USO Honors Linda Parker Hudson as Woman of the Year

The USO, along with military and business leaders from around the country gathered to recognize Linda Parker Hudson, President and CEO of BAE Systems, Inc. as the 2011 Woman of the Year. Hudson and several female military leaders were honored for their leadership and commitment to country in a luncheon attended by more than 300 guests at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel.

Additional honorees included Rear Admiral Michelle Howard, Staff Sergeant Tannia Carter, Sergeant Sara Bryant, Seaman Judith Mae Boyce, Captain Wendy Sue Buckingham and Petty Officer Bonnie Lynne Wysocki.

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It’s an Honor to Honor

Many veterans have never been to Washington, D.C. to see the memorials built in their honor, but today a group of World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War veterans will finally get their chance.

The Honor Flight Network is a non-profit organization that provides free transport to our WWII and terminally ill heroes to DC to visit and reflect at their memorials. In 2010 they helped more than 22,000 veterans realize their dream of visiting their memorial!Many USO employees had the great honor of greeting them as they arrived in our nation’s capital. Along with Girl Scouts, college students and travelers, there was thunderous cheering and clapping the 99 vets entered the airport. While the Alexandria Band at NOVA played, warm smiles, handshakes and hugs were doled out. Pamela Horton of Metropolitan Washington USO said, “Many tell how surprised and moved they are by the airport welcomes.  They don’t realize that they are thought of as heroes.”

As Will Rogers said, “We can’t all be heroes. Some of us have to stand on the curb and clap as they go by.” It was an honor just to be there and honor those who served us!

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Vyque Elessar, USO Director of New Media

Finding Katie

After attending Wednesday’s rehearsal of the Sesame Street/USO Military Family Experience kickoff event in Columbus, Ohio, I was thinking about the genius of the Sesame Street developers who created ‘Katie,’ the new character who tells Elmo during the program that her military family has to move, once again, to another base.

Since the character says so much about what children of our service members have endured since September 11, 2001, I set out at Thursday’s event to find a real  ‘Katie,’ who is living the story that Sesame Street has so vividly created for military kids, as well as children who may not realize why some of their friends have to move away.  After about 90 minutes of searching inside the Franklin County Veterans Memorial auditorium, I came across little Isabella Haas.

Maj John Haas and his daughter Isabella, 3, wait for the kick off of the fifth installment of The Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families at the Franklin County Veterans Memorial in Columbus, Ohio April 14, 2011. (USO Photo by Fred Greaves)

Maj John Haas and his daughter Isabella, 3, wait for the kick off of the fifth installment of The Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families at the Franklin County Veterans Memorial in Columbus, Ohio April 14, 2011. (USO Photo by Fred Greaves)

As Isabella awaited the appearance of her favorite Sesame character, Elmo, her father, Army Maj. John Haas, told me that she had just celebrated her third birthday the day before the special performance in Columbus.  Maj. Haas and his wife, Dawnann, also planned on enjoying the day with their daughter, because soon, the soldier will be headed to Afghanistan, where he will spend 270 days apart from his little girl.

When I asked Maj. Haas what it will be like spending so much time away from his wife and child, he visibly shuddered, graciously deferring to his spouse to answer a very emotional question.

“We have the Sesame Street book,” Mrs. Haas said, referring to ‘Talk, Listen, Connect,’ which was handed out for free at the performance to help kids cope with deployments, homecomings, and changes, and also includes DVDs.  “We’re also making a cut-out of dad for her to hug, putting her daddy’s voice in a recorded storybook, and figuring out how to use Skype, even though he’ll be in an area that doesn’t have much internet access.”

In addition to Sesame Street, the USO, and the Joining Forces program, Mrs. Haas is channeling other important resources to help her and Isabella cope with the difficulties of the near future.  Maj. Haas’ three brothers are also in the military, and one may still be deployed in Afghanistan when her husband arrives.  Mrs. Haas said she plans to lean on her sisters-in-law, as well as another important force in her family’s life.

“Faith will get me through,” she said.  “The hardest part is Isabella — she’s old enough to know he’s gone, but not old enough to understand.”

When Katie explained to Elmo, Cookie Monster, Grover, and Honker that she has tough days ahead, perhaps little Isabella could relate.  Maybe by watching Katie, it helped Isabella realize that her daddy isn’t leaving because he wants to, or because he doesn’t love her.  It’s because he’s a hero, and this is what heroes do.

Isabella wasn’t the only ‘Katie’ in the audience.  ‘Katie’ is every child who has seen their mommy or daddy leave for a faraway land, or moved with their parents to unfamiliar places around the world.

A few minutes before the performance, Sesame Street and the USO gave little Isabella Haas, sitting on the lap of her soldier dad, an autographed picture of all the characters in the show, including her favorite, Elmo.  “To Isabella, we love you,” a character wrote.

For 270 difficult days, that picture will hopefully remind Isabella of a day she laughed and smiled together with her mom and dad.  With so much love surrounding this child, I have to believe that even better days are still to come.

Faces

What I will remember most about Thursday’s Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families kickoff event in Columbus, Ohio, are the looks I saw on faces of elated children and their smiling parents, many of whom were wearing military uniforms.

Sesame Street/USO Experience USO Photo by Fred Greaves

With multiple deployments and frequent moves already under their belts, and more possibly on the way, April 14 at the Franklin County Veterans Memorial auditorium was a day to laugh, hug, and even shed some tears of joy. Thanks to the supremely talented professionals behind Sesame Street, performers like Nick Jonas and Navy veteran Udo Maroscher, who sang the Star-Spangled Banner, the hard work of the USO, and the graciousness of America’s First Ladies, these military families were able to press the pause button on the stress of their sacrifices, if only for a few moments.

“Being deployed is part of being in the military, but it’s hard,” Air Force Master Sgt. Ed Ralston told the USO while sitting next to his nine-year-old daughter, Amber. “The kids aren’t always old enough to understand. My wife of 20 years, who has been with me all the way, explains to our little girl that ‘daddy will just be gone for a little while.’”

A new Sesame Street character, Katie, debuted on the tour, which hits Alaska next, to help children of U.S. service members understand the complicated realities that affect their families on a daily basis. Sesame Street’s efforts to create this unique symbol of post-9/11 military life, as well as the USO’s enthusiasm in showcasing the program, were met with genuine appreciation from special guests in the audience.

“This is something special that these kids deserve,” Stephanie Millender, wife of Army Staff Sgt. Thomas Millender, said as the couple’s excited kids waited for the show to begin. “I still remember all the birthdays my husband missed, but today, we feel blessed.”

The wife of Army Staff Sgt. Brian Newcombe, who deployed overseas in 2005 and 2008, admitted that they pulled their two daughters out of school early to attend the once-in-a-lifetime event, which was about an hour away from their Mt. Vernon, Ohio, home.

“Their teachers couldn’t believe they were going to see the First Lady,” Barb Newcombe said.

The euphoric emotion I saw on the faces of Mary, 11, and Megan, 9, were in stark contrast to how the children reacted to their dad’s most recent deployment.

“It was tough,” Barb said. “Our oldest stopped eating for a while and our youngest got mad, and just kept being angry while he was away.”

When I asked young Mary how she felt when her father got home from his deployment, she smiled, and nodded an enthusiastic ‘yes’ when I asked if it was the hardest she’d ever hugged her dad.

USO president Sloan Gibson called military children the event’s “VIPs,” and appropriately, they were treated like the most important people in the packed auditorium. Gary Knell, CEO of Sesame Workshop, joined Gibson in paying homage to our men and women in uniform and their children. Dr. Jill Biden led a round of applause for military kids, as Michelle Obama issued a call to support Joining Forces, the White House campaign to help loved ones of our nation’s true heroes.

“Everyone can do something to support military families,” the first lady said to loud applause.

Judging by the looks I saw on the faces of children and their parents on Thursday, Sesame Street and the USO are off to a fine start. Now, with those faces burned into our memories, the hard work of putting our military families first begins anew.

Joining Forces Rally with Sesame Street / USO Show

For the third consecutive year, the Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families – a free, traveling USO tour based on Sesame Workshop’s award winning Talk, Listen, Connect initiative – will re-deploy and land in 10 different countries. Officially announced by First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden, Phase V of the tour will kick off at a Joining Forces Rally today in Columbus, Ohio. We are now officially live blogging, be sure to refresh your browser window to see all the updates!

4:50 PM ET:
The lights have dimmed! A video with First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden talking about their experiences meeting with military families and learning about their unique strengths and challeneges they face. “Together we can serve our heros as well as they served us.”

5:05 PM ET:
They’re currently showing some USO PSA’s – you can watch them at YouTube.com/USO4Troops!

5:10 PM ET:
They just showed a great video on Sesame Workshop. 5:25 PM ET:
People are restless for the show to begin! Unveiling a brand new Sesame Street character designed exclusively for the USO tour, the show will also boast a new theme, a new set design and new music with familiar faces to connect with military kids of all ages. I can’t wait to see it!

5:35 PM ET:
Mayor Coleman is up on stage speaking! “I want to thank the USO, First Lady Michelle Obama, Dr. Jill Biden and of course Sesame Street! And this other guy… Nick Jonas!!!” I think all the adults’ ear drums have just shattered!

“I have a son … who was deployed to Iraq two times. We understand all the anxiety and stress families in this room face.” He’s speaking on all the great programs the city of Columbus, Ohio has for the military and veterans.

5:40 PM ET:
Udo Maroscher just sang the National Anthem, be sure to read about him in our post A Silver Star.

5:45 PM ET:
General Craig McKinley of the National Guard is now speaking. “I feel like Elmo’s helper tonight.” He’s talking about the great programs Ohio and the USO have for military and their families.

5:46 PM ET:
Sloan Gibson, President & CEO of the USO, and Gary Knell, President & CEO of Sesame Workshop, have taken the stage. Gibson is letting the children in the audience know how important they are!

Knell is speaking on the Sesame Street show and how it helps other children understand, “What it’s like being a kid in the military… What its like to be a kid who needs to move around, who has a mom or dad deployed in the military.”

5:50 PM ET:
Nick Jonas has taken the stage! He’s playing his guitar and singing and everyone is standing and clapping! On stage and singing with him is his friend Sonny Thompson.


5:58 PM ET:

Elmo has taken the stage!! Everyone is dancing in their seats, it’s the Elmo Slide! Step to the front, step to the back, and flap your arms!! Rosalita has now taken the stage with Elmo, and now Grover too! Lots of screams as Cookie Monster comes out, maybe more than Nick Jonas got!

6:05 PM ET:
We’re all singing along. First, the Sesame Street theme song, “Another Sunny Day,” which was written for Sesame Street Live.

6:08 PM ET:
Katie, the new character, is on the stage. She’s a military child and is talking about how her family has to move again. “It seems like whenever I feel settled in a place, I have to move again.” Elmo responds, “Friends can be friends, where ever they are!” They’re now singing about all the ways people can stay in touch, calling on the phone, writing a letter, sending pictures (“Or cookies!”) or chatting on the computer.

6:14 PM ET:
Rosalita is singing about her favorite Spanish word, “amigos.” It means friends!

6:16 PM ET:
Katie says she still feels better, but still feels blue. Grover and Cookie Monster burst into song about dancing away your blues. “Put on your dancing shoes, and say goodbye blues!”

6:19 PM ET:
Elmo is now singing about “things are always changing” and “change can make you happy!” If your family is always moving to new bases, it’s important to try to look at it as an opportunity for new friends! “Maybe moving won’t be so bad after all. It can be like an adventure!”

6:21 PM ET:
But it can be hard to be the new kid and make friends. Elmo recommends just taking it a step at a time and just say “hello.” Oh my, now Elmo, Grover, Cookie Monster, the whole gang have gone off stage and are saying hello to people!

6:26 PM ET:
Katie is now singing about being the best “me I can.” It’s about getting stronger and stronger, so you can achieve anything! Katie feels much better and ready to face this new chapter in her life knowing all her friends are there for her!

6:32 PM ET:
First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden have taken the stage! More cheers than Nick Jonas and Cookie Monster combined! “Michelle and I have come here today to say thank you to all the military and their families. Together we can join forces!!”

Michelle Obama: “We would not have this night without the USO and Sesame Street and our dear good friend, Nick Jonas. I also want to thank all the military kids and family in the audience tonight, you are the guests of honor!”

“This effort is about all of us joining forces as Americans. Jill & I believe that everyone can do something. Everyone can ask themsleves, ‘What can I do? How can I give back?’ If we all work together, if we all join together, we can serve our military families as well as they served us!”

6:40 PM ET:
First Lady Michelle Obama & Dr. Jill Biden are shaking hands with miltary families in the front of the auditorium!

The event is over, be sure to check out Joining Forces to learn more about this new initiative in support of military families. The live blogging of the Joining Forces Rally was brought to you today by the letters U, S and O!

A Silver Star

In the morning, Udo Maroscher woke up in his Columbus, Ohio, home. As he does every day, he looked on his wall at all the medals, including the Silver Star, that were awarded to his brother, who was killed in Vietnam in 1968.

In the evening, Maroscher, a retired Navy Lieutenant Junior Grade, will sing the National Anthem to open the Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families Tour at a community event in the very city he calls home. As a Wednesday evening rehearsal underscored beyond any doubt, Maroscher belts out the Star-Spangled Banner with even more authority than most, perhaps because he understands, through his honorable service and his brother’s ultimate sacrifice, what those precious lyrics mean.

“I try to sing our national anthem the right way,” Maroscher, 73, told the USO. “I fly my flag every day, and I’m so proud to be living here. Singing is the least that I can do.”

Maroscher, an ethnic German born in the famous Romanian province of Transylvania, recalled leaving his hometown “on a horse-drawn wagon through The Alps” to escape the Soviet Union’s iron fist. He became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1956, and like his brother, went on to graduate from Ohio State University and serve in the U.S. military. For his family, patriotism just comes naturally.

“I’m very supportive of military families,” Maroscher said. “As a naturalized citizen, I hope my patriotism shows.”

In January 1968, the Maroschers got news that all military families dread. While all they knew at first was that Maj. Albert Maroscher had been killed in action in a Saigon suburb, Udo and his family later learned the full scope of Albert’s heroism in Vietnam.

“With complete disregard for his personal safety, Major Maroscher moved through the hail of hostile fire along the street and deployed the personnel of the command group into covered positions from which they could place maximum effective fire on the insurgents,” the Silver Star medal citation reads. “The courageous leadership and the brilliant tactical knowledge displayed by Major Maroscher during the extremely perilous situation were greatly instrumental in limiting American casualties, and were a major factor in the successful outcome of the encounter.”

While the valor Albert displayed in the Army made Udo enormously proud, especially as he served in the Navy, his death was a crushing blow to the Maroscher family.

“It just about killed my mom,” Udo painfully recalled.

The vast majority of military families filling the the audience at Thursday afternoon’s Sesame Street-USO event, which will include appearances by First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden, have thankfully not experienced the death of a loved one overseas. Yet many of these families have dealt with the stress of multiple deployments and frequent moves around the country and the world. While Thursday’s fun-filled Columbus event will also include special performances by Sesame Street characters and Nick Jonas, Maroscher hopes his Star-Spangled Banner will start it off on the right note, especially for all the kids in the audience.

“I’ve been singing since high school,” he said. “I’m just fortunate to have a God-given gift that I can share with others.”

When he gets back to his house tonight, Udo Maroscher will have played a part in Sesame Street and the USO’s efforts to lift the spirits of American service members and their families. And when he looks on his wall before going to bed, his brother’s Silver Star will be shining brighter than ever.

Come back today at 5:15 PM to see the USO live blog from the Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families Tour!