USO Fort Campbell Opens

Photo by @FortCampbell

A center opening is always a happy occasion for the USO. Today we opened the 142nd USO center worldwide in Ft. Campbell, KY, home to to the 101st Airborne “Screaming Eagles.”

There were brand new shiny USO signs, the ever-popular cups of coffee, troops, families, community leaders, donors and a Huey.  Yep, a Huey —  right smack dab in the middle of USO Fort Campbell.

This helicopter was recovered from a scrap yard at ft Campbell in 2010.  Thanks to the 159th combat brigade, Bravo Company  563D Aviation Support Battalion it’s now the newest, coolest gaming station you’ll ever see — and loaded with Xboxes and games thanks to Microsoft.

The 159th not only transported this helicopter, they also helped restore this UH1 Huey. Thanks to these soldiers, their labor of love will help lift the spirits of their fellow soldiers for years to come. – Gena Fitzgerald, USO VP of Communications

Sending Our Thanks

Hundreds of thousands of our troops will spend Thanksgiving and the holidays away from home and loved ones. At this time of year, it’s especially important to show our support for them.

Last year, thousands of people like you stepped forward to show our troops the support they have at home by sending messages of thanks on our Thanks From Everywhere map.

Right away, we started hearing from service men and women around the world. They wanted the USO’s supporters to know how much it meant to receive messages from their home towns and from all across the country.

This year, we’re partnering with the White House’s Joining Forces initiative to send even more words of hope, encouragement and support. We need your help to make it happen. Each message means so much to our troops, so please show them you care!

Add your personal message to our “Thanks From Everywhere” map, so our troops can feel your support no matter where they are.

Your note of encouragement can reach our troops and touch their hearts wherever they are. They’ll be able to walk into any USO center and view messages of thanks from their hometown.

The debt you and I owe our troops is one we can never repay, but their selfless service can’t go unrecognized. And right now, you have the chance to show them your gratitude in a deeply meaningful way.

Post your personal message of thanks and bring a smile to troops everywhere.

Together, we can make sure our Thanks From Everywhere map is covered with heartfelt messages before the holidays begin. We’ll let the troops know that while they’re out on the front lines fighting for us, the entire country is standing with them.

Special Thanks to TEAM USO!

Over the past 8 weeks, TEAM USO participants have raised $71,000 for the USO2GO Challenge. Your support is truly felt around the world! You’ve written letters, held events and run marathons. You’ve made it happen all to support our troops and their families.

They feel your support and want to thank each and every one of you! Here are just a few notes that we’ve received expressing their gratitude for your efforts:

“… If you’ve ever had a bad day and wondered why you are doing your job, well you should of seen how much horse shoes and bean bag chairs made them feel so happy after they watched their friend die. Keep up the great work and thanks again for helping my men get through this with a little hug from home.”

Troops enjoying items from USO2GO shipments

“Wow!! You guys at the USO are truly blessing from GOD, we received some items today and the look on the soldiers’ faces as they help unload the truck was worth more than words could describe. We have TV’s and we are now waiting for a few more items to arrive and we will have a Grand Opening and will send tons of pictures. I really can’t thank you enough.”

Troops enjoying items from USO2GO shipments

“Soldiers utilized the empty USO boxes and created their own version of Iron Man, we also had a karaoke contest, and an X-Box 360 tournament. Little things like this is what keep the Soldiers mind clear before they go and do the dangerous job that they do. Just like I told you before our living conditions are not like the Soldiers living at bigger installations, but this USO package is a tremendous tool to keep the Soldiers motivated, and relax. Thank you for what you do.”

You make our mission possible to achieve.  The brave men and women serving our country are going to enjoy some comforts of home during the holidays because of your great efforts. More families will be able to hear the voice of their deployed family member because the funds you raised. More troops will have games and other ways to relax because of what you’ve accomplished.

Have a Happy Thanksgiving! – Tracy Tucker, USO Director of Fundraising & Development

Packers Fans Connect Through Pro vs GI Joe

Airmen at USO Qatar approach the camera to say hello to family and friends at the Pro vs GI Joe event at Lambeau Field on Nov. 19, 2011.

In Green Bay, WI, this weekend, the USO and its partners braved the biting cold, working hard to lift spirits of troops and their families. Through the Pro vs GI Joe and Purpose-Driven Rehab programs, deployed troops were connected with their families and their favorite football players while wounded warriors were also reintegrated into their hometown communities.

The air was crisp outside Lambeau Field, and the smell of Curly’s Cheese Curds and bratwurst was in the air as tens of thousands of Green Bay football fans swarmed the Pro vs GI Joe / Purpose-Driven Rehab trailer before the game on Sunday. They came to see their undefeated Green Bay Packers defeat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in week 11 of NFL regular season play, but they got more than they bargained for.

Green-and-gold-clad fans found shelter, warmth, friendship and fun as they stepped into the Purpose-Driven Rehab trailer – most not knowing what to expect. When they entered, they found a warm environment filled with wounded warriors like Marine Corps veteran, retired Cpl. Jeremy Stengel, geared up in Packers garb and sporting a giant, seemingly permanent smile. Stengel is not only a member of the local community, he’s also member of the Packers fan base, so these folks were hardly strangers. Green Bay fans quickly warmed up to him and the other veterans and began chanting “Go Pack Go!” and banging the drum of Packers success as they played video games and told stories of service and sacrifice.

Stengel’s perma-smile wasn’t there when I met him on Friday, however. His elation was directly attached to two key aspects of the weekend. First, he’s at a home game, amongst friends, carrying three-generation-old season tickets. And second, and more importantly, he had the honor of asking the woman he loves to marry him on the 50 yard line of Lambeau Field Saturday. Of course, she said, “Yes,” and he’s been floating on a cloud ever since.

He proposed just after participating in a landmark Pro vs GI Joe event in the atrium of the stadium, where troops at USO Centers in Afghanistan, the Middle East, and Germany were connected to their families, friends, and to four Green Bay Packers who volunteered to compete against the deployed troops in a friendly game of Call of Duty, Modern Warfare 3.

Brenda Gauerke says hello to her husband, Air Force MSgt. Peter Gauerke, with their daughters Emma (left) and Ella, right, at the Pro vs GI Joe event at Lambeau Field Nov. 19, 2011. MSgt. Gauerke is at USO Qatar.

Before the players arrived at the event, the live audio/video connection was made with four centers: Kandahar, Qatar, the Warrior Center in Landstuhl, Germany, and a center in northern Virginia. As local military families from the 128th Air Refueling Wing began to arrive, they each approached the four respective laptops to wave and say hello to their deployed loved ones at USO Centers abroad.

Brenda Gauerke was in tears when she saw her husband, Peter, appear on the screen. Their four-year old daughter, Emma, immediately but cautiously approached the laptop. She reached out with her tiny forefinger to identify a single airman. The moment her finger touched the screen, her blond hair whipped around and her face lit up.

“That’s daddy!” exclaimed Emma. Her mother could only nod and wipe a tear from her eye.

“I’ve had tears in my eyes all day thinking about what this means on all ends,” said Brenda. “For the home town, the Packers, supporting the troops, meeting the undefeated world champions, and all because of the USO and Pro vs GI Joe took the time to make this happen. I’m not sure if you know how much something like this means to us. This is what family is all about. This is what Green Bay is about. Thank you so much for what you do.” – Joseph Andrew Lee, USO Staff Writer 

Op Thanksgiving Eagle – “Brings A Beat To Our Military Children’s Hearts”

‎”Mrs. Fink–I loved your songs. Your beat is in my heart.” – Sammy, Kindergarten, Wetzel Elementary School, Baumholder. Father is currently deployed and in danger’s way. (The Assistant Principal led Sammy to me after the show so he could share his powerful words with me.)

Operation Thanksgiving Eagle at the USO Warrior Center in Germany

Be still my heart. Sammy and I then hugged, and had a priceless conversation about the power of music. Yes, with a five-year-old. I told him his words were the highlight of my day, and were worth traveling to Germany to hear.

The 450 students at this morning’s two performances at Wetzel ES were stellar. The principal, Ms. Simmons, and her assistant principal lead and educate these children lovingly and enduringly. Their students are 100% Army (so of course we wove the Army anthem into the script!), and over 90% currently have a parent deployed and in harm’s way.

Debbie Fink plays during the Operation Thanksgiving Eagle Tour at Vogelweh

As Ms. Simmons said (I am paraphrasing), “there’s a specialness to these kids. What they are dealing with is beyond the call of duty. They do their best, and are simply–special.” The assistant principal shared how she feels so privileged to work with them, and to help them with all their individual and collective needs. Looking at the upside, she shared that these are happier times right now, because the majority of their deployed parents are coming home before the New Year.

Yet, I wonder, how does it feel inside a child’s heart to see “all” the other parents come trickling home, when yours does not? Don’t we all remember a time when our parent was the very last to pick us up from school, or didn’t pick us up that time at all? Multiply that by a million, and that’s my civilian guess for how it feels. Add to this the possibilities that such a child might feel jealousy, anger, or resentment for the classmates whose parents DO come home. And top that off with those kids who then may feel badly or ashamed or embarrassed that this is how they feel, when they “should” feel happy for their peers’ long-awaited-for family reunions.

It’s comforting to know that these brave Wexler students are in a school environment that understands them, supports them, comforts them, and stands by them. It’s comforting to know that as Sammy holds the beat of our OTE performance’s music and message in his gentle heart, that he is in a space which will one day soon place drumsticks in his hands. May Sammy’s heart continue to sing; may his soul continue to dance; and may his father soon return home safely to swoop Sammy up and swing his son in his strong, heroic arms. – Debbie Fink, Acclaimed Author, Educator, Speaker & Performer

See more updates from the tour at Debbie Fink’s Facebook Page. Note: the child’s real name was changed to Sammy for reasons of confidentiality.

Life at the USOs in Afghanistan

I have been so fortunate to spend the last few days working with our staff and volunteers supporting America’s brave men and women in uniform serving in the Southwest Asia region. Some of my time was spent at the Pat Tillman Memorial USO Center in Bagram, Afghanistan and the remainder with my colleagues at the Southwest Asia Regional Conference.

After spending nearly a week in the region, I know that my friends and colleagues back home will inevitably ask me, “What did you learn?” I am having a hard time linking together words that will even begin to illustrate the challenges, sacrifices and rewards that those in the region experience on a daily basis.

People gather for some music at USO Kandahar

Evenings in Afghanistan bring an influx of service members to USO Centers in the region. The service members have finished their duties for the day and look forward to connecting with friends and family back home. My first night at the USO Center in Bagram I watched hundreds of service men and women connect with their families using the free phone lines and computers. The center was packed with people, but that didn’t phase the troops. Cup after cup of coffee was dispensed, more than 1000 cups that evening, as the men and women waited their turn for the phone or computer. For some, a place to sit and the free USO Wi-Fi connection was all that was needed to connect them to their lives back home.

The next morning we toted a large duffel of mail to the Post Office and unloaded package after package of United Through Reading’s Military Program recordings. Each package contains a very personal recording- a service member connecting to their child or children through reading. These recordings were all made in the past few days. The little hearts drawn in a rainbow of colored markers on the outside of one of the packages destined for Hawaii caught my eye. “Isn’t that great?” said Cathe Ganley, Pat Tillman Memorial USO Duty Manager. “She comes in frequently to read to her children.”

Playing volleyball at the USO in Bagram

The remainder of the day we prepared chicken soup in crock pots, handed out messages of thanks from the states, swapped stories and jokes and of course, served cup after cup of coffee. My time in the region, although short, taught me that every smile, every handshake, every kind gesture makes a difference. Thank you to those brave men and women serving our country and thank you to the staff and volunteers of the Southwest Asia region for helping troops stay connected to their lives back home and bringing a touch of home to some of the harshest areas of the world. – Andrea Sok, USO Communications Manager