Disabled Veterans Cycle From Sea to Shining Sea

Sea to Shining Sea riders embrace in the Atlantic Ocean, July 28, 2012, after cycling more than 3,800 miles from San Francisco to Virginia Beach. USO photo by Joseph Andrew Lee

For the past two months, a group of 14 disabled veterans rode bicycles, hand cycles and recumbent cycles nearly 4,000 miles through 14 states—from Sea to Shining Sea.

They started May 28th dipping their rear tires in San Francisco Bay, before heading east on their cross country journey.   Through scenic Napa Valley and over the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the World T.E.A.M. Sports cyclists rode through Lake Tahoe and endured 100-plus degree temperatures in the deserts of Nevada and Utah before pedaling up the steep inclines of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado.

They toured America at 10 miles per hour, through small towns and big cities, experiencing the sights and smells of the heartland—a pilgrimage through the country to help them understand exactly what it is they sacrificed their bodies and minds for. They rode through the Arkansas River valley into Kansas, arriving in St. Louis for the Fourth of July. In each town and city, Americans lined the streets to welcome them. They continued east through southern Illinois, Indiana, Ohio  then south through Washington D.C. and Richmond before arriving at their final destination in Virginia Beach, today.

Following the cyclists for the entire trip has been a USO Mobile RV, on a mission to provide valuable field support such as water, food and shelter from inclement weather.

“The driver of the RV—Lou—was probably [one of] the most consistent and uplifting personalities we had with us along the way,” said Army Capt. Ivan Castro, an active duty Special Operations officer who was blinded and maimed by a mortar round in Iraq. Castro rides tandem with a sighted, civilian cyclist.

“We’ve had some tough climbs, some scary descents and some crazy hot weather,” he added.  “But every morning Lou is there to shake my hand, give me some kind words of support and hand me a cup of coffee just the way I like it. It’s the same USO I know and love, but it’s always here—traveling along with us. It’s amazing the way the USO can bring comfort to an otherwise uncomfortable situation.”

“We’re here to provide any level of support these riders might need at every moment along the route,” said Emily Flint, the Special Events coordinator for the USO who traveled in the RV for the entire ride. “One day that might mean handing out waters, sandwiches, or providing much-needed logistical support. At other times the USO Mobile is literally the only respite the cyclists have from the unforgiving weather. It’s been a grueling trip at some points—especially because of the weather—but we are proud to support the endeavors of men and women who have been injured while serving our country.”

World T.E.A.M. (which stands for The Exceptional Athlete Matters) Sports has organized all kinds of athletic events for disabled and able-bodied citizens, from mountain climbing to white water rafting, biking, and more. This is the second Sea to Shining Sea ride for wounded veterans, and the first which the USO has  co-sponsored.

“We’re honored that the USO chose to support our effort to recognize the riders for both their sacrifice and resiliency,” said World T.E.A.M. Sports CEO and President Paul Tyler. “Support from an organization like the USO means so much to this group of riders who dedicated two months of their lives to crossing the country they defended.”

To learn more about the day-to-day experiences of the ride and the riders, visit the Sea to Shining Sea website and read the daily blogs by S2SS Communications Manager Richard Rhinehart and ride director Mike Claver. — By Joseph Andrew Lee, USO Staff Writer

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Special Delivery!

The USO is preparing our next big USO2GO shipment. It weighs a ton — literally.

That’s because it’s filled with the comforts of home — items that can help our troops transform remote forward operating bases in Afghanistan into a place where they can organize a pick-up football game, play guitar, or just relax in a beanbag chair.

We need your help to make this delivery possible. And, when you send a gift, we’ll add your name to a huge “thank you” banner that will be included in the shipment.

Help send a special USO2GO shipment and we’ll include your name on a banner so our troops know how much you appreciate their service.


The USO2GO shipment we’re putting together is more than a collection of items our troops can really use. It’s also a huge “thank you” from a grateful nation.

And this time, you can play a personal role in delivering that thanks by adding your name to our USO banner included in the shipment.

Imagine how our troops will feel when they unpack the boxes to find your name and the names of thousands of other USO supporters on a banner letting them know their country is standing proudly behind them.

And every day, as they enjoy some of the comforts of home you’ve helped provide in this USO2GO shipment, they’ll see your name and know there are people out there caring for them, supporting them and honoring their service.

Give our troops a one-of-a-kind USO2GO shipment and we’ll add your name to a banner that will be included in the shipment.

I know how strongly you stand by our troops and I hope you’ll take part in this great campaign today.

Thanks for all you do,

Kelli Seely, Senior Vice President, Chief Development Officer, USO

Check In to jcpenney

You may not be too familiar with Foursquare, a social app for your mobile phone that let’s you “check-in” to different places you visit. But if you’ve been interested in trying it out, now’s the time – from July 23 to July 31 jcpenney will donate a $1 dollar to the USO for every “check-in” to one of their stores up to $50,000! That’s in addition to the $1 million donation they’ve already made to the USO!

Need to know how to get started? Download one of Foursquare’s mobile apps on your phone. They provide apps for iPhone, Android, and Blackberry. “Officially unofficial” apps exist for Nokia’s S40, S60 and MeeGo platforms, along with Windows Phone 7 and Palm. If there’s no app for your phone, you can check in through Foursquare’s mobile site or via SMS. Once you’ve set up your Foursquare account, head on over to your closest jcpenney!

To check in, open the mobile app on your phone and Foursquare will use your phone’s GPS to find your current location. Click the ‘Check in’ button or tab to see a list of nearby places where you can check in. If the place you’re looking for isn’t in the list, you can search for it or add it directly from your phone.

When you check in, you’ll have the option to share your location with your Foursquare friends and with Facebook and Twitter. If you check in without sharing with your friends, your check-in will be private and only seen by you.

And while you’re there, be sure to let them know you’d like to round up your purchase to the nearest dollar for the USO. The difference will be donated to the USO too!

Run for Our Troops!

The Marine Corps Marathon and New York City Marathon may be sold out, but you can still run in the nation’s biggest marathons with Team USO! As part of Team USO, you have the opportunity to fundraise and make your miles count for our troops and their families.

When you run with Team USO, the money you raise helps the USO provide our service members with a taste of home when they are thousands of miles away from loved ones. With so many deployed and far from home, it’s important to show our troops and their families how thankful we are for their service and sacrifice. The money Team USO raises goes to support USO programs like USO Warrior and Family Care, USO Operation Phone Home and Operation USO Care Package.

In return for your commitment, you will receive a guaranteed spot in the race, fundraising toolkits and support from a fundraising professional to help meet your fundraising goal, personalized training support and an invitation to an exclusive Team USO pasta dinner.

In addition, with the money you raise for Team USO, you get exclusive USO race gear as a reward for your efforts!

When You Make Your Miles Count for the Troops, You Get:

Amt Raised

Incentive

Included Team USO Singlet
$300 TEAM USO t-shirt
$750 TEAM USO Water Bottle
$1,000 TEAM USO MP3 armband
$1,500 TEAM USO performance running hat
$2,000 TEAM USO fleece
$3,000 USO canvas backpack
$5,000. American Flag flown over Afghanistan

Spots are limited for the Marine Corps Marathon and the New York City Marathon, so register now on the Team USO website by Friday, August 3! If you have any questions, please call 703-740-4939.

Join Team USO today to show your support and make your miles count for our troops! - Sarah Camille Hipp, USO Communications Specialist

That Others May Live: Crash Survivor Returns to Flight Status

Master Sgt. Christopher Aguilera, right, assists the only other survivor of the crash, his co-pilot, Capt. Anthony Simone, during the torch relay ceremony at the start of the 2012 Warrior Games in Colorado Springs, May 1.

Two years of pain, frustration and hard work has finally paid off for Air Force Master Sgt. Christopher Aguilera.

Known as “Aggie” by his personal trainer and close friends because of his affinity for Texas A&M, he was one of only two survivors of a deadly helicopter crash during a combat rescue mission in Afghanistan in June 2010.

On Friday, he received some good news:

“Due to MSgt Aguilera’s tremendous efforts in recovery and rehabilitation, he has received waivers to return to unconditional flying status.” – Air Force Capt. H. Leo Tanaka, M.D.

Just two summers ago the 35-year-old, El Paso, Texas native was a gunner aboard an HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter scrambled to evacuate a critically wounded British Royal Marine outside Forward Operating Base Jackson in southern Afghanistan.

It was the third combat rescue within 24 hours for his crew of the 563rd Rescue Group, and since the sun had come up it would be their first of the day without the cover of darkness.

“It smelled of a really bad situation,” Aggie said. “But when you are doing combat rescues you have to go in no matter what your gut says. Someone is dying and it’s our job to save them. These things I do, that others may live—that is our motto.”

The two airships raced into the heart of one of the most hostile territories of Helmand Province—Sangin—where the British had already lost nearly 100 Marines that summer.

As the two rescue choppers (known as Pedros) convened above FOB Jackson, the “two-ship” began its descent while Aggie’s bird circled to provide combat support. Everything was going according to plan until he heard the gut-wrenching ting ting ting of machine gun fire impacting the tail rotor of his helicopter.

The pilots and crew reacted quickly to maneuver the aircraft away from the base and the other bird before they lost what little lift they had and plummeted to the earth at nearly 140 mph. The helicopter burst into flames.

Flight Engineer David Smith, Combat Rescue Officer Capt. Joel Gents, Pararescueman Tech. Sgt. Michael Flores and Senior Airman Benjamin White all perished.

Six-foot-two, 225-pound Aggie found himself in a heap of shredded metal, fire and blood.

The violent crash broke his ankle in two places and his back in five. It fractured his femur, hip and tailbone. It broke four ribs, his jaw, sternum and collar bone, and it punctured his lung. His seat tore through his upper-left hamstring all the way up to his hip. On top of all that, he was on fire.

“I was sitting there basically waiting to die,” he said. “I could hear the enemy closing in, but I wasn’t scared. It was time to join my brothers.”

The British newspaper, The Telegraph, reported that a company of 90 Commandos immediately “crashed out” of their base in a desperate race against the insurgents to get to the wreckage first.

“When we got to it, the whole of the [helicopter] was in flames,” said Royal Marine Sgt. Rick Angove, one of the first on-scene.

After setting up a perimeter, the Marines—assisted by the crew of the second bird—pulled the two unconscious pilots from the burning aircraft just as armor-piercing ammunition began exploding. Five more Marines fought the fires in the fuselage and worked to free the severely wounded and badly burned Aguilera.

The pilot, Capt. David Wisniewski, died 23 days later with his family and his fiancé by his side. Co-Pilot Capt. Anthony (Tony) Simone eventually woke from his coma and is steadily recovering from severe traumatic brain injuries that have paralyzed the left side of his body.

“At first I was in denial,” said Aguilera upon hearing details of the crash. “I didn’t want to accept that I’d lost so many friends that day. About a week later I was watching TV in my hospital bed and it all hit me. They were talking about another round of amputations and it finally started to sink in that everything in my life had changed. I had lost my friends forever and I didn’t know what would become of me. I was crippled—both in body and mind.”

He endured more than 25 surgeries to repair his shattered body. A large portion of his left calf was amputated due to severe burns and he was finally released back to duty in a wheelchair five months after the crash. Life in a chair, however, was unacceptable for him.

“The military got me to the point where I could effectively transition from my wheelchair to a toilet,” he said. “But that wasn’t enough. I didn’t want to get kicked out of the military. I wanted to get back to my job—to get back to combat.”

After his final surgery in June 2011, he met with Mel Batterman, a civilian personal trainer at his local gym outside Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas.

“He was just out of his wheelchair—using a cane—and he barely had any balance,” said Batterman, a 15-year veteran of the fitness industry. She knew she had the ability to help him recover so she offered her assistance pro-bono.

“He’s a true hero—a personal and professional inspiration to me,” Batterman said. “He says he does it so others may live—and I can get on board with that.

“There’s no question his goals were ambitious considering where he started,” she added, “but Aggie has a tremendous amount of inner drive and a huge heart. More-so than I’ve ever seen. The guys who didn’t make it through that accident—he carries them with him every day.”

At the start of their training just one year ago, Aggie weighed in at a meager 180 pounds. The lack of muscle tissue and nerve endings in his calf meant re-training the body to tell what little muscle he had left to take over and function as if it were all there.

“Many people in his situation would give up or let their wounds define them,” Batterman said. “He never did that. He said to me, ‘This is my life, and this is my job—get me there.’ So I did.”

“If it wasn’t for her, there’s no doubt in my mind that I’d still be in a wheelchair today,” Aguilera said. “She took me from wheelchair to running. She saved my life. She changed my life. She did it so I could live.”

The first major milestone of his recovery came this summer, when he participated in the 2012 Warrior Games, a military Paralympics competition sponsored by the USO. He competed in the 100-meter sprint, 200-meter sprint, shot put, discus, seated volleyball and wheelchair basketball, helping to bring home four bronze medals for the Air Force.

Now, just two years after the accident, Master Sgt. Aguilera is officially “back.” His balance is no different than anybody else’s, and he even scored a 92 on his recent physical fitness test—considered “excellent” by Air Force standards.

He hopes to return to Afghanistan by spring of 2013, and this time he intends to finish his deployment and return to the States on his own terms.

“Returning to flying status will show a lot of the guys in the rescue community that no matter what happens—even if the worst happens—you can still come back,” he said. “It will give them confidence to know that there’s life after this. You can survive and you can go on and you can come back.”

- Joseph Andrew Lee, USO Staff Writer

Georgia Couple Rallies Support for USO

Jack and Pat Solomon, decade-long USO Georgia volunteers, at their home outside of Atlanta, GA. USO photo by Joseph Andrew Lee

If you are in the military and have spent any time at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, you have probably been hugged at least once by Pat Solomon.

She and her husband Jack–a graduate of West Point–are two of the many friendly, welcoming and warm couples who volunteer at USO Georgia. For the past 10 years, the Solomons have worked at least three days per week at the Atlanta airport USO, but more recently they have embarked on a new mission—fundraising.

Throughout the summer the Solomons will travel over 1,000 miles to visit more than 100 Kangaroo Express stores in Georgia, dropping off USO fundraising materials and engaging with employees to officially launch the Kangaroo Express Salute Our Troops campaign.

Involving more than 1,600 Kangaroo Express stores, the Salute Our Troops campaign is the largest grassroots fundraising initiative the USO has ever participated in, raising $1.3 million for the USO in its first year.

From Memorial Day to Labor Day, custom painted vehicles and decorated veterans of the recent wars will travel throughout the South capturing the attention of Kangaroo Express guests and educating the public on problems facing the military and military families.

According to USO account manager Kirk Parker, the campaign has been such a success because of patriots like the Solomons who literally go the extra mile to develop a personal relationship with Kangaroo Express staff and management of every store in their area.

“We do what we can do here because these men and women are doing what they can over there,” said Jack Solomon. “Our small contribution of time and gas pales in comparison to the sacrifices being made by our sons and daughters overseas. It’s our way of saying ‘Thank You’ to them for volunteering to serve. Not everyone can, and not everyone will. We must recognize and honor this.”

“She (Pat) is the biggest military cheerleader you’ve ever seen,” he added. “She absolutely lives and breathes the USO and the support for our troops. We believe that energy is contagious—it can be spread to the staff of Kangaroo so that they bring the same energy toward troop support you might find at an actual USO.”

“He is the reason I do it,” said Pat. “He and every other American who has ever served this country—I love them all.” — By Joseph Andrew Lee, USO Staff Writer

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