Supporting Military Families at USO Ft. Hood

Families gather to enjoy USO Fort Hood’s “Movies on the Lawn.”

There is a good reason the staff at USO Fort Hood know how important a sense of community is for our troops and their families.

Many of them are military wives.

They know firsthand what it is like to be away from their husbands and see their children coping with long deployments.

Their experiences have inspired the passionate crew to create two programs that help foster a stronger sense of community for the 46,000 service members and families at Fort Hood.

Their signature event for families, “Movies on the Lawn,” gives parents and their children the opportunity to enjoy a monthly movie on the big screen without the cost of tickets, food, and refreshments.

Director of USO Fort Hood, Robin Crouse, knows going to the movies is a luxury many military families cannot afford, and that was one of these reasons Crouse and her team were inspired to create the program last year.

Thanks to Crouse’s efforts, sponsors, and generous in-kind donations, USO Fort Hood is able to provide families a complete outdoor movie experience with popcorn, candy, nachos, sidewalk chalk, drinks, and more.

With so many components to this program, Crouse said it took some trial and error at first to work out the logistics of “Movies on the Lawn.”

But from the beginning, it was a treasure enjoyed by military families throughout Fort Hood.

It did not take long for news about the USO’s amazing program to spread. When the final movie aired last year, over 750 parents and children gathered to watch.

USO Fort Hood is excited to kick off their movie extravaganza this April, and they will continue playing movies into the fall.

Military children at USO Fort Hood enjoy “StoryTime”

While “Movies on the Lawn” has been a wonderful success for military families, Crouse says there is one program that is the favorite of moms with preschool-age children – “Story Time.”

Held twice a month in the 1st Cavalry Soldier, Family Readiness Center, this program serves 50 families each session and has become so popular that USO Fort Hood has to keep a waiting list.

Created for pre-school children up to four years old, “Story Time” begins with a small breakfast of muffins and cheerios for everyone.

Then, a special guest reads the story out loud to the mothers and children, who have books in-hand to follow along.

Once the story is finished children have an activity or time to socialize together.

Crouse knows from her own experience as a military wife, that mothers and children need an outlet, and time away from their homes to socialize.

For military families at Fort Hood, “Story Time” is more than just a way to promote early reading.

It’s a time for military children and mothers to connect with each other and establish relationships with people who are going through the same struggles that come with the military lifestyle.

Like the many amazing USO programs around the world, USO Fort Hood’s “Movies on the Lawn” and “Story Time” are a prime example of the USO’s commitment to supporting our nation’s troops and their families.

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For more pictures, visit USO Fort Hood’s Facebook page.

- Sarah Camille Hipp, Communications Specialist

Invisible Wounds, From the Battlefield to the Home Front: A Soldier’s Story

When 1st Sgt. Mike Martinez U.S. Army (Ret.) enters a room, most people might not realize they are in the presence of a two-time Purple Heart and Bronze Star Iraqi war hero.  A man who has sacrificed the ease and normalcy of everyday living for a lifetime of memory loss and hospital visits. And while he depends on the aid of a cane to stabilize his movements, it’s not until you start talking to Mike that you get a real sense of the extent of his injuries.

“When I got hurt, I reached down deep because I knew I was going to be sent home.  I did everything I could to stay with my men but I was ordered to go home and it was the hardest thing for me.  But I knew I wasn’t right and I’d be putting my men in danger.”

MSGT Mike Martinez speaks about the challenges he faces in L.A.

Mike may have left the battlefield but he is still in the battle.  Every day he struggles with the lingering effects of post-traumatic stress (PTS) and traumatic brain injury (TBI).  He suffers from severe headaches, extreme eye sensitivity to light, short-term memory loss and delayed speech.  As Mike points out, he’s not the same man he was before his injuries.  But he’s reached a point in his healing where he can look himself in the mirror and say “This is who you are, deal with it.”  And that is exactly what he’s doing, and what he hopes to remind other service men and women coping with the effects of PTS and TBI.  To do that Mike has set out on the road to help the USO promote our latest PSA campaign ‘Portraits,’ which strives to educate the American public on a struggle that faces more than 300,000 returning service heroes – the invisible wounds of war.

You see, Mike served two tours in Iraq and on two separate occasions he was hit by IED blasts, the second of which cracked his vehicle in half and caused the severest of his injuries, which have now lead to his treatment for both PTS and TBI.  When you hear Mike tell his story, as I did one night at dinner, there isn’t any anger or bitterness, no regret for his sacrifices or the challenges he now faces.  There is only a deep sense of dedication and pride in being an American.  He doesn’t regret his service, only that the injuries he suffered prevented him from completing his mission.

First stop on Mike’s journey to educate the American public was Los Angeles, California, which was also where my path crossed with Mike and his wife, Maria.  The USO hosted a screening of our PSA at the Creative Artists Agency for the LA community and the Martinez’s graciously agreed to come out and share their story. Like the 50 or so people who gathered to hear their story, I was more than moved by it…I was changed.  In front of a room full of strangers, Mike talked about the explosion that sent him home.  He recalled being handed a phone so that he could call his wife and say goodbye.  Everyone, including Mike, believed that he wasn’t going to make it.  Thousands of miles away, severely injured and near death he called his wife and told her, “It’s been a good ride. Take care of our boys.”

But Mike was lucky, and today he is a husband and proud father of three boys – two of whom are planning to follow their Dad into the US Army – and a healing hero fighting his way back to living.  While the wounds he sustained in battle may not have claimed his life, the victory of his survival is a bittersweet one.  The simplest of tasks are now much harder for Mike. He depends heavily on his family for their support, patience and understanding.  His wife is constantly by his side, reminding him of important dates and taking him to his many doctor appointments.  She understands that the man who came home from war is not the same one who went away.  And for that, Mike counts her among one of his greatest heroes.  While he knows he’ll never be that man again, he also knows that every moment he has with his family is a gift.

If you ask Mike why he does it, what drives him to share his story, his reasoning is pretty simple. He wants his brothers and sisters in harm’s way to know that it’s okay to get help, it’s okay to talk about PTS and TBI and above all that they are not alone.  And to America he says:

“Think of freedom as a wall and standing on that wall is always a soldier.  Americans should pray that soldier never falls.”

But the truth is sometimes they do fall, and an even greater truth is, there is always another soldier ready to step up and guard that wall and we owe them so much more than our thanks.  Our troops need to know that we are there for them and their families when they need us.

PTS and TBI are realities of war, and as Americans we owe it to our men and women in uniform to get educated and build awareness about this growing crisis. To learn more about ‘Portraits’ and the invisible wounds of war please visit us online at www.usoinvisiblewounds.org. It only takes a moment to acknowledge a lifetime of sacrifice. – Sharee Posey, USO Sr. Communications Specialist

Never Missing a Moment: USO Programs Help Military Family Connect During Birth of First Child

Chuck and Mel Hubbell. Courtesy photo.

Their first child was just one month out, and everything was going according to plan for Air Force Staff Sergeant Charles (Chuck) Hubbell and his young wife, Melissa (Mel).

They were decorating the nursery in pastels at their home in Rapid City, South Dakota. They knew a little girl was on the way. Her name would be Madelynn Rae Hubbell—Maddy for short—and she was already a daddy’s girl. At night Chuck would read her stories and press gently on Mel’s belly. Maddy would push right back. It was their goodnight exchange.

Then the phone rang. It was the 28th Munitions Squadron—Chuck’s command. He was ordered to drop everything and deploy to the Middle East in just three weeks.

The news was a blow to the young family.  In the four years the Hubbells had known each other, they’d only spent one Christmas together.

“This would be our third deployment as a couple,” said Mel, “so we were used to it. But this time it was different. Our family would be starting off without him.”

Less than a week before the baby was due, Chuck kissed his wife and pressed a soft goodbye on her tummy as he boarded a plane.

While on a layover at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, he stopped at the USO Center and recorded a message to his unborn child using United Through Reading’s Military Program.

The USO’s partnership with United Through Reading® gives active duty troops the opportunity to stay connected with their children. Troops read a book aloud while being recorded on DVD, then send the DVD and book to the child and family back home.

“In the last week before Maddy came along, I missed him so much,” said Mel. “When I couldn’t hear Chuck’s voice, I would play the recording. Maddy recognized his voice too.”

Thanks to a Skype connection, Chuck was there in the delivery room on the day his daughter came into the world last August.  Doctors and nurses passed Chuck’s floating head around the room so the camera on Mel’s laptop could pick up the action.

But that wasn’t the only way Mel planned to share the memory with Chuck. She didn’t tell her husband, but when she received the United Through Reading® DVD in the mail, there was also a coupon inside for a free photo album.

Through a partnership with RocketLife, LLC, the USO Photo Book program gives military families a chance to build and send their loved one a free, soft-cover photo album, small enough to fit in a uniform cargo pocket.

Mel took pictures of everything—from Maddy’s short stay in the Intensive Care Unit to her first bath, first meal and first outfit—all with the USO Photo Book in mind.

“What seems like every day things to us—your child rolling over or trying a new food—aren’t so mundane to a new dad 5,000 miles away from his first born,” said Mel. “Every event is a huge deal. They want to know about these things. They want to be in the loop and show their buddies pictures.”

Mel created the book online in less than an hour. Two weeks later, Chuck was flipping through pictures of the newborn daughter he’d never seen.  He took it with him everywhere. He showed everyone at his base in Qatar.

“Having pictures of my baby girl that I could look at any time… made my time apart from her so much easier to take,” said Chuck. “Technology is great, and while I was excited to be there on Skype with my wife through 15 hours of labor, that photo book put the icing on the cake.”

Staff Sgt. Hubbell returned from deployment in late February and met his daughter in person for the first time. She is now seven months old, and even though he sees her every day, he still carries his picture book with him everywhere he goes. — By Joseph Andrew Lee, USO Staff Writer

Madelynn Rae Hubbell. Photo by Amy Zochol Oyler of Legacy Photo and Design

 

The USO Family

Air Force Major Phil Ambard and his wife, Linda. Courtesy photo.

Air Force Major Phil Ambard was a family man.

“From the time he was a young Airman Basic through his commission as an officer 16 years later, he has been warmly greeted and taken care of at each USO,” said his wife of 23 years, Linda Ambard. “When we flew to Germany for the first time, we had five children under the age of ten, but we were made to feel like the USO was ours—that we were family.”

“This USO family has never meant more to me than when my Phil was killed in action on 27 April 2011.”

Her Phil was among eight Air Force officers shot and killed at Kabul International Airport by a 50-year-old Afghan Air Corps pilot.

Linda was left devastated and in a fog.

Their five children, including three Air Force Academy graduates and one who was attending West Point, flew to Dover Air Force Base from all around the world to meet their mother and repatriate the remains of their father.

The pain was so fresh; Linda couldn’t coordinate any of her own travel. She had trouble remembering the gates and felt dizzy navigating the crowds.

“At every single airport where there was a USO, we were each met by USO staff who walked us to our gate, brought us drinks, and who stayed with us the entire time,” she said. “They didn’t know us, yet they stood with each and every one of us.”

In Texas, while buying a magazine, she learned that all of her bank accounts had been frozen due to Phil’s death. The USO representative was quick to offer her some money, pay for her purchase and even spoke to the bank on her behalf.

“When we arrived at Dover, the USO came out with many volunteers,” said Linda. “Once again they had representatives for each of us. They allowed us to talk, make jokes—our family’s way of dealing with the stress—and they sat with me as I broke down yet again.”

Afterward, the family returned to Colorado Springs for the funeral.

“The USO ensured we were all seated together and near the front of the airplane,” she said. “This was no easy feat to get seven of us together, yet they did it for us.”

Eight months later, Linda knew that she couldn’t celebrate Christmas at home, so the family flew to Hawaii.  On the return trip, she and her cadet son spent 10 hours in the USO where their story eventually got out.

“The USO staff once again bent over backwards to make sure that we knew that people were walking with us and that we were still important to the USO family,” said Linda, “and I just want you to know that the USO was important to him and since his passing, the USO has meant so much to the Ambard and Short families.”

“He started as an immigrant boy,” she said, “but died as a man willing to stand up for the freedoms of all. He truly was an American hero.” — By Joseph Andrew Lee, USO Staff Writer

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Phil Ambard, 44, was born in Caracas, Venezuela. He didn’t speak a word of English when he moved to the United States at the age of 12. After graduating from high school, he enlisted in the United States Air Force as an Airman Basic. He rose to the rank of Senior Master Sergeant (select) before he was commissioned as an officer and then rose to the rank of Major before he made the ultimate sacrifice for his country.  He had recently graduated from Denver University with a Ph.D and his second master’s degree.

He is survived by his children Patrick, Emily, Alex, Tim and Josh, his daughter-in-law Karla and his wife Linda.

Welcome Home

A Rolling Thunder supporter visits a replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, erected at Charlotte Motor Speedway March 31, 2012, at the USO of North Carolina's Vietnam Veteran Homecoming Celebration. Photo by Jonathan E Coleman

“Welcome Home”

It’s a simple but comforting sentiment most Vietnam War veterans never heard when they returned from combat—until now.

On March 31, 2012, the USO of North Carolina, along with Charlotte Motor Speedway and the North Carolina Association of Broadcasters, hosted the Vietnam Veterans Homecoming Celebration.

“The USO of North Carolina’s Vietnam Veteran Homecoming Celebration at Charlotte Motor Speedway brought 62,500 people around the nation with one goal—celebrate the service and sacrifices of a generation our nation forgot to honor nearly 40 years ago,” said John Falkenbury, President of USO of North Carolina.

While celebration was the tone of the day, assistance and education were also common themes at the raceway.

National, regional and local Veterans Affairs assets, as well as over 100 military and veteran nonprofits provided health assessments, processed claims and educated veterans on organizations who were willing to help all veterans.

The entertainment line-up included The Charlie Daniels Band, George Clinton, Rockie Lynn, the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing Band, and the 82nd Airborne Division “All-American” Chorus.

Because many veterans have not had the chance to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington D.C., an exact two-dimensional replica of the Wall was erected in the infield to honor each of the 58,195 Americans who made the ultimate sacrifice during the war.

“We’re proud that we were able to leverage the USO brand and reputation, along with the North Carolina Association of Broadcasters, to accomplish one of the nation’s largest gatherings to honor the Vietnam warriors and their families,” said Falkenbury.

“Why now? Why not now?” he added. “It’s never too late to honor the men and women of our country.” — By Joseph Andrew Lee, USO Staff Writer

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