USO Volunteers Walk 50 Blocks to Open Times Square Center after Superstorm Sandy

Joan Ashner always goes above and beyond

Columnist Erma Bombeck once wrote that “volunteers are the only human beings on the face of the Earth who reflect this nation’s compassion, unselfish caring, patience, and just plain love for one another.”

At the USO, we are lucky enough to have the commitment of 25,000 reflections of America running our centers every day of the year. Even on days like Monday—when a major storm was plowing through New York City—volunteers like Joan Ashner are willing to walk 50 blocks through the wind and rain to make sure the USO center is operational to serve rescue personnel.

“It’s really amazing, our volunteers’ commitment to duty,” said Ray Kennedy, Vice President of Programs and Services for USO of Metropolitan New York. “On a day when most paid employees are keeping shelter from the danger of the storm, she is out there on the city streets risking her own safety to get to work.”

For Ashner, this sort of thing is par for the course. She was named a 2011 USO Regional Volunteer of the Year for her similar actions when a blizzard crippled the city. She single-handedly opened and operated the Times Square center for five days to help more than 800 stranded service members and their families.

“It was a little hairy,” Ashner said of her walk to open the center Monday. “But we were told there would be service members on duty there with [Joint Task Force] Empire Shield, so if there are troops on duty, the USO must also be on duty.”

As it turned out, the Empire Shield troops were diverted elsewhere and the Port Authority forced the closure of the USO until this morning. Still, Ashner and other New York City USO volunteers returned Wednesday—again walking 50 blocks—to open the centers at 7 a.m.

“All our centers are open. God bless our volunteers,” Kennedy said. “They, themselves are living in neighborhoods that are flooded and are without power, but instead of dealing with their own situations they are putting the welfare of our troops first. We couldn’t do this without them.” – Joseph Andrew Lee, USO Staff Writer

Ride 2 Recovery, Project HERO Hold Training Workshop

Thirty-three representatives from Warrior Transition Units, Wounded Warrior Battalions and Veteran Affairs (VA) medical clinics came to Bethesda, Md., recently to participate in a three-day training camp to build and improve their respective Ride 2 Recovery cycling rehabilitation programs.

Project HERO (Healing Exercise Rehabilitation Opportunities) is designed as a train-the-trainer camp, where vital cycling skills such as organizing and leading rides, bike mechanics, maintenance, adaptations and safety and even bike building and fitting are taught to hospital and military representatives.

Project HERO National Director Barbara Springer said the camp aimed to empower local cycling representatives so they can promote a fuller, quicker rehabilitation for injured servicemen and women.

“These reps will go back to their locations and each will be qualified to start up a Project HERO program at their own hospital or unit,” Springer said. “Each will possess the knowledge and skills required not only to lead a ride, but also to help their unit’s healing heroes reach their highest level of function by using cycling as part of physical and psychological rehabilitation.”

Army veteran Marina Libro is developing a Project HERO cycling program with the McGuire Veterans Hospital in Richmond, Va. For her, learning how to fit riders for a bike and seeing how a maintenance shop was set up was the most useful elements of the training.

“I’ve got the people at the VA behind me now supporting a cycling program, but I didn’t have the technical knowledge or mechanical skills to make it all happen,” she said. “Now I know what I need to set up a bike room and I have the confidence to make it successful.” – Joseph Andrew Lee, USO Staff Writer

Grant a Wish for Our Heroes

Grant a Wish for Our Heroes is our observance of Veterans Day and serves as a way for Americans to show appreciation for the exemplary service given by our nation’s servicemen and women.

The USO lifts the spirits of troops and their families by providing morale boosts in many ways. Whether it is keeping deployed servicemen and women connected to their families or making a troop’s time in theater a little more comfortable or supporting returning wounded, ill and injured troops as they work to recover, the USO remains steadfast in delivering goodness to our nation’s military and its families.

Learn more about our programs and services and how you can help at USO.org.

Wyakin Warrior Foundation Guides Wounded Veterans through College, Life Transitions

The road ahead can be difficult to navigate for veterans who have suffered battlefield injuries.

While the Department of Veterans Affairs has stepped up G.I. Bill benefits, the logistics of getting into school can stifle even the most determined wounded veteran.

Most veterans struggle with unanswered questions like “What do I want to do now?” Or, more often, “What can I do now?”

They wonder how they’ll sit in a classroom while dealing with post traumatic stress, anxious about the movements of people sitting behind them. Or how they’ll pass midterms after staying up all night dealing with nightmares that linger years after war.

James Donaldson (bottom right) poses for a photo with five fellow inductees at the 2012 Wyakin Warrior Foundation Induction Ceremony held at the Idaho State Capitol Building June 21, 2012.

In Idaho, 10 wounded veterans have been inducted into a new fraternity that intends to assist them during this transition and then to walk with them for life. The Wyakin Warrior Foundation—a proud USO partner—is providing scholarships, mentoring, professional development, networking and career training for severely wounded, injured troops and post-9/11 veterans who are accepted into its program.

According to Native American legend, a wyakin is a spiritual guide that advises and protects a person throughout life. As a rite of passage, young Native Americans were taken to an isolated location where they would fast alone until the wyakin—often an animal like an eagle or a wolf—appeared in a vision or dream. This wyakin guide gave them insight into their next steps in life.

Retired Navy officer Jeff Bacon and his wife, Rebecca, started the Wyakin Warrior Foundation in Boise, Idaho, with the hopes of giving direction to a generation of wounded veterans returning from combat. Inductees receive a full, four-year scholarship—including room, board and tuition—along with job training, mentoring, and a lifetime membership to the fraternity.

“This is just the beginning,” Jeff Bacon said, “and we are so proud to have the support of the USO for this journey.”

The USO provides program support to the Wyakin Warrior Foundation through funding and outreach to eligible candidates at locations near USO centers in the Washington D.C., Metro area and San Antonio. The USO has distributed scholarship applications to the program to generate awareness of this unique and high impact program.

Bacon—who acts as the foundation’s executive director—says the government doesn’t always provide the help veterans need during college. Many returning troops have physical and emotional scars and find it difficult to function outside structured military life. The organization’s on-campus support network is designed to be like a military chain of command that puts veterans in their comfort zone to ease their transition.

The first group of five veterans was inducted into the program in August 2011. Five more—including 27-year-old double-amputee Sgt. James Donaldson, U.S. Army (Ret.), a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom—were inducted in June.

Donaldson lost both his legs in an improvised explosive device blast. Today, he studies information security and digital forensics at the College of Western Idaho. He plans to transfer to Boise State to finish his bachelor’s degree.

“My whole mission is to go to school and to get a degree,” Donaldson said. “Everything else, the Wyakin Warrior Foundation is there to help take care of, and that’s awesome.”

After spending months in a military hospital, Donaldson didn’t know where to begin. He knew he needed to find a job and he wanted to go to school—but that was about the extent of it.

“I didn’t really have my mind set on a career, and that’s where the foundation really helped,” Donaldson said. “[The Wyakin Warrior Foundation] not only helped me prepare for a specific career, but they also helped out with other aspects of life, like issues with the VA, social stigmas, and stuff previous wounded guys have experienced.”

The Wyakin Warrior Foundation even worked with JoS. A. Bank to get Donaldson and the other wounded warriors free suits so they could be prepared for their first job interview.

“It’s also nice to meet regularly with other wounded guys who know what you’re going through,” Donaldson said. “The program has a really personal touch that goes beyond what I expected. I was even connected with a mentor who was a personal friend of Jeff and Rebecca’s, so it felt really comfortable—like I was part of the family.”

Jeff Bacon has unique knowledge of motivation of wounded troops from his 26 years of experience as a naval officer and cartoonist for the Navy Times.

“These first 10 warriors will lead the way for hundreds and even thousands who will follow in the path they have forged,” Bacon said.

—Joseph Andrew Lee, USO Staff Writer

Proud to Support Our Troops Through the USO

The USO is lucky to have a supportive and giving Facebook community and we have an exclusive “thank you” to our fans!
In response to your many requests, we have created a limited edition, heather red “Proud Fan” t-shirt available exclusively to our Facebook fans!

With a generous donation of just $25, you’ll be supporting all of the wonderful USO programs and services that let our troops know we’re there for them — something that’s especially important this time of year. And as an added bonus, the USO will send you this free, limited-edition t-shirt to wear on Red Shirt Fridays – every Friday people throughout the nation wear red in support of our troops! That’s 52 times a year to show off your patriotic style!

With care packages full of the items they need the most, free phone calls to friends and family back home, programs and services committed to reintegrating our healing heroes and so much more, the USO is making sure our troops can always enjoy a touch of home.

Donate $25 for your free, limited edition “Proud Fan” t-shirt before the October 19 deadline!

Thank you for taking part in this campaign! – Vyque White, Director of New Media

Christmas in Afghanistan

I’ve been fortunate enough to visit our troops overseas and see firsthand what it’s like for them to spend this special time thousands of miles from the people they love most. I’ll never forget the selfless heroes I met. That’s why I feel so strongly about the USO’s Christmas Convoy.

With your help today preparing the way, this very special convoy — loaded up with everything the troops need for a much-deserved respite from the rigors of war — will reach our troops serving in remote and hard-to-reach forward operating bases in Afghanistan in time for the holidays.

It’s part of a larger USO effort to give our troops everything they need this holiday season. The logistics of such an undertaking aren’t easy. It takes time to put together. And to get the job done, we need to raise $100,000 by October 20th.

Will you join me in making sure the USO has the resources to reach as many troops as possible this holiday season?

The Christmas Convoy is especially close to my heart because it reaches troops in some of the most isolated front line outposts, where the small comforts of home are especially hard to come by.

It’s the centerpiece of our ambitious effort to bring a touch of holiday happiness to more troops than ever. And everything we do — from care packages, to free phone calls home, to special holiday meals — requires vigorous support from folks back home like you and me.

So I’m hoping the thousands of troops who’ll spend the holidays on the frontlines dreaming of home and family can count on your loyalty the way you count on theirs.

Make a gift to help make the 2012 Holiday Season a special one for our troops serving in Afghanistan and around the world.

Some October thoughtfulness from you can pave the way for wonderful holiday moments for our troops. Please join me in making this happen.

Happy (Early) Holidays,
Joan Jett