Marine Rides Shotgun with NASCAR Star Jeff Gordon on USO Trip

Growing up in Holland, Mich., Cory Gritter almost always spent Sunday afternoons with his father in front of the television, watching stock cars tear around oval tracks at ridiculous speeds.

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Marine Sgt. Cory Gritter rides shotgun with Jeff Gordon along Las Vegas Boulevard during NASCAR Victory Lap on Thursday. Gritter is part of a group of a group of recovering troops brought to Las Vegas by the USO to participate in NASCAR’s Champions Week festivities. Photo courtesy of Trent Staley/NASCAR

Gritter’s favorite was the No. 24 piloted by Jeff Gordon, perhaps NASCAR’s most polarizing driver.

Years later and nearly 1,900 miles away, Gritter was riding shotgun Thursday when he looked to his left and Gordon — his racing idol — looked back and smiled.

“You might want to put your head back,” Gordon told him, “or you’re gonna get whiplash.”

With that, Gordon turned loose the 865 horses beneath the hood of his DuPont Chevrolet and spun into a burnout in the middle of the Las Vegas Strip, sending smoke rising over the asphalt and palm trees.

“That was probably the coolest thing I’ve ever done,” Gritter said afterward, still beaming. “I’ve got to thank the USO for bringing us out here. This is amazing.”

Gritter is now a sergeant in the Marine Corps, serving in a wounded warrior battalion at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., where he’s receiving treatment for injuries caused by an improvised explosive device attack in Afghanistan in 2009.

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Jeff Gordon, with Marine Sgt. Cory Gritter on board, does a burnout on Las Vegas Boulevard during NASCAR Victory Lap on Thursday. Photo courtesy of Trent Staley/NASCAR

He is part of a group of wounded service members from Bethesda and Fort Belvoir, Va., brought to Las Vegas by the USO to participate in NASCAR’s Champions Week celebration. Thursday’s event, dubbed NASCAR Victory Lap, included the top 12 drivers in the Sprint Cup points standings parading their cars up and down Las Vegas Boulevard and doing burnouts at either end of the route as thousands of fans cheered from the roadside and from pedestrian bridges above the street. Gritter’s fellow troops looked down from atop a double-decker bus riding with the convoy of stock cars.

Gritter was singled out because he is the biggest NASCAR fan in the group. When Gordon heard that he is Gritter’s favorite driver, the four-time champion eagerly agreed to bring the Marine along for the ride. Gordon even handed off his iPhone to Gritter so he could snap photos and document the experience.

The outing is part of the USO’s Warrior and Family Care initiative and was coordinated by the USO of Metropolitan Washington. It is actually Gritter’s second Las Vegas trip with the USO, though the first involved more relaxation and less adrenaline.

“This was cool,” Gritter said. “My dad would love this. I can’t wait to tell him about it.”

—By Derek Turner, USO Senior Editor

Recovering Troops Get Dressed in Style for NASCAR Event

A plane carrying a group of combat-tested service members touched down in the desert on Wednesday morning.

Spc. Cleber Ferreira shows off the tuxedo he’ll wear Friday to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Awards Ceremony in Las Vegas. Ferreira is part of a group of recovering troops and their guests who traveled with the USO to Las Vegas for NASCAR’s Champions Week festivities. USO photo by Samuel Zelaya

Then it was time to suit up.

“Oh, man, I want the red one,” said Spc. Cleber Ferreira as he spotted the jacket. “Nah, I’ll go traditional. Like James Bond.”

The desert is Vegas. Suiting up meant getting fitted for tuxedos and gowns.

Ferreira — who suffered back, leg and head injuries when 400 pounds of explosives detonated beneath his Stryker vehicle in Afghanistan in 2010 — is part of a group of more than a dozen wounded warriors and their guests visiting Las Vegas with the USO to take part in NASCAR’s Champions Week celebration. On Thursday, they were to sit atop a double-decker bus and lead a parade of stock cars down Las Vegas Boulevard, better known as The Strip. Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski will perform a celebratory burnout and race teams will conduct pit stops in front of the Bellagio’s famed fountains.

On Friday, it’ll be time to break out the formalwear for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Awards Ceremony at the Wynn, a swanky gala where, between performances from celebrity entertainers, NASCAR will honor the top 10 finishers in the points standings.

Marine Sgt. Cory Gritter gets measured Wednesday for a tuxedo to wear to NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series Awards Ceremony on Friday in Las Vegas. USO photo by Samuel Zelaya

The wounded warriors — on a break from recovering at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, or Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland — were looking sharp during their trial run Wednesday at Tuxedo Junction and David’s Bridal in Las Vegas.

Lance Cpl. Nathan Jakubisin, whose right leg was amputated below the knee after an improvised explosive device attack in Afghanistan in June, initially worried that he might have to wear shorts with his tux because the pants wouldn’t fit over the metal fixator holding together his left leg.

“Maybe a kilt,” he quipped. “That’s a good idea.”

But with a pair of scissors, a little extra fabric and a sewing machine, the staff at Tuxedo Junction delivered a pair of custom-made pants.

And Ferreira? Well, he almost did look like James Bond. That is, if 007 wore a camo hat with his tuxedo.

—Story by Derek Turner, USO Senior Editor

Celebrate #GivingTuesday With the USO Wishbook

“We have a day for giving thanks. We have two for getting deals….Wouldn’t it be great to have a day for giving back?” #GivingTuesday™ is a campaign to create a national day of giving at the start of the annual holiday season. It celebrates and encourages charitable activities that support nonprofit organizations.

If you wish to support the troops and their families this holiday season, consider shopping the USO Wishbook today! With gifts to suit every budget, the USO Wishbook offers items to support deployed troops, wounded warriors and military families, priced from $15 up to $5,000 for extraordinary gifts. For $25 or less, you can purchase a care package that helps get a service member through the initial days of deployment, a kit to help a military child cope with the stresses of military life, or a calling card to keep a service member and their family connected.

A perfect gift for anyone on your list, help us lift the spirits of America’s troops and their families for the holidays!

Thanks for Thanksgiving!

Let’s talk turkey.

The basic annual pay for junior enlisted troops comes in around $25,000.

It’s on this salary alone that many are supporting an entire family. During the holidays, these dollars can get extremely tight. So tight that a traditional Thanksgiving dinner might end up “off the table.”

In Kaiserslautern, Germany, there is a USO program that has kept that dinner on the table for the past 14 years, and more and more enlisted troops and families are fed each year.

It’s called Thanks for Thanksgiving, and this year it fed a record 600 junior enlisted and their families!

Junior enlisted troops were individually selected based on their family size and financial needs to receive a full Thanksgiving dinner, complete with stuffing, cranberry sauce, and even a movie to watch with the family. USO photo

“It’s the USO’s way of saying “Thank You” for their service during these past years of multiple deployments, long separations of families, and to assist in taking some of the financial stress off their shoulders,” wrote Colleen Lynch, USO Kaiserslautern Area Operations Manager in an email reporting the program’s most successful year to date.

Each year, on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, the USO partners with Army Community Services, the Vogelweh Commissary, and several other community organizations to provide a full, traditional Thanksgiving meal to deserving junior enlisted service members and their families.
According to USO Europe, this year’s dinner was also the most generous to date.

Of course, the meal included a sizeable turkey. But in addition, troops received a grocery bag with two boxes of stuffing mix, two cans of green beans, two cans of cranberry sauce, a can of sweet potatoes, pumpkin pie, dinner rolls, a can of fruit, a box of hot chocolate mix, 12 Nestle ice cream sandwiches, and a Stars and Stripes newspaper and calendar.

Senior enlisted leadership from each participating unit and the Sergeants Major Association worked together to assemble the bags for their troops at 7 a.m., prior to the first families arriving.

“The program is really about seniors caring for juniors,” said Michael Lewis, Director of Operations for USO Europe. “They personally prepared the bags and personally delivered the groceries to their troops, along with a heartfelt ‘Happy Thanksgiving.’”

The USO mobile canteen was on site serving breakfast burritos, coffee, hot chocolate, hot cider and orange juice, and commissary employees cooked eggs and sausage non-stop from 5:30 am until the end to keep the canteen supplied.

Service Credit Union came through with $25,000 worth of in-kind donations to support the program, including a $25 Visa gift card for each of the families. Once families received their dinner they had the opportunity to select a DVD for each family thanks to Disney and the USO.

“I believe that we have achieved our goal beyond our expectations this year thanks to everyone involved,” wrote Lynch. “On behalf of the USO I would like to express our thanks to each and every one of you involved for making this event so successful and I look forward to continuing the tradition next year! – Story by Joseph Andrew Lee, USO Staff Writer

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Tell Our Troops “Thanks!”

Our troops serve with great honor and unparalleled bravery. They ask for little in return — just to know America is behind them and supporting their efforts.

You can show your support by leaving a brief message of thanks to our brave servicemen and women at our Thanks From Everywhere map. Just a few words of support from you will make a real difference to our troops.

Please take a moment to add your personal message and say “Thanks From Everywhere” to our troops. 

Thanks From Everywhere is a special way to let our troops know you’ve got their backs and you deeply appreciate their service.

When you add your message, we’ll post it to the interactive map. Your message of support — along with thousands of others — will be available for our troops to enjoy throughout the holidays.

From now until Thanksgiving, we hope to fill up the Thanks From Everywhere map with notes from every hometown across the country.

Join the USO in saying Thanks From Everywhere to our troops. Add your message of thanks today.

Hour by hour, the USO’s Thanks From Everywhere map is filling up with messages from all over America honoring the service and sacrifice of our brave servicemen and women.

I hope you’ll take a moment right now to participate in this show of support. - Sloan Gibson, President and CEO, USO

USO, Sandals Grants Honeymoon Wish for Military Family

The happy family!

Jennifer Burnett married the man of her dreams.

After a whirlwind romance, she and Army Spc. Bryan Burnett rushed to wed in a courtroom ceremony in the spring of 2010, just before his pending deployment. The newlyweds weren’t able to celebrate with a honeymoon.

“Ever since then we’ve been praying and trying to plan a ‘real’ wedding with our families, but have not been able to afford it,” Jennifer said. “I was eight months pregnant when he shipped off, and it was so hard those first months as a parent without him.”

Bryan returned home after 10 months in Afghanistan to meet his son, Bentley, for the first time. But he’d missed all of the firsts. First steps, first anniversaries and everything else that goes with being a new father.

“It seems we have been in a rut since he returned,” she wrote in her submission essay to the USO in an effort to win a Sandals WeddingMoon vacation. “It would be a dream come true for us to have both of our families together to witness the renewal of our vows, and to see the genuine love we have for one another and our pride and joy, Bentley.”

The Burnetts were selected—along with more than 20 other military families—to attend a star-studded, interactive bridal experience at Grand Central Terminal in New York City. The event was hosted by Sandals Resorts and special guest emcee, Randy Fenoli, star of TLC’s “Say Yes to the Dress” and “Randy to the Rescue.”

The main event was dubbed the Ultimate Bouquet Toss, where the sea of military brides gathered behind Fenoli for a chance to win them their dream WeddingMoon, as well as a wedding dress and tuxedo. Maria Yates—who traveled all the way from Fort Dix, N.J., with her husband, Jason, a member of the Air Force—caught the bouquet.

For a brief moment, the Burnetts were disappointed they didn’t win the grand prize. But that disappointment quickly turned into elation when the USO and Sandals Resorts made their dreams come true anyway. Sandals Chairman Gordon “Butch” Stewart and CEO Adam Stewart took the stage after the toss and surprised all the military couples in attendance with the gift of a free honeymoon.

“Everyone went crazy,” Jennifer said. “It caught us totally by surprise. We were excited just to get the trip to New York City. Bryan had just returned from a second deployment to Afghanistan, so it was the first time we really got to spend any time together.”

The couple chose to have their honeymoon at Sandals Royal Plantation in Jamaica.

“It’s nice to see companies like Sandals and organizations like the USO willing to do things like this for us,” Bryan said. “There are probably so many other couples more deserving, but we can’t thank Sandals and the USO enough for this. You truly made our dream come true.” - Joseph Andrew Lee, USO Staff Writer