by Kevin Wensing, VP of Executive Office at the USO, for ASSEMBLY and the West Point Association of Graduates:
Duty, Honor and Country. Those words are the guiding principles for every member of the Long Gray Line. They also ring true for the USO, an organization established by President Franklin Roosevelt and Congress on the eve of America’s entry into World War II. These principles continue to guide the 22nd president of the USO, Sloan Gibson ’75. For Gibson, when duty, honor, country are combined they translate into trust, which is the foundation of effective leadership in any situation.
For the USO, an organization that is an American icon, trust is the key element that draws troops and their families to the 140 USO Centers around the world. In 2011, the USO will mark 70 years of service to America, and, since its founding in 1941, nearly every man or woman who has worn a military uniform has been helped or entertained by the USO and its thousands of volunteers in some way. Since coming aboard in 2008, Gibson and the USO have been working hard to adapt to meet the needs of today’s military and the “new normal” of repeated deployments to combat zones and to humanitar- ian missions around the world.
The USO was chartered by Congress to “lift the spirits” of America’s men and women in uniform. That prime directive still applies as the USO asks, “What, if we could do it, would be truly special for our troops and their families?” In the past year the USO has done a number of truly special things for our warriors and military families, from the front lines in Afghanistan and Iraq to places like Ft. Hood, TX, where the USO Center commenced 24-hour operations after the tragic shootings in November 2009. The USO is also with the families of America’s fallen every day at Dover Air Force Base, where a beautiful new center was built for families who come to witness the dignified transfer of their loved one when they return home for the final time.
Last year the USO recorded more than seven million visits and produced hundreds of celebrity performances, bringing smiles to the faces of our troops and their families. Recently new centers opened in Landstuhl and Grafenwoehr, Germany, Osan and Daegu, South Korea, Camp Sather and Basrah, Iraq, Ft. Carson, Ft. Drum, Ft. Bragg, Ft. Benning, Columbia, and Dover, and others, in places like Kuwait, Dubai, St. Louis and Houston, were renovated.
Staying in touch with family is the number one morale issue, and that’s why the USO provided more than one million free phone calls home from its new private telephone network in Afghanistan and Iraq, while continuing to distribute hundreds of thousands of free calling cards. Connecting deployed troops with their children is a high priority, and last year the USO sent some 50,000 United Through Reading recordings and books to military kids. Last year, 400,000 USO Care Packages and 300 USO2GO bundles, that in- clude entertainment and gaming systems, were sent to forward de- ployed troops, enabling them to set up their own entertainment areas.
The USO has focused on serving those who need help the most. At the very top of the list are those serving in harm’s way; our wound- ed, ill and injured, their families, and the families of the fallen. Today’s USO has delivered an unprecedented level of support towounded warriors and families through its own programs and by building strong partnerships with other organizations. In 2010, the USO will break ground on its most ambitious undertaking as con- struction begins on two new USO Centers, one at the new Army Hospital at Ft. Belvoir, VA, and at the other at the new Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, MD. They will be dedicated to serving our wounded, their families and those who care for them. These centers were inspired by the success of the USO Cen- ter at the Army’s regional medical facility in Landstuhl, which has won high praise from its users and from the Pentagon. The Army’s Warrior and Family Support Center at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, built with donations from the local community and gifted to the Army, was another model that guided the USO.
Gibson describes these centers as, “Gifts from the American peo- ple. Our wounded warriors and their families deserve our best.” Rick Cantwell ’75, President of Odell International and a classmate of Gibson, said, “Sloan is a close and trusted friend who has taken up the challenge of serving the men and women of our armed forces and their families at one of the most critical times in our nation’s history. The USO has made a remarkable difference in the lives of our troops and has adapted to meet the needs of our wounded, ill and injured and their families with the two new USO Centers at Bethesda and Ft. Belvoir. These centers will help those who need USO support the most, and at a critical time in their lives.” Cantwell added, “This ability to adapt to the ever changing needs of those who serve our country is what has made the USO a trusted friend.”
As an additional 30,000 troops surge to Afghanistan, the USO continues to find ways to do even more for those serving in harm’s way and for their families at home.
New USO Centers will soon open in Kandahar, Ft. Campbell, Ft. Riley, Ft. Bliss, Ft. Hood, Richmond, Phoenix and Las Vegas, with renovations planned for centers in Japan, Qatar, San Antonio and McChord AFB. The USO also will continue to send hundreds of performers and celebrities to let our troops know that the American people appreciate their service and sacrifice. The USO has always relied upon the goodness and generosity of the American people to accomplish its mission, and for seven decades it has had their steady support. The ongoing requirements of two wars and the pressing needs of our wounded and their families will require the USO to find additional resources to build, operate and sustain the new centers at Ft. Belvoir and Walter Reed hospitals and support other programs for our wounded and their families.
These are challenging times, and the support of the American people is more important than ever. Gibson says, “People often ask why we need a USO. Shouldn’t the government be doing all this for our troops? Well, the government does a lot, but this is different. This is the American people saying thank you and doing something special for our troops and their families.” With trust in the American people, and the trust of the brave men and women who serve, the USO remains committed to continuing the mission that began al- most 70 years ago. For more information on the USO and its programs please visit their website.