VH1 Divas Salute the Troops” show presented by the USO. Paramore did their portion of that show from Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, as part of a USO entertainment tour.

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Joan Rivers, the San Diego Padres and a Soaked 5K: A Look at USO Events Around The Globe

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As the summer draws to a close, USO centers around the world were busy hosting events to lift the spirits of troops and their families. Here’s a look at a few of the fantastic moments from USO centers around the world:

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Joan Rivers visits USO Denver. USO photo.

Joan Rivers Makes Surprise Visit to USO Denver
Long-time USO supporter Joan Rivers paid a surprise visit to USO Denver last Wednesday morning and made sure each guest, volunteer and staff member knew how much she appreciated them. Rivers was the 2001 USO of Metropolitan New York’s Woman of the Year.

“Thank you for your service,” Rivers told the group.

Military Kids Hit the Field at the Be a San Diego Padre for a Day Event
The USO partnered with Petco Park and the Padres to give military kids a Major League experience. Several local kids from military families spent the day practicing baseball fundamentals, talking with former Padre Damian Jackson and learning all about what it would be like to be a Major League Baseball player. Check out the video from the event here.

Sixth Annual Clark After Dark in Chicago
The USO of Illinois took to the streets Thursday night for its sixth annual Clark After Dark block party. Thanks to the support of Alderman Brendan Reilly of the 42nd Ward, Boss Bar and other USO partners, partygoers enjoyed live music, military vehicle displays and plenty of food. Despite the rainy weather, Chicagoans came out in full force to support their troops and show appreciation.

Heidi Murkoff smiles with an expectant military mother. USO photo.

Heidi Murkoff smiles with an expectant military mother. USO photo.

USO/What to Expect Special Delivery Baby Shower in Fort Drum, New York
On Friday, the USO and the What to Expect Foundation, founded by best-selling author Heidi Murkoff, delivered a special baby shower to expecting military spouses and service women stationed in Fort Drum, New York. The moms-to-be enjoyed an afternoon filled with shower games, food, a raffle and a question-and-answer session with Murkoff, who wrote the best-selling book “What to Expect When You’re Expecting.”

Second Annual H2GO in Okinawa, Japan
There aren’t many stickier places on the planet than the South Pacific in the summer, where near-100-degree temperatures are coupled with crippling humidity. To help troops and their families stationed in Okinawa beat the heat and stay in shape, volunteers at USO Kadena created H2GO, a 5K foot race with water-themed obstacles along the route.

The H2GO race let participants enjoy slip-n-slides, water cannons and the soaking power of over 20,000 water balloons.

Girls show off their nails and face paintings at Sun and Fun day with Kaiserslautern USO. USO photo.

Girls show off their nails and face paintings at Sun and Fun day with USO Kaiserslautern. USO photo.

Sixth Annual Sun and Fun Day in Kaiserslautern, Germany
As the dog days of summer come to an end, Kaiserslautern USO and TKS hosted the sixth annual Sun and Fun Day for troops and their families to help them enjoy the last of the warm weather. Despite some rain, over 2,300 visitors came out to enjoy the five-hour event that included food, raffles, live music and search-and-rescue dog demos.

Troops Get Their Game on at Camp Buehring Volleyball Tournament
Service members rallied their way to victory at a volleyball tournament Saturday night in Camp Buehring, Kuwait. Troops were able to form teams of six and compete for prizes — all while jamming out to the beats of DJ Break One. The winning teams were even awarded victory T-shirts!

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Troops Churn Up Homemade Ice Cream at USO Camp Marmal

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Nothing says summer like a eating a bowl of cold, delicious ice cream.

And while troops at Camp Marmal, Afghanistan, can’t exactly head to a grocery store and pick up a pint, they can head over to the USO.

After hearing that the base cafeteria only served ice cream once a week, USO Camp Marmal staff members decided to start monthly homemade ice cream nights.

“We gave it a try and it’s been a big hit since then,” said USO Camp Marmal Center Manager Michael Eyassu.

With a few zip bags, milk, ice and a lot of shaking, troops can whip up a batch of homemade ice cream within a matter of minutes. USO Camp Marmal even provides service members with a number of syrups and toppings to enhance their homemade ice cream creations.

“Troops love it because it’s a fun and interactive event they can participate in with their fellow troops,” Eyassu said. “The end result is delicious, so it’s a win-win!”

If you want to try making homemade ice cream like the troops, check out the recipe below:

In a gallon zip bag:
1/2 cup salt
Ice to fill bag 2/3 of way full

In a quart zip bag:
1 cup of half and half
2 table spoons of vanilla extract
Flavored syrup (optional)

Place ice and salt in a large gallon zip bag. Set aside. Place half & half and vanilla in quart zip bag. Seal tightly and place inside gallon zip bag. Seal gallon zip bag. Shake until ice cream is solid or at consistency of your choice — roughly 10 minutes. Remove quart zip bag from gallon zip bag. Scoop contents of quart zip bag into bowl, add desired toppings and serve immediately.

Want to help the USO bring more unique programs like this to troops deployed troops around the world? Consider supporting the USO today.

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USO Rhein Main Gives Gaming Troops The Ultimate Ticket to Gamescom 2014

Troops smile outside of the gamescom convention. USO photo.

Troops smile outside of the Gamescom convention. USO photo.

It’s no secret troops love video games. In fact, if you step inside any USO center, one of the first things you’ll likely see is a service member sitting in front of a TV, controller in hand, battling enemies in the latest blockbuster releases.

So when USO Rhein Main staff members heard about Gamescom, a German convention devoted to the latest and greatest innovations in the video game industry, they knew that they had to find a way to get troops there.

“Gaming ranks highly on most troops’ list of hobbies, so why not take them to experience that largest gaming convention in Europe?” said USO Rhein Main Area Operations Manager Ashley Grassl.

As part of its Food and Fun for Free program, which focuses on providing free programming for single and unaccompanied service members,  USO Rhein Main sent 20 soldiers to Gamescom 2014 in Cologne, Germany, earlier this month. From its popular Taco Nights to quarterly cultural tours to explore Germany, the Food and Fun for Free program gives troops a chance to step outside their barracks and enjoy their local surroundings.

Although the trek required troops to wake up early on a Sunday morning, Grassl said they had no trouble filling up the 20 van and bus seats, and even had a waiting list for the trip. Once the service members arrived at Gamescom, USO volunteers gave each of them a wrist band — which allowed them to play any game available — explained the layout of the convention center and let them loose to explore.

“Gamescom boasts that visitors will experience ‘the next generation of gaming,’ and our service members got to experience all of that and more,” Grassl said. “They had the opportunity to experience hands-on game play of games that won’t come out until later this year like ‘Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare,’ ‘Borderlands,’ ‘Battlefield’ and ‘Destiny.’”

From participating in multiplay online tournaments to stocking up on promotional freebies, Grassl said Gamescom offered something to keep any gaming enthusiast entertained.

“Gamescom was amazing. The masses came out for a great event. There was seriously something there for everyone,” said Army Spc. D’Lexis Cooley, president of Better Opportunities for Single Soldiers (BOSS) at U.S. Army Garrison Wiesbaden. “BOSS soldiers said that they were going to get their nerd on by gaming. And they did. “