Messages from the Front: See What Troops Told the USO About Being Away for the Holidays

It’s hard for civilians to be away from home for the holidays. Now imagine serving in a war zone.

Friend of the USO Eric Raum traveled to the Mideast to talk to troops about what its like to be missing their families during the holidays. He also profiled how the USO gives those troops a little piece of home during a tough time through the USO Holidays for Heroes program.

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14 Quotes that Inspired Us Over the Last Year

We see inspiring things every day at the USO. Today, we’re reflecting on some of the inspiring things people told us throughout the last year.

Some of these are thank yous for what our amazing volunteers have done. Others are the words of those volunteers and donors who count helping troops not as a task, but as a privilege and an obligation. And some of these are directly from service members and military family members who benefitted from our programs and services in 2014.


1. “When you are leaving or are gone on deployment, you would give ANYTHING for just one more moment. Whether it’s just to hear their voice or it’s being able to see their faces, any moment possible is priceless and that is exactly what the USO has given service members, so thank you.”

–Sgt. 1st Class Tyler Arnold, a veteran of multiple combat tours who was honored by the USO and Hunter Hayes during a pair of fall concerts.

2. “My whole incentive when I’m at the USO is to try to treat people like I would want my son to be treated and taken care of.”

–USO of Arizona volunteer Michelle Selby, who kept the center open all night during a dust storm last year. Selby’s son also served in the military.

3. “As a soldier and as a husband, it’s nice to know that remembering those three little letters — USO — means that [my wife will] be taken care of wherever she is and wherever I am, and that’s huge for me.”

–Sgt. Arden Sellers, whose wife, Shanna, found refuge at the Liberty USO’s Philadelphia International Airport center when a flight cancellation left her stranded.

4. “I think it’s important that our service men and women and our veterans know that we love them and we do not take what they do for granted and I think it’s important that they know that, so I’ll continue to work with the USO as long as they’ll have me.”

–Country star Kellie Pickler, who has been on eight USO tours, including multiple trips to Middle East war zones.

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5. “I’m proud that we have Ladies Night. You can see a huge difference on the female soldiers’ faces, because we have a moment to ourselves.”

–Sgt. Rada Kalpee, who was volunteering with at USO Kandahar when we profiled USO Ladies Nights in July.

6. “I got to see my son — just seconds after he was born — I got to see him being cleaned up, being weighed, being measured; something I wouldn’t have been able to do if it wasn’t for the services offered by the USO.”

–Capt. Nick Whitefield, who used a USO Internet connection in Afghanistan to watch the birth of his son.

7. “There is not enough space on the feedback form to describe the impact the USO2GO program has had on my platoon and the boost in morale.”

–1st. Lt. Ben Lyman, whose platoon requested and received a USO2GO shipment at their forward operating base.

8. “I’m always critical … of charity organizations. The USO is one I don’t even have to think about. In fact, when I sent my boys off to their basic schools, the USO was part of my safety brief to them. I’d say, ‘Here’s where you’re flying and here’s where you’re going, and here’s the airports that have USO facilities, so stop in and use them.’”

–Retired Col. Hal Harrington on why he chose to donate to the USO.

9. “Before deploying, the only thing I knew about the USO was that they did care packages and they were in the airports. But then I go to Afghanistan and they’re in every airport that I went through. Fellow veterans, families, people who want to help and support our veterans and our military [were volunteering at each location], and these people loved us. They treated me like family at every stop. Then I get to Afghanistan and there’s a USO on my [forward operating base].”

–1st Lt. Beau McNeff, who created a surprise USO moment for his on “The Meredith Vieira Show” in September.

10. “My father is a Marine. My parents met at the USO. I was born and bred in the Marine Corps and work for the Air Force. I see every day what the men and women of our armed forces sacrifice for our country and am proud to support them in their endeavors. Thank you USO for your support … I might not be here if it wasn’t for your wonderful organization.”

–Kim Chastain, who sent us this message when she signed the USO Every Moment Counts flag in 2014.

11. “My husband and I have spent countless hours enjoying USO locations in airports and military installations. Donating to the USO was our way of expressing gratitude to an organization that has always been there for us while also teaching our daughter a valuable lesson about giving.”

–Cherie Bell, whose family raised raised nearly $100 for the USO in lieu of gifts for their daughter’s first birthday.

12. “That was an extremely tough deployment for me, and that was a particularly tough time during that long deployment. USO provided a much needed shot in the arm. Thank you.”

–Navy Cmdr. Matthew Andrews, who wrote us a poignant email this fall.

13. “I think it’s extremely important to have the community and the different groups to lean on when your soldier’s deployed. It helps in the sense that you realize that you’re not alone.”

–Military spouse Ashley Sandgren on the environment USO Fort Drum created for spouses during her Army husband’s deployment.

14. “I think this will give someone a place to kind of sit back, reflect, relax, work on themselves just on a personal level — a worry-free zone in a sense.”

–Retired Army Sgt. Kevin Gatson on how the USO Warrior and Family Center in Bethesda, Maryland, helps wounded warriors stationed there heal.

How to Make the Perfect Care Package for Troops

A group of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington-based airmen  help the USO distribute Girl Scout Cookies. Photo courtesy of the Department of Defense

A group of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington-based airmen help the USO distribute Girl Scout Cookies. Photo courtesy of the Department of Defense

It’s easy to take the little things for granted. For most Americans, stocking up on snacks, baby wipes and Kleenex is as simple as heading to a convenience store.

But for troops stationed around the world — especially at overseas locations like the Mideast or Okinawa — stocking up on every day commodities can mean waiting on, or rationing from, care packages shipped from the United States. However, even the most thoughtful — and jam-packed — of care packages eventually runs empty.

Luckily, the USO is there to help.

Anyone who wants to create the ultimate box of goodies for the troops can do so. Remember, even just one package worth of supplies can brighten a service member’s day.

Step 1: Find a USO center

This is easy. A list of all our centers can be found here. Click the dropdown menus on the left side of the page to search for a center in the region you want to help out.

Step 2: Check in with that center before you buy

Before you gather supplies and seal that box, send your selected center an email to doublecheck that they’re able to receive care packages and ask them what sort of items troops at their location need most. They’ll help you get the right address to send your package to, too.

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Step 3: Fill up a box

We always defer to the individual centers’ knowledge (see Step 2) when it comes to knowing what troops need. No one knows our troops like the USO staff and volunteers on the ground. Still, we took the liberty of compiling a list of some of our downrange troops’ favorite things to receive in care packages:

  • Healthy snacks: Jerky, trail mixes, granola bars and fruit snacks
  • Drink mix packets: Gatorade, lemonade, iced tea and crystal light packets
  • Microwavable food: Easy Mac, popcorn, Cup O’Noodles, Chef Boyardee, oatmeal and other snacks that come in their own bowl (dining ware is scarce in Afghanistan)
  • Non-perishable food: Tuna cans or packets, fruit cups, peanut butter, Nutella, soups and other canned foods
  • Chocolate: Wait until the winter months to send chocolate, as it will melt in the mail if sent now
  • Toiletries: Travel-size shampoo, conditioner, body lotion, body wash, wet wipes and hand sanitizer (Please send these in separate boxes from food — no one likes shampoo-flavored oatmeal!)

Step 4: Don’t have the time? We can do it for you …

Everyone has something they’re passionate about. And if you’ve read this far, helping our troops is probably one of those things for you. But time can get in the way, especially during the holidays. If you still want to help troops, but can’t make it to the store to fill up a care package, the USO can take care of it for you through a donation to USOwishbook.org, where you can send items like comfort food packages, books, movies, video games and more.

27 Ways the USO Helped Troops and Military Families in 2014

Thanks to generous supporters like you, the USO was able to do a lot for troops and military families in 2014. Here are just 27 of the thousands of ways we supported those who defend our country this past year.


1. A connection on their big day: Deployed National Guard Staff Sgt. Pedro Cruz couldn’t attend his son’s NYU graduation. But thanks to the USO in the Mideast, he was able to deliver a graduation-day surprise his son will never forget.

2. A homecoming at Fort Drum: USO Fort Drum builds a community for spouses while their soldiers are deployed. See what happens when those spouses come back.

3. USO2GO: How one shipment brought a much-needed pick-me-up to troops at Forward Operating Base Ghazni, Afghanistan.

4. Several USOs come up big with free meals — often called No Dough Dinners — for troops and their families right before payday. See how USO Great Lakes does it.

5. Injured and transitioning out of the Army, Marco Gonzalez was a man without a purpose. Then one day he was invited to have lunch at USO Fort Riley and everything started to change.

6. From Afghanistan to the delivery room: How the USO helped a deployed Marine see the birth of his child in real time.

7. Thousands of troops interacted with star athletes, musicians, actors and more in 2014. Check out our our entertainment year in review.

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8. USO Operation That’s My Dress brought hundreds of teens around the U.S. together with fashion experts this year to pick out free ball gowns for formal events. Check out the November event in Jacksonville, Florida.

9. Stuck in quarantine? The USO has you covered there, too. We continue to be there for troops who are in a DOD-mandated quarantine after supporting the Ebola mission in Africa. Check out what the USO is doing for troops under a precautionary 21-day post-duty isolation in Germany.

10. Uniting families of the fallen: The USO helped London Bell find a new sense of community after the death of her Marine brother. See how in this video:

11. USO/ What to Expect Special Delivery events give military moms-to-be a day of fun and insights with best-selling author Heidi Murkoff:

12. Stranded, but not alone: How the USO at Philadelphia International Airport helped one pregnant military spouse who was in a bind.

13. “A worry-free zone”: See how recovering troops are talking about the new USO Warrior and Family Center in Bethesda, Maryland.

14. Will you marry me? Stationed separately, Pvt. Emmanuel Aleman had to ask Pvt. Zoe Tunchez to marry him over the phone. USO San Antonio helped him pull off a proper proposal just days before their wedding.

15. Getting them home for the holidays: USO volunteers and staff mobilize around the country help young troops get home in time for Christmas.

16. Up all night: See how one USO volunteer at Sky Harbor Phoenix International Airport stayed awake all night so stranded troops could sleep in the center during a dust storm that grounded flights.

17. Resiliency for military kids: The Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families employs some familiar characters to make a big impact.

18. USO Ladies Nights: Learn how the USO brings female service members together in Afghanistan for a little bonding time.

19. Through Operation Birthday Cake, USO centers in the Pacific help troops celebrate their big days despite being far from home.

20. Wounded warriors at Fort Hood, Texas, needed a gym to do their rehab. The USO stepped up and built them one.

21. Creating Christmas moments: USO centers around the world were there to show a good time to troops who couldn’t make it home celebrate.

22. Tickets for troops: Chicago pro sports teams work with USO of Illinois to get tickets to troops.

23. A look at how USO Caregivers Conferences focus on helping a group of folks that never gets a break: the caretakers of wounded warriors.

24. Who doesn’t like coffee? The USO gives tens of thousands of free cups of coffee to troops every year. Check out some of the stats.

25. An emergency place to stay: USO Guam turned into a temporary hotel in August for Marines who were stranded for 30 hours.

26. Deployment music: One Marine shreds on the guitar, then talks about what USO Camp Buehring’s music room means to him.

27. A clutch wedding: When Pvt. Chase Howard had four days of leave in January, the USO Warrior and Family Center on Fort Belvoir, Virginia, sprung into action to turn a last-minute wedding between he and his fiancé Brittany a reality.

The Year in USO Entertainment

It was a huge year in entertainment for the USO. Here’s a look at some of the biggest celebrity experiences and shows we facilitated for troops and their families in 2014. They’re great examples of how — with your help — we make USO moments happen around the world for thousands of troops every day.

Hunter Hayes Creates Unforgettable Moments for a Military Family

Country star Hunter Hayes performed four USO shows in 2014, including late October and early November shows in New York City and Nashville, respectively, that helped the USO celebrate the anniversary of the Every Moment Counts campaign. Watch the video to see how Hayes created special moments for one Army family in particular during those shows.

Al Roker Entertains Troops and Sets a Guinness World Record

NBC's Al Roker headlined the "Today"/USO Comedy Tour in Afghanistan in October. USO photo by Fred Greaves

NBC’s Al Roker headlined the “Today”/USO Comedy Tour in Afghanistan in October. USO photo by Fred Greaves

Meanwhile, NBC’s Al Roker made it his personal mission to entertain the troops and raise funds for the USO. He went on a USO tour to Afghanistan in early October with TV stars Jay Leno, Kevin Eubanks, Iliza Shlesinger and Craig Robinson.

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While that was a huge commitment, Roker topped himself by pulling off the #Rokerthon, a 34-hour Guinness World Record-setting weather forecast that was broadcast between Nov. 12-14 that benefitted the USO. Roker asked #Rokerthon viewers to visit the Crowdrise page he started to raise money for the USO during the broadcast.

The USO/Chairman’s Holiday Tour

Actor/comedian Rob Riggle, actress Megan Markle, country music star Kellie Pickler, actress Dianna Agron, eight-time Pro Bowler Brian Urlacher and Washington Nationals pitcher Doug Fister went on this December's USO Chairman's Holiday Tour. USO photo by Dave Gatley

From left: Actor/comedian Rob Riggle, actress Megan Markle, country music star Kellie Pickler, actress Dianna Agron, eight-time Pro Bowler Brian Urlacher and Washington Nationals pitcher Doug Fister went on this December’s USO Chairman’s Holiday Tour. USO photo by Dave Gatley

It’s not the holidays if the chairman isn’t on a USO tour. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey went on his fourth and final tour in December, bringing along country star and USO tour vet Kellie Pickler, USO tour vet and comedian Rob Riggle, “Glee” co-star Dianna Agron, “Suits” co-star Meghan Markle, former Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher and Washington Nationals pitcher Doug Fister.

Kellie Pickler and Aisha Tyler at the USO Gala

Speaking of Pickler, she and Aisha Tyler brought a sparkle to the USO Gala on Oct. 17 in Washington. See what they each had to say about why they support America’s troops.

Troops Hit the Red Carpet at “Unbroken” Premiere

Universal Pictures teamed with the USO on “Unbroken,” a World War II story of heroism that is poised to be one of the biggest movies of the Christmas season. See how troops were treated to a red-carpet experience at the premiere of the Angelina Jolie-directed film.

Trace Adkins and Casey James Rock Fort Hood

Longtime USO supporter Trace Adkins performed a special concert for troops on Fort Hood the first weekend in November, bringing up-and-comer Casey James with him.

Idina Menzel Meets Military Families

Broadway Star Idina Menzel — who became even more famous after her smash hit “Let It Go” from the movie “Frozen — joined the USO for a meet and greet with military families in November.

Sesame Street/USO Experience Entertains 500,000th Guest

The Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families entertained it’s 500,000th guest this year. The long-running USO entertainment tour has touched thousands of military families, including the the Curtises. Take a look.

Rock for Troops

Rock and Roll Hall of Famers KISS talked to the USO about why they’re raising awareness about veteran unemployment and why they donated some of the proceeds from their recent tour to the USO.

Pitbull Entertains Military Families on July 4 at the White House

Mr. Worldwide put on a USO show on the South Lawn of the White House for troops and families this past July 4.

The Band Perry Plays for Troops in Norfolk

The Band Perry sat down with the USO before its USO Virginia Beach Patriotic Festival show to talk about entertaining troops and their families.

Trio of NFL Players Visit Troops Downrange

Pierre Garçon goofs around with a service member on his March 2014 USO Tour. USO photo by Dave Gatley

Pierre Garçon goofs around with a service member on his March 2014 USO Tour. USO photo by Dave Gatley

Washington Redskins receiver Pierre Garçon, New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham and Miami Dolphins punter Brandon Fields visited more than 1,800 troops in Afghanistan and the United Arab Emirates during a USO/NFL Tour in early March. Read what Garçon had to say about the trip.

Brantley Gilbert Puts on a Show at the Coca-Cola 600

USO tour veteran Brantley Gilbert played a free concert for NASCAR fans and military members before the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, where the USO played a big role. Find out what he had to say backstage on Memorial Day Weekend to troops still serving in harms way.

Sneak Peek of “How To Train Your Dragon 2″

The crew from “How To Train Your Dragon 2″ stopped by for a special USO screening  at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst earlier this year.

Bruce Willis’ Holiday Message to the Troops

And finally, actor Bruce Willis took a moment to thank America’s troops for the holidays.

A Look at Holidays Around the World with the USO

St. John's School, Guam National Junior Honor Society donated 12 beautiful Gingerbread Houses to the Guam USO. USO photo

St. John’s School, Guam National Junior Honor Society donated 12 Gingerbread Houses to USO Guam. USO photo

USO Guam

USO Guam invited all unaccompanied and single military members to join their annual “Home for the Holidays Christmas Drop In” on Christmas Day. There was a free holiday buffet available from 1100 to 1400.

USO Vicenza, Italy

Military children receive gifts from Santa at USO Vicenza, Italy.

Military children receive gifts from Santa at USO Vicenza, Italy. USO photo

More than 30 volunteers helped spread holiday cheer to over 250 troops and families at USO Vicenza, where they had a Santa’s area decorated with a chimney and stockings, a Christmas tree and even a 15-foot Snowman. Holiday music played as volunteers set up a bouncy castle, a holiday movie area and a coloring area for the kids. When Santa arrived, he gave gifts to more than 150 children as well as single troops and volunteers gifts and even offered to take pictures. At the conclusion of the event, attendees read letters from people all over the world thanking them for their service.

USO Kaiserslautern, Germany

Military families help themselves to holiday treats. USO photo

Military families help themselves to holiday treats provided by the USO. USO photo

On Tuesday, USO Ramstein provided free photos with Santa for 475 military children and their parents. Attendees were able to have their photo taken, print it out, put it in a card and even go online and download them. Best of all, Santa and his elves gave each child an age-appropriate gift after their picture was taken. The patrons had an assortment of cookies, drinks, popcorn, hot dogs with chili and cheese and hot cocoa. The elves assisted the children, the flow of traffic and serving the food and desserts. USO staff reported one family was so grateful that they teared up.

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USO Camp Courtney, Okinawa, Japan

Marines enjoy a Christmas meal at the Camp Courtney  USO in Okinawa, Japan. USO photo

Marines enjoy a Christmas meal at the Camp Courtney USO in Okinawa, Japan.

Volunteers came together to decorate the USO Camp Courtney center for their Holiday Around the World event on Dec. 10, with holiday trees, lights and other festive décor. The event was open to all DoD ID card holders, but largely focused on serving service members. The event offered holiday-themed games, movies,  music and food. Volunteers baked and cooked side dishes and desserts for the event, and a large portion of the food (turkey with all the fixings) was contributed by an anonymous donor. 

“Events like this are important because they allow service members to get together and have a good time during the holidays,” said 20-year-old Marine Lance Cpl. Austin Stigall of California. “It helps with the morale of service members because not all of us are able to be with our loved ones during the holidays.”

USO Camp Walker, Korea

Expecting couples were able to gift their unborn children with a message of love at USO Camp Walker.

Expecting couples were able to gift their unborn children with a message of love at USO Camp Walker.

Expecting active duty mothers and fathers took advantage of the United Through Reading Military Program to record DVDs of themselves reading a book and heartfelt messages for their unborn children to watch as they grow up. Guests enjoyed popcorn, snacks, fruit and gifts. Special thanks to Disney for assisting with Christmas gifts for their new babies.

USO Hawaii

USO Hawaii centers offered new treats and givaways on each of the 12 Days of Christmas. USO photo

USO Hawaii centers offered new treats and givaways on each of the 12 Days of Christmas. USO photo

USO Hawaii celebrated the holidays with special treats, giveaways and activities in both their Hawaii Centers as they counted down the 12 Days of Christmas. Every day featured something different.

USO of North Carolina

The third annual Breakfast with Santa on Fort Bragg, North Carolina — presented by USAA — was a big hit for military families. The event was held at the Fort Bragg Club and featured family photos with Santa, Jingle Bell the Elf and barbershop-style entertainment by the Golf Capital Chorus from Pinehurst, North Carolina.

More than 350 family members attended and each family received a gift bag filled with children’s crafts, a recordable book, red, white and blue leis, a bag of candy, Christmas tree-shaped sunglasses for each child, gift cards to Texas Roadhouse, coloring books and several other items. A full breakfast buffet was available along with choice of beverages while the USO raffled off 13 bicycles with helmets, a family four-pack of tickets to Disney’s Frozen On Ice, Movie Night bags which included several children’s  DVDs, a sleeping bag, flashlight and microwave popcorn packets.

At the conclusion of the event, Santa joined the children in the ballroom and he read “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.”

The room was full of military families celebrating the holidays with the USO.

The room was full of military families celebrating the holidays with the USO.

Meanwhile, the USO of North Carolina’s Jacksonville center hosted “Breakfast with Gunny Claus” for the children of the Marines and sailors of Camp Lejeune and MCAS New River. Each child gets a stocking filled with goodies and a Christmas ornament, inscribed at 1st Reindeer Division, Marine Corps Base North Pole.

Children of Marines and sailors at Camp Lejeune and MCAS New River receive gifts from Gunny Claus. USO photo.

Children of Marines and sailors at Camp Lejeune and MCAS New River receive gifts from Gunny Claus. USO photo.

USO Fort Campbell, Kentucky

It’s Christmas Eve and if you need a little holiday cheer, stop by the USO. Santa’s helpers are there now, busy serving up cocoa, cookies and cupcakes to our soldiers!

Volunteers at USO Fort Campbell serve up holiday cheer on Christmas Eve. USO photo

Volunteers at USO Fort Campbell serve up holiday cheer on Christmas Eve. USO photo