USO Provides Internet Connectivity to Superstorm Sandy Cleanup Personnel

Troops unwind on four MEGS (Mobile Entertainment Gaming Stations) inside the USO tent at Floyd Bennett Field. Photo by Leigh Edmonds, Mobile Program Manager

Thousands of troops and emergency personnel are settling in at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, N.Y., for what may be more than a month of cleanup efforts in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. The USO is right there with them to provide support at the heart of what has been dubbed “Tent City.”

Army engineers are spending their days clearing debris from nearby streets and security personnel are pulling 24-hour shifts to keep the most heavily damaged areas of the eastern shore safe. But they now know they’ll be able to relax when they return from duty, whether its inside one of two Mobile USOs or in a 30-foot by 30-foot USO tent featuring food, entertainment and Web access.

The first wave of connectivity support arrived with the newly refitted Mobile USOs. These units have both 4G wireless and satellite capabilities that can provide more than 25 concurrent online access points within a 200-foot radius. Inside the nearby USO tent, five Mobile Entertainment Gaming Systems (MEGS) have been deployed as gaming and movie-watching stations. Additional laptops are available for use by troops and first responders who do not have their own equipment.

Nothing like a little football with friends at a USO mobile canteen! Photo by Leigh Edmonds, Mobile Program Manager

All this high-speed technology translates into some simple comforts of home for troops who deployed to New York City—comforts like Sunday afternoon football on the Mobile USO televisions or a Skype conversation with loved ones back home.

“When you think about getting deployed—whether it’s disaster relief or combat—the last thing you expect is to catch the game on Sunday,” said Army Capt. Keven O’Reilly of the 204th Engineer Battalion. “But these soldiers are out here sleeping in the cold in order to bring security and peace to a community under duress. To get something like a football game or access to the Internet, it makes being deployed that much easier.”

The second wave of connectivity support soon to arrive in Tent City will be a portable satellite kit and bandwidth provided by 3Di.

According to USO Operations and Internet Technology personnel, this unit will be located adjacent to the USO tent and will provide wireless access for up to 50 additional users, as well as continuous Internet access to the USO tent should the Mobile USO need to relocate.

“That’s one thing I love about the USO—they show up right where we need them most with exactly what we want the most,” O’Reilly said. “All I can say is thank you—you guys did it again.” - Joseph Andrew Lee, USO Staff Writer

The Little Champs’ Visit to Manor View ES

We stood among 321 Champs at Manor View ES of Fort Meade to talk about The Little Champs  – Child Heroes Attached to Military Personnel.  Thanks to the USO’s commitment to our Nation’s littlest heroes, each student was given his/her very own copy of the book; to have and to hold, to read and to reread.  Meanwhile, the students had read The Little Champs in their classrooms with their teachers before we arrived.  Their minds, hearts and souls were full.  There was a wellspring of energy and emotion: the school’s guidance counselor noted, finally, this is a book that is about them and for them – and honors them.

The Little Champs accomplished its mission through literature and music, reaching and teaching to multiple learning styles.  The story intertwines their stories, with characters to whom they could relate.   As one parent commented, “the characters are ‘real time.’  My kid takes it wherever she goes.’”   Its characters walk the walk, talk the talk, and ‘feel the feel’ ­– they experience the multitude of emotions that our Champs experience.   Its characters acknowledge their feelings, and deal constructively and proactively with their situation, learning more about their inner strengths in the process.  I like to call it building resiliency by building character.

 Among the feedback from teachers, parents, and the guidance counselor, the story   evoked “Aha!” moments, proud smiles, cathartic tears, grateful giggles, and sighs of relief.

One 5th grade teacher said:  “I want to thank you very much for writing such a wonderful book for our military children.   Fifth graders have a lot of emotions as military children, and they’re not always open with their feelings.  They’re not always able to express what it is that they’re feeling.  They may be angry or upset or sad.

“During the time we were reading the book, they were making so many connections, and having these ‘A-ha’ moments, and just really related to what they were reading.  I had one student who, when the book talked about the Champ whose stomach dropped when the dad was moving the family back to the East Coast – he had experienced the exact same thing.  The student teared up and said, ‘Ms. Ricker, I have that connection.  The same thing happened to me and my family, and my stomach dropped.’  It was an opening to talk about it.

“I really appreciate that there’s a book to help them express their emotions, and lets them know they’re not alone.  These feelings are okay.  It’s okay to be angry.  It’s okay to be sad.  It’s just part of what comes with having a parent deployed or having to move a lot.  It’s a great book, and was a great experience, and one that I really appreciate.

“My favorite part was that we sat cuddled up together on the carpet; the kids were sooo into the book; each kid had his/her own book that s/he could go through; they didn’t want to stop reading until we’d finished . . . it was such a special, warm experience for all of us.”

In addition, each child had created a personalized “I Am Me” card, that they’d then placed in a Champ Chest.  The Champ Chests were decorated by University of MD’s college students, covered with motivational comments, through Operation Champs.   It was quite special to see them place their “I Am Me” cards in the Champ Chests as they headed to feast upon the ice cream treats that awaited . . . another sweet USO touch to make this a most memorable, multi-sensory experience for all!

We walked away with full hearts, full Champ Chests, and the knowledge that we’d reached out and touched the hearts and souls and minds of 321 of our Nation’s littlest heroes. – Debbie Fink, MA, Author 

Service After Service: Paul Andrews

To mark Veterans Day, we asked some of our volunteers who have served in America’s armed forces to share why they give their time to today’s troops by helping the USO. Here is one of their stories.

Paul Andrews and his wife volunteer during the USO Fort Campbell grand opening last year. USO photo by Christian Pelusi

Way back in 1968, 20 days after my high school graduation, I was on my way to Naval Station Great Lakes, Ill., for boot camp and more than a year of electronics school. This was my first time away from home and I was in a strange place where I didn’t know anyone or where anything was. On weekends during school, several of us would go to Chicago or Milwaukee for liberty. The USOs in both cities were our first destination, as this was the place to find out what was going on in the city for the weekend. Also, the meals they served were mostly the only food we got. They were our home away from home.

Eventually we settled on spending our free time in Milwaukee and were frequent visitors at the USO and the activities they sponsored. As E-2s and E-3s in the late 1960s, we would not have been able to see and enjoy the things we did without the USO.

I now am retired and have the opportunity to give back some of what I received. Fort Campbell, Ky. and the military are different now from when I was at Great Lakes, as the members are older and many are married with children. Some things are still the same, as many troops lack of money to do anything special. Helping these folks and their families is a great way to support our military, especially on a base that has carried a heavy burden in the present warfare.

Oh, and by the way, I met my wife when she was a volunteer with the USO in Milwaukee. We have been married for almost 43 years and now both volunteer at the USO in Fort Campbell.

–Paul Andrews
USO Fort Campbell volunteer

Service After Service: Ron Collins

To mark Veterans Day, we asked some of our volunteers who have served in America’s armed forces to share why they give their time to today’s troops by helping the USO. Here is one of their stories.

USO Delaware volunteer Ron Collins

As an 18 year old who was new to the Air Force, I remember my first trip back home to see my parents. This was an East Coast to West Coast trip. Like most of us traveling, I got delayed when changing aircraft and was stuck at a major airport for several hours. What was I supposed to do?

New at traveling and on a strict budget, I wandered around the airport. As I passed a room in the terminal with a sign over the doorway reading “USO,” I remembered hearing about how the organization supported troops and their families and I decided that I needed to check the place out.

When I entered the room I was met by two of the nicest people. Both the man and woman were senior in years, but what smiles they had. They asked me what branch of service I was in, where I was from and where was I going. They made me feel right at home.

Even better, they gave me free cookies and soda. I say again: free cookies and soda! I was escorted to a place where I could sit and watch a movie while waiting for my flight. I kept thinking to myself “Is this how VIPs travel?” The time flew by and, before I knew it, it was time to depart. The two USO volunteers said goodbye with a smile and thanked me for my service. How nice.

I couldn’t wait to tell my parents back in Oregon about my trip, especially the USO. My dad, a retired Marine, explained to me that the USO is everywhere and there to support us troops and our families. In my 28 years of active duty, I got the privilege to travel everywhere, some fun places and some not-so-fun places. The one constant to all my travels was the USO. My dad was right: they are everywhere.

While on active duty, I did my share of volunteer work from squadron booster clubs to fundraisers. After I retired, I became so wrapped up in establishing my new career that I had no time to spare. But after my first few years of military retirement, I found myself longing for an opportunity to get involved—to volunteer for something worthy and give back a little of the blessings I have received. My first thought was of those two people at the airport USO lounge those many years ago and how welcome they made me feel. What better thing to do than to volunteer with the USO, an organization dedicated to supporting our troops and their families?

I have been blessed to work with an awesome group of USO volunteers, all of whom are always looking for how can we better support our troops and their families. As I volunteer for events or at the USO lounge at the Dover Air Force Base passenger terminal, I am taken back by all the stories I hear from the troops, their families, the retirees and the other volunteers. I couldn’t imagine not giving some of my personal time to support such a great organization.

—Ron Collins
USO Delaware volunteer

Service After Service: Martin Van der Hoek

To mark Veterans Day, we asked some of our volunteers who have served in America’s armed forces to share why they give their time to today’s troops by helping the USO. Here is one of their stories.

USO South Carolina volunteer Army Capt. Martin Van der Hoek

As a service member who has had to opportunity to see the USO in action both at home and overseas, I don’t think that I can ever speak (or write) enough to emphasize the importance and selflessness of the USO and all of its volunteers.

I recall the comfort and sense of home and community that the USO was able to provide to myself and fellow soldiers. Because of this, I find that it is vital for veterans to engage themselves in their local USOs to help out.

This serves two purposes: it gives back to the organization that gives so much in the way of service to our military family and it helps create bonds between the organization and its clients. To be able to walk into a USO and see that there are people there who can connect with you, joke around and share the same common bonds is a wonderful feeling. It also helps the families, who may be separated from their loved ones due to training, deployments or a number of other reasons. They can sit down and chat with volunteers about places that they may both have lived, restaurants and vacation spots they have shared, and it can really drive home that bond and that sense that no matter where they are, the USO stands ready to serve them.

Finally—and perhaps most important—is the sheer power that veterans bring to the USO in their words, their commitment and their actions. I think if you asked around, you would find that there are no better spokesmen for the USO than our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and members of the U.S. Coast Guard. These men and women know firsthand the comfort and the countless efforts made day in and day out by USO volunteers worldwide to bring some joy to their lives and the lives of their families. Because of this, they can perfectly and succinctly explain to an interested party just how beneficial they could be by volunteering with the USO. And just like that, you have yourself another fantastic and energized volunteer!

—Army Capt. Martin Van der Hoek
USO South Carolina Volunteer

A New Name and a Remodeled Center for USO Northwest

The USO’s footprint in the Northwest has increased.

A look inside the renovated Shali Center at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington. USO Northwest photo

The USO Puget Sound Area operation is no longer defined by the waterways of Washington State. Troops and their families in Alaska, Idaho, Oregon and throughout Washington State will now benefit from programs and services offered by the newly rebranded USO Northwest.

The announcement of the name change was made Nov. 8 at a ribbon cutting ceremony for USO Northwest’s remodeled Shali Center on Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

USO Puget Sound Area’s board of directors and staff made the unanimous decision to make the name change in June.

“The closest USOs to USO Northwest are USO Wisconsin to the east and USO San Francisco to the south,” USO Northwest Executive Director Don Leingang said. “My goal is for our USO Mobile Canteen to visit Idaho at least once per year and Oregon two to three times annually or as requested. Although we physically will not be able to drive our Mobile to Alaska, we have already assisted units there through the Helping Hands Grant.”

USO Northwest’s Helping Hands Grant provides access to funds for military events such as homecoming parties, pre-deployment events, command functions and other camaraderie-building events.

More than 3,500 service members will be deploying through the center—which received $375,000 in renovations—before the end of November.

“The center was remodeled because the features were outdated and the design didn’t provide the maximum flow to support our massive troop deployments that are inherent by being the third-largest military installation in the U.S.,” Shali Center Manager Andrew Oczkewicz said.

The Shali Center includes a commercial-grade kitchen, dining room, bathrooms, five flat screen TVs, a United Through Reading room, laptops with Skype capabilities and a gaming lounge with Xboxes. It will continue to provide free food such as hot dogs, made-to-order sandwiches, snacks, fruit and drinks.

“I have no doubt our volunteers and staff can move mountains for our local service members,” Leingang said. “Each one of them sees military personnel as family. They have a great love for what they do. Why else get up at two in the morning to make sandwiches?”

The Shali Center is named after USO Northwest Board Member Joan Shalikashvili and her late husband, Army Gen. John Shalikashvili, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The Shalikashvilis have built their lives around service to the U.S. and enriching the lives of local military and their families.

–Meaghan Cox, USO Northwest