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Your USO At Work: April 2014 — Warrior and Family Center at Bethesda Opens

USO officials, military leaders and celebrities cut the ribbon to USO's Warrior and Family Center at Bethesda.  USO Photo by Mike Theiler

USO officials, military leaders and celebrities cut the ribbon to USO’s Warrior and Family Center at Bethesda. USO Photo by Mike Theiler

USO Opens New Warrior and Family Center at Bethesda

After a year of construction and several years of planning and fundraising, the ribbon was finally cut on April 1 at the USO Warrior and Family Center located on Naval Support Activity Bethesda, home of the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland.

The center – which is the sister structure to the USO Warrior and Family Center at Fort Belvoir, Va. – opened to troops, families and caregivers the next day and provided a much-needed home away from home for wounded, ill and injured troops and their families and caregivers living on the installation.

More than 200 people – including Department of Defense officials, wounded warriors, esteemed donors and even Miss America – attended the ceremony at the new center.

“This is where the future begins,” USO President and CEO John I. Pray, Jr., said. “We built this Warrior and Family Center to serve all troops and their families who pass through this healing center of excellence.”

The 16,217-square-foot center has places for recovering troops and their families and caregivers to relax and plan their futures away from the grind of the hospital. Outfitted with state-of-the-art technology, the Warrior and Family Center has a classroom for recovering troops to take college courses, plenty of computers and a fireside lounge and kitchen where they can relax and grab a bite to eat.

Troops seeking to have a good time can hit the sports lounge, where they can watch the biggest games, or visit the studio, where they can work on creative projects or jam on house instruments.

“It’s hard to capture in words what a center like this means to recovering warriors and their families,” said Adm. James A. Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “To be able to get away – in the midst of it all – to such a beautiful, peaceful and comfortable place right here on campus … is more than just nice to have. It is an essential part of recovery.”

Cheryl Laaker Hall, vice president of operations for USO of Metropolitan Washington-Baltimore, spoke with confidence when she talked about the center’s future.

“We’re very certain, after the last few days of being here, that we have a winner,” she said. “We know that troops and families want to be here. They need a place like this, where they can go and be themselves. … We’re just so proud to have this facility and be able to be that space for them.”

USO,What to Expect Foundation Host Baby Showers for Military Moms-To-Be

The time-honored tradition of celebrating the birth of a child with a baby shower is one of the moments many of our expectant military moms miss out on, especially if they live overseas. To help fill that void, the USO, in collaboration with the What to Expect Foundation and author Heidi Murkoff, brought “Special Delivery,” a very special baby shower to military moms in Landstuhl, Germany.

Best-selling author Heidi Murkoff hugs a service member at a Special Delivery baby shower held in Landstuhl, Germany, in March. USO photo

Best-selling author Heidi Murkoff hugs a service member at a Special Delivery baby shower held in Landstuhl, Germany, in March. USO photo

“Motherhood is the ultimate sisterhood,” said Murkoff, the best-selling author of “What to Expect When You’re Expecting.” “For military moms-to-be, far from their immediate family and friends, these baby showers are more than gift bags and cake. They are about connecting and sharing a common bond and creating friendships with women experiencing the same mix of emotions.”

Over three days, the USO and the What to Expect Foundation hosted three baby showers for hundreds of new and expecting military moms in Germany. Each baby shower featured food, gifts and games as well as a question-and-answer session and book signing with Murkoff.

“Military families sacrifice countless everyday moments in service to our country,” said USO Europe Regional Vice President Walt Murren. “It is such an honor for USO Europe to host a program like Special Delivery, because for many of these women this may be their only baby shower. We want to make sure it’s an experience they won’t soon forget.”

Find out how you can show your support for military moms by visiting USOmoments.org.

Longtime USO of Georgia CEO Looks Back – and Forward

As the Vietnam War was raging in late 1968, a USO ad in a newspaper caught the eye of Mary Lou Austin, who was teaching in Washington, D.C. After interviewing for a job, she was hired and sent to New York City – then the home of USO headquarters.

USO of Georgia President and CEO Mary Lou Austin. Courtesy photo

USO of Georgia President and CEO Mary Lou Austin. Courtesy photo

Forty-five years later – after holding numerous USO jobs and traveling around the world – Austin is still with the organization, serving as president and CEO of the USO of Georgia.

“I guess you can say the ad made me curious,” she said. “The organization interested me, and the mission compelled me. … I started in January of 1969, and thus began my wonderful, meaningful journey serving troops.”

She’s been able to support thousands of service members and their families over the years and taking care of them has always been her top priority—and her favorite part of the job.

“We [at the USO] have unique opportunity to provide a myriad of programs and services to the committed and courageous men and women serving our country. … You see them in happy times and in times of sadness, but at the USO, you represent a living symbol of respect and honor for their service.”

Austin said she’s been fortunate to have had such a gratifying career, and even after helping countless troops and families, she remains dedicated to our spirit-lifting mission.

“USO receives many accolades and awards, but the most meaningful part is knowing that you truly helped someone in some way, through a program, service, or even a smile.”

USO Helps Woman on Journey After Marine Brother’s Death

On Nov. 30, 2011, Marine Staff Sgt. Vincent J. Bell, 28, was killed by an IED in Afghanistan. The youngest of three children, he was on his first tour of duty in Afghanistan after having served four tours in Iraq.

“He was the sweetest, most gentle, loveable man I have ever known. He was the love and light in our family, and every day without him feels so painful,” his sister London Bell said.

London Bell poses in front of New York’s Rockefeller Center during her USO/TAPS-sponsored trip to the Big Apple in October. Photo courtesy of London Bell

London Bell poses in front of New York’s Rockefeller Center during her USO/TAPS-sponsored trip to the Big Apple in October. Photo courtesy of London Bell

In October, Bell was approaching the anniversary of her brother’s 2011 death in Afghanistan when the USO and Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) offered her a chance to take a trip with others who lost siblings to war. Weeks later, she was making unexpected friends in Manhattan. She was also finding out that she wasn’t alone.

“I started out on the journey as a lone traveler, but I left meeting several people who were really just like me,” Bell said. “It was a good way for me to bond.”

Bell lives in Chicago and relies on TAPS retreats for emotional assurance that is critical to brothers and sisters who lost so much during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. On her retreat, Bell and her fellow sibling survivors were able to enjoy a weekend in New York City together, sharing stories, sightseeing and attending a live taping of “The Daily Show.”

“I feel that it is important that I continue to reach out to TAPS to find support,” Bell said. “I’m the only person in my circle of close friends who has lost a sibling in battle and it can be very isolating.

“I need to be able to share my story as a sibling,” she said. “I do a lot to support my mom and dad and my sister in their grief, but I also need that support for myself.”

She’s learned a lot about life since Vincent died and wants to be a support to other siblings.

“I can be an ear, a hug and a friend to other sibling survivors, and I want to be able to do that for others on this journey.”

NFL Stars Jimmy Graham, Pierre Garcon and Brandon Fields Visit Troops in the Middle East on USO Tour 

While the official NFL season ended in February, a trio of professional football players continued the tradition of traveling to the Middle East for an offseason USO tour. New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham, Washington Redskins receiver Pierre Garcon and Miami Dolphins punter Brandon Fields met up with U.S. troops downrange.

From left to right, NFL stars Brandon Fields, Jimmy Graham and Pierre Garcon pose for a photo with troops during their USO tour to the Middle East in March. USO photo by Dave Gatley

From left to right, NFL stars Brandon Fields, Jimmy Graham and Pierre Garcon pose for a photo with troops during their USO tour to the Middle East in March. USO photo by Dave Gatley

“This experience for me has truly been life-changing,” said Graham, who caught an NFL-best 16 touchdowns last season. “The personal connection I’ve been able to make is something that will be with me forever. I grew up in a military home and this just makes me more of a patriot. I have more of an appreciation for the little things we have back home each and every day.”

“The best part of this trip [was] being able to spend time with the troops and interact with them,” said Fields. “We are truly blessed because of the sacrifices that our men and women of our armed forces are willing to make.”

Publishers Clearing House Prize Patrol Delivers $25,000 Check to the USO

What would you do if the Publishers Clearing House Prize Patrol showed up on your doorstep?

Staff and volunteers at the USO Warrior and Family Center at Fort Belvoir, Va., were jumping for joy in January after receiving a $25,000 check from the Publishers Clearing House recent Facebook promotion, The Give Back.

“We’re really grateful,” said USO Vice President of Operations Glenn Welling, who was presented the check by the Prize Patrol. “This was our first opportunity to get involved with the Publishers Clearing House Give Back promotion, and just to be able to be recognized by the Americans who went online each day is awesome. For 73 years, the USO has been the connection between America and her military, and donations like this one will allow us to continue doing what we are do for another 73 years.”

This year’s The Give Back event featured three charities: the USO, ASPCA and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Fans were allowed to vote for their favorite charity once per day, with the charities earning prizes based on where they finished in the voting.

“We love being able to give back to the charities our customers care about,” said Danielle Bertellotti, assistant manager for digital marketing development at Publishers Clearing House. “Our audience has been very vocal on social media, and they have made it clear that the USO is a charity they care deeply about, so we are very happy to give.”

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An Inside Look: How 272 Volunteers, Dozens of Sponsors and 14 Celebrities Helped the USO Make Dreams Come True for Military Teens

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NEW YORK—When fashion designer Sherri Hill donated hundreds of thousands of dollars in prom dresses to military teens, volunteers and sponsors from around the nation stepped up to make the event as special as possible.

How many exactly?

Two hundred seventy-two volunteers donated 4,294 hours of their time, and dozens of sponsors – including  cash sponsors like CNN – donated goods and services totaling $750,000 to make the New York City version of USO Operation: That’s My Dress a success.

Forty-five Miss USA and Miss Teen USA contestants flew into Manhattan on their own dime to model the dresses in a runway show produced by the USO and TAJ Events with music by celebrity DJ Marlon Bizzy. The models also served as stylists, assisting teens in picking out the perfect prom dress and fashion jewelry.

Fourteen celebrities carved time out of their schedules to make appearances, including Sadie and Korie Robertson from “Duck Dynasty” and the reigning Miss USA Erin Brady. A dozen hair stylists and make-up artists from L’Oreal USA plus jewelry donations from Fashion Delivers helped the teens glow and glitter. And local donors like UHAUL, MTV, Neapolitan Pizza, Au Bon Pain Catering, Indelible Impact and venue managers like the Paramount Hotel and The Marriott Marquis New York helped to make the day’s event possible.

The event couldn’t have been secure without New York’s Empire Shield Task Force. And Tukaiz Marketing Services made sure it had the same look as a New York Fashion Week event.

And of course there was Hill – who has been part of every USO Operation: That’s My Dress to date and has donated more than $1 million in apparel all-time to the events.

“The support we receive from our corporate partners sends a resounding message of gratitude and appreciation to military families for their service and sacrifices,” said Brian Whiting, CEO of USO of Metropolitan New York. “This program would not be possible without the generous support of Sherri Hill and an incredible group of volunteers that traveled from more than 25 states to be with us at the event.”

It takes a village to raise a child, but takes a nation of volunteers and corporate sponsors to support and care for the children of our men and women in uniform.

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Volunteer Story Contest Winner Helped Create a Special Homecoming Surprise for Her Daughter at USO Tampa Bay

The USO asked its volunteers to send us their stories. And while we received a ton of great entries, we’re declaring Christa Summers of USO Tampa Bay as the winner of our National Volunteer Week story contest. Here’s her USO Moment:

EMC_logoI have been a volunteer for the USO Tampa Bay since we moved and my husband was deployed. I have attended homecomings for many soldiers and sailors, joyfully welcoming them back while knowing my daughter and I had to wait even longer until my husband came home. When it was finally our turn, USO Tampa Bay helped me surprise my 11-year-old daughter in a huge way.

My daughter knew I welcomed home soldiers with the USO, but she’d never attended, so I asked if she wanted to see what it was like this time. She was excited. I told her we were going to welcome one soldier in particular because he didn’t have any family that would be there. When we arrived, there was a big crowd of USO volunteers holding signs dressed in red, white and blue. As we waited, a reporter walked up and asked what we were waiting for and my daughter explained the situation. The reporter asked her some questions about why she would come for a welcome home for some one she didn’t know. She said that she didn’t want him to feel left out without family there. So it was a complete surprise to my daughter when it was my husband that walked out of the terminal. All of the USO volunteers yelled in celebration at our family reunion.

I’m so thankful for that wonderful moment and for the people at the USO Tampa Bay for their support.

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The Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families Tour is Off and Running

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The Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families kicked off April 4 with a pair of performances for more than 870 military family members at Scott Air Force Base, Ill.

Grover, Cookie Monster, Rosita and their newest friend, Katie – a specially-created character who is a child from a military family that’s moving to a new place - preformed during the 30-minute show. The characters enthusiastically thanked the military families in attendance and shared messages of support and encouragement for children, who have to deal with frequent moves and unique stressors because of their parents’ profession.

The tour is currently heading southeast, with performances at Fort Knox, Ky., Fort Campbell, Ky., and three shows at Fort Bragg, N.C., in the next 10 days. Check out the tour schedule.

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USO Volunteer Stories: Read the 4 Runners-Up From Our Contest

We asked and they delivered.

The USO put a call out to our volunteers to send us their best USO stories. As part of celebrating National Volunteer Week, here are four fantastic stories from Fort Campbell, Ky., USO New England, USO Northwest (in Seattle) and USO Hawaii that we selected as the runners up.

Check back here Friday to see the winner.

Barbara Lemieux, USO New England (Logan Airport center)

I work in retail. One day, a customer approached me and asked me to help her with an item. She seemed very nice. Very pretty, petite, pleasant and dressed very professionally. I had no doubt she must be in town on a very important business trip for a company with which she surely must be highly ranked.

I spend quite a few minutes with her but eventually we found the item she needed. I escorted her to the register and had one of the sales associates ring her up. Just as she was paying, another associate came up to me and asked me if it was my day to leave early to go volunteer at the USO. I told her it was. The customer’s ears perked up when she heard the USO mentioned. She asked me if I worked with the USO. I told her I volunteered at the Logan Airport Center. Her mouth dropped open and then she proceeded to tell me her experiences with the USO.

She told me how the USO helped her when she was designated to retrieve her father’s body. He was, I believe, in the Air Force and was stationed overseas. She was very close to her father and she told me it was one of the toughest things she had had to do. She had a couple of hours to wait for a connecting flight. Being an Air Force veteran herself, she saw the USO sign in the airport and decided to rest a while there. She told us there was a kind woman volunteering that day. Even though they were both strangers, she remembers this woman making her feel so much better as she explained the reason why she was waiting for a flight. She was able to hold it together thanks to the kindness of this woman and brought her father’s remains back home.

Unfortunately, a few months later, as she was still grieving from losing her father, she was diagnosed with cancer. She was not given much chance of survival and was referred to a top-notch cancer center in another state. She immediately made arrangements to fly to the cancer center. At this point, as she explained to me, she was numb with despair. She told me most of the flight to the center was a blur. She again had connecting flights and decided to see if there was another USO center in that airport. Much to her relief, she found one.

Once again, she entered the center and made herself comfortable. She was greeted by yet another woman volunteering at the center who welcomed her and listened to her story and encouraged her to stay strong and keep her faith that everything would work out in the end.

The customer took a deep breath as she finished her story. Tears were collecting in her eyes. She thanked me for what I did. At this point, myself and the two associates at the register were speechless. She reached across the counter, took my hand in hers and told me she will never forget how the USO and the two volunteers that she had met had  such a huge impact on her life at two of her darkest moments. She thanked me again for all that I do and for all the volunteers at the USO.

She turned around and left the store. I knew then that, even though those two volunteers at the two USO centers may never know how deeply they affected this woman’s life, I was doing the right thing. My goal with the USO – other than having the opportunity to thank military personnel – is to be there for someone who may be far away from their family and could use a warm greeting or friendly smile.

As one of my co-volunteers once said, USO doesn’t stand for United Service Organizations. It stands for “thank you.” I believe we are but a residue of all the sacrifices that our military personnel have done for many decades.

Chris Palmer, USO Fort Campbell, Ky.

I was just a volunteer at the USO when one day I met the love of my life. His name is Gary, and I met him in March at the USO Ft. Campbell. I had signed up to work the evening shift that Saturday because our director had said that they needed a volunteer that afternoon. The shift started as usual, but little did I know that it would be more than just an ordinary shift. Another volunteer that day was a tall and handsome volunteer named Gary. We worked the shift together, and I knew pretty quickly that he was a special guy. Gary was an excellent volunteer that strived to lift the spirits of the active duty troops and their families. He took extra time to help them with whatever they needed, and we quickly realized that we had a connection. That one volunteer shift changed the rest of our lives. We are now engaged to be married in June of 2014!

Every moment in our lives counts. That one volunteer shift not only allowed us to help others together that day, but also put two people together so that we could help others together for the rest of our lives. I am very thankful for what the USO has done for us, and I look forward to making more moments count for soldiers and their families!

Jon Randolph, USO Northwest (SeaTac Center)

I was an airman stationed at the hospital on Goose Air Base in Labrador, Canada. An airman injured himself on the flight line and needed to be evacuated to the States. I was able to be the medic along with the doctor to evacuate the airman. We finally landed – no jets in those days, just a great big cargo plane rom Tule – at Andrews Air Force Base after a six-hour flight. The airman was met by the Walter Reed staff and an ambulance. We were then allowed to proceed on leave for the holidays. I took a cab to Union Station in Washington, the morning of Christmas Eve. I walked into the USO at the station. They were kind enough to help me get one of the last seats on the Baltimore and Ohio Capital Limited train to Chicago and helped me out to the  train. The trip was eventful At Harper Ferry, an Amish Family got on carrying baskets of holiday food and goodies. The whole train coach car was treated to a wonderful feast on Christmas Eve. I will never forget it. If not for the USO at Union Station, I would not have made it to Chicago to meet my future wife on Christmas morning.

Robert Gowan, USO Hawaii

I was recently providing ice-cold bottled water and cold pop to a group of 25th Infantry Division soldiers on the Big Island. One of them told me how much it meant to him to still see USO volunteers operating . He told me that as the wars wound down, many of the groups of citizens that used to greet them as they moved through airports had disappeared. But he knew that they could always count on the USO to have its locations open and available. It really surprised him to see a group of USO volunteers way out here on the coast of the Big Island, offering them something they really needed: ice-cold bottled water.

* Stories are edited from their original versions

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‘It’s My Turn to Give Back’: USO Las Vegas Volunteers support Air Force Trials for Warrior Games

LAS VEGAS–More than 100 participants and onlookers screamed their support for their fellow wounded warriors racing in the pool Monday at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. And standing on the periphery of the Buchanan Natatorium were six USO volunteers waiting to help however they could.

“They have a deep appreciation and passion for serving the military,” USO Las Vegas Center Director Jennifer Earl said.

The USO is celebrating National Volunteer Week at our 160-plus locations worldwide. But even as we honor the volunteers who fuel our organization, they continue to give back to America’s service members. USO Las Vegas volunteers are supporting the Air Force Trials all week, which is the competition the service branch uses to select its entrants to this fall’s Warrior Games.