A USO Tour in Alaska: Sirius XM The Highway Host Storme Warren Brings Country Stars Rodney Atkins and The Swon Brothers to Troops

Sirius XM’s The Highway personality Storme Warren — along with country artists Rodney Atkins and The Swon Brothers — have taken to Alaska to bring troops in the far-flung region something they rarely get: a USO tour. Here are some highlights from the first stop on their weeklong trip.

The tour spans a week and will visit Eielson Air Force Base, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson and U.S. Coast Guard Base Kodiak among other locations.


You can follow the tour around the world, too, by tuning into SiriusXM’s The Highway (Channel 56).

USO Operation That’s My Dress Gives Cancer-Stricken Soldier a Much-Needed Boost

Army 1st Sgt. Jennifer Stafford, center, poses with Miss West Virginia during a USO Operation That's My Dress event June 27 in Fort Drum, New York. USO photo

Army 1st Sgt. Jennifer Stafford, center, poses with Miss West Virginia Teen USA Cora King during a USO Operation That’s My Dress event June 27 in Fort Drum, New York. USO photo

A career soldier, Army, Sgt. 1st Class Jennifer Stafford is a woman in a male-dominated world. And lately, she’d felt like her womanhood was being stripped away, piece by piece.

After losing her mother to uterine cancer and watching her aunt fight and beat breast cancer, Stafford – the mother of three boys – was forced to have a hysterectomy just weeks before Mother’s Day.

Then, as Mother’s Day approached, a lump in her breast was diagnosed as cancer.

“It was a hard pill to swallow,” said Stafford, who is still serving on active duty in Fort Drum, New York, after 21 years in the Army as a nuclear, biological and chemical weapons specialist. “How did I get both what my mom and my aunt had?” She was depressed for weeks until her friend and USO volunteer Glynnis Moore suggested she sign up to attend USO Operation That’s My Dress, a program that gives free ball gowns to female service members, spouses and teenage dependents for homecoming and prom seasons, military balls and the holidays.

“I’ve never asked for anything back,” Stafford recalled thinking. “So what the heck? I’ll sign up.”

On June 27, she waited in line in the rain with hundreds of other girls and mothers eager to see what the USO had in store. When the doors opened, she was overwhelmed by all the pink, cute, frilly dresses on display. There were also dozens of runway model consultants to help them find an appropriate look.

The event began with a fashion show, featuring professional models and Miss USA contestants who showed off the gowns and matching jewelry that was available. Beauty pageant contestants and celebrity stylists also stuck around to do the participants’ hair and makeup.

Stafford settled on a gold and white dress by Sherri Hill, a longtime sponsor of the Operation That’s My Dress events.

She felt so good looking at herself in the mirror that she was moved to tears. Her voice still cracks when she thinks about how that dress made her feel that day.

“Coming up through the ranks in the military – now I’m an E-7 – you constantly have to prove yourself as a female in a male-dominated world,” Stafford said. “And for once as soldier, my womanhood was being celebrated. Right when I needed it most, the USO was there with exactly what I needed.”

While she’s still fighting toward full remission, the USO event gave her another tool to use on the worst days of her fight.

“I’m in awe by [the dress] still,” she said. “I take it out every week and I look at it. It marked the close of a terrible year, so while I can’t wait for my first opportunity to wear the dress, it has to be a truly special event.”


Military in Focus During National Suicide Awareness Month

September is National Suicide Prevention Month, an important time to talk about how many current service members and veterans are struggling with depression and other invisible wounds.

Suicide in the military has become a huge issue over the last decade, with the rate of self-inflicted deaths by both active-duty troops and veterans reaching alarming levels.

But if you need help – or know someone who does – here is a list of places you can go:

  • Military Crisis Hotline: Short of dialing 911 in a life-or-death situation, the military crisis hotline can be your first stop if you or someone you know is feeling severely depressed – even if they just need to talk about what they’re feeling. The phone number is 1-800-273-8255 and you can also chat with them online at militarycrisisline.net.
  • PTSD Coach: The Department of Veterans Affairs has a website and app called PTSD Coach that aims to help troops and veterans manage issues like anger, sleep and trauma triggers.
  • The VA: The Department of Veteran Affairs’ Mental Health page is filled with resources to address a variety of mental health concerns.
  • Family readiness officers, family support groups and family support centers: Every branch of the military has family support services. These officers and groups are huge information resources. Contact your command to find out what groups are available for your family.

Iraq Vet Remembers 2004 USO Visit with Robin Williams and John Elway

A football signed by John Elway and a handkerchief signed by Robin Williams are displayed in the home of Amanda Paquette (inset). Photo courtesy of Amanda Paquette

A football signed by John Elway and a handkerchief signed by Robin Williams are displayed in the home of Amanda Paquette (inset). Photos courtesy of Amanda Paquette

USO entertainment tours are often tightly scheduled affairs that still yield serendipitous moments. That was the case in 2004, when Amanda Paquette — who served in the Marines from 2003 to 2007, when she left as a sergeant — met Robin Williams and John Elway at Al Asad Airbase in Iraq during the USO Chairman’s Tour. Here’s her story.

My first tour in Iraq, Robin Williams and John Elway came to Al Asad. I was tasked to pick up the press.

John Elway autographs a football during a 2004 USO tour stop in Iraq. DOD photo

John Elway autographs a football during a 2004 USO tour stop in Iraq. DOD photo

Me and another lance corporal waited on the VIP pad. There was nothing other than high-ranking officials on the pad that day lined up to greet them. [I was] the only female Marine. As Robin came down the line of guys he saw me, stopped, took my hand, kissed it, and said ‘Oh my God! There are hot women here!’

Later at the show location, the seats had booked up. Me and the other lance corporal didn’t have a place to see the show. John and Robin then gave up their seats in the front. The show then started.

John made the comment to the troops ‘I don’t know what I’m doing here, I just know how to throw a football. I’m not funny like Robin!’ Then he threw footballs at us.

Robin Williams greets troops in Iraq during a 2004 USO tour. DOD photo

Robin Williams greets troops in Iraq during a 2004 USO tour stop. DOD photo

Robin then got up and put on a hell of a comedy show! After all was over I had to pack up the press so I didn’t have time to go to the meet and greet with either one.

[Later] John was on the side of the building and said ‘Are you not a fan of mine? I didn’t see you in line.’ I told him that I was a fan and apologized and told him I had to get the press packed. He then proceeded to get a football from the USO rep, signed it and threw it to me. I caught it! He smiled.

Then, instead of hopping in the VIP cars, he told the higher-ups he was riding back to the VIP pad on my bus with the press! Great, humble guy.

When we got to the VIP pad and John and Robin said their goodbyes. Robin came up to me, signed a USO handkerchief and gave me the biggest, warmest, fuzzy hug and said ‘Stay safe beautiful and thank you for all you do.’

When Robin passed it broke my heart. I’ll never forget the joy he and John brought that day.

EDITORS NOTE: Paquette’s quotes were lightly edited for style

Your USO at Work: August 2015 — Great Dane Pup Who Needed Help is Returning the Favor

Meet Bandit, the Gentle Giant at USO Fort Leonard Wood

When Kelly Gist adopted Bandit more than three years ago, she didn’t expect him to become a healer.

Sickly, underweight and suffering from a number of health issues, the Great Dane pup looked like he needed more help than he would ever be able to give.

As Bandit grew stronger and healthier, he started accompanying Gist to her job as center director of USO Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri. She quickly learned Bandit was no ordinary rescue dog.

“We would bring him into the USO, and as he grew, his interactions with the troops were unbelievable and we realized he had something else to give,” said Gist, who decided to train Bandit as a therapy dog.

Whether it’s visiting patients at the hospital, comforting troops at the Warrior Transition Unit or hanging out with military families at USO Fort Leonard Wood, Gist says Bandit is always ready to comfort those in need.

“If anyone can spend five minutes with him … they’ll realize the difference he can make in someone’s day,” she said.

Bandit isn’t the only one who make a difference in five minutes. Go to USO.org/donate to find out how you can show your support for our troops and military families.

Duracell and Hilary Swank Help the USO Highlight Military Family Issues

Two-time Academy Award winner Hilary Swank has played several roles, but her first was as the daughter of a now-retired Air Force senior master sergeant.

Swank joined military couple Robert and Denise Nilson, Duracell’s Jeff Jarrett and USO Senior Vice President Alan Reyes in New York last month to promote the USO’s partnership with Duracell and the company’s new short film “The Teddy Bear.” The video, which has been viewed more than 11 million times, is based on the Nilsons’ deployment experiences.

Duracell is also generously donating $100,000 to the USO Transition 360 Alliance to support the Comfort Crew for Military Kids, which helps children deal with their parents’ deployment and other issues that come up when you’re part of a military family.

Bruno Mars Brings ‘Uptown Funk’ to USO Concert at the White House

Grammy-winning recording artist Bruno Mars performed a USO show for cheering troops, military family members and guests of the first family at the White House on July 4.

Bruno Mars and his band perform at the USO’s Salute to the Military show July 4 at the White House. USO photo by Mike Thelier

Bruno Mars and his band perform at the USO’s Salute to the Military show July 4 at the White House. USO photo by Mike Theiler

The superstar sang some of his hits at the annual Salute to the Military USO concert. While storms cancelled the preshow cookout on the White House lawn, President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama came out and addressed the crowd before Mars’ hourlong set that led up to the fireworks display on the National Mall.

This was the seventh consecutive year the White House has partnered with the USO to host the concert. Last year’s event featured Pitbull, while acts like fun., Cedric The Entertainer, The Killers, Brandi Carlile, Brad Paisley, Train, Jimmy Fallon and the Foo Fighters have also played the White House on Independence Day.

“It was an honor to perform at the Fourth of July concert at the White House,” Mars said in a release. “It was incredible to stand with the first family and the USO to recognize the service and sacrifice of our troops and military families.”

Mobile USO Helps Troops Through Summer Training 

Spending three weeks in the field on a military exercise can make you feel like you’re in another country — even if you never leave your home state.

Images from the Mobile USO’s stop in Oklahoma. Photos courtesy of Army Spc. Tyler Davis

Images from the Mobile USO’s stop in Oklahoma. Photos courtesy of Army Spc. Tyler Davis

Ask Army National Guard Spc. Tyler Davis, 21, from Lawton, Oklahoma, who took to Instagram to show his appreciation when his unit received a surprise visit from a Mobile USO during training. Davis, who’s been in the National Guard for more than four years, was pulling 48-hour shifts in the blazing sun when the Mobile USO arrived.

“When we’re out here in the field, we’re adapting to the military lifestyle. … You get completely engulfed in it,” Davis said. “When we first caught wind of the [Mobile USO] coming I made sure to get everyone in my squad signed up.”

A USO center on wheels, Mobile USO units offer troops the same kind of support provided at stationary centers, including video games, movies, Wi-Fi and air conditioning—the most important amenity when training in the Oklahoma sun.

“God bless you guys at the USO,” Davis said. “Without you, a lot of us would probably go insane.”

USO Opens First Staffed Center in Africa

Sometimes they are created to facilitate the changing travel needs of troops stateside. Sometimes they are built downrange and constructed by the troops themselves. Whatever the case, each USO center is opened where troops need them the most. And that most recent need is on Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti.

There are lots of smiling faces inside the new USO center on Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti. Courtesy photo

There are lots of smiling faces inside the new USO center on Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti. Courtesy photo

After the Defense Department announced it would spend $1 billion over the next 20 years to enlarge the U.S. base, the USO decided it was time to open up a permanent canteen for troops stationed there.

“Most of the troops here are unaccompanied and stay … anywhere from nine months to a year,” USO Camp Lemonnier Center Manager Michael Eyassu said. “They are very excited about [the USO] providing free phone calls to the States since they have to purchase phone cards otherwise.”

Currently the only staffed USO center in Africa, USO Camp Lemonnier consists of two Quonset huts equipped with a lounge area, leather chairs, a full canteen with snacks and treats from home, free toiletries and plenty of phones and computers to use to call home.

“We’ve got something going on every night for the military,” Eyassu said. “We have a lot of fun, and we’re getting more and more foot traffic each and every day we’re open.”

You can support troops deployed to bases around the world by visiting USO.org/donate.

USO Partner Almay Highlights the Strength and Determination of Military Women

Almay is partnering with the USO and celebrating female service members with their Simply American campaign. As part of the initiative, the cosmetics giant is donating $250,000 to the USO and creating a #SimplyAmerican social media push to raise additional funds and awareness.

AlmayThe company is highlighting military women throughout the summer in two unique ways. First, they’re embarking on a summer-long road trip to fairs and festivals to create what they’re calling a Simply American experience that celebrates female service members, military wives and their families.

Almay also is soliciting photos that capture “Simply American moments.” The company will donate one dollar for every like or share on social media that uses the hashtag #SimplyAmerican, up to a total of $10,000.

Go to Almay’s Simply American page to see if the road trip is coming to a city near you.

USO Opened Up a New World for This Military Spouse

Karolina Wignall has been connected to the military for as long as she can remember.

Karolina Wignall

Karolina Wignall

She grew up in the military, living in Texas, Georgia, Germany and Las Vegas during her formative years. She later married an Air Force pilot, moving around the globe to places like Okinawa and Virginia.

Wignall, USO Europe’s operations manager, understands the sacrifices troops and military families make every day, but she didn’t know much about the USO before becoming a volunteer in 2010.

“All I knew about the USO was what I saw in the airports,” she said. “I wasn’t sure what volunteering for the USO really meant.”

She quickly learned what the USO’s all about by racking up hundreds of volunteer hours in a few months. “Averaging 40 hours a week as a volunteer, I was hooked,” Wignall said. “The USO opened up a whole new world to me and I haven’t looked back.”

Hired as a full-time employee a short time later, she’s been with the organization ever since and has watched as the USO has evolved with the military.

“We have come a long way from just providing comfort and respite for our troops during wartime,” she said. “We are with the young troops when they first enter military service, when they deploy, and when they return home.

“Always by their side” is more than a slogan. It’s what the USO—backed by volunteers and employees like Wignall — does each and every day at more than 160 USO locations around the world.

“No matter what stage they are in during their military career, the military community can be sure the USO will always be there, providing whatever it takes to ensure that the military community knows we stand by them,” she said.

From start to finish, the USO supports troops and military families through each step of their journey. And we can’t do it without you.

USO Supporter and Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno Retires

Gen. Ray Odierno, center, retired from the Army after 39 years of service. DOD photo

Gen. Ray Odierno, center, retired from the Army after 39 years of service. DOD photo

The USO is bidding fond farewell to Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army’s outgoing chief of staff, who retired Friday after nearly four decades of service to the United States.

Odierno has been a strong backer of the USO’s mission to support the troops he commanded and their families. He spoke about his experiences with the USO on the red carpet of the 2013 USO Gala in Washington.

Gen. Ray Odierno and Stephen Colbert in 2009.

Gen. Ray Odierno and Stephen Colbert in 2009.

The general played a big role in the 2009 USO tour featuring then-Comedy Central personality Stephen Colbert, where President Barack Obama famously ordered Odierno to shave Colbert’s head on stage in front of an audience of service members.

And Odierno also had a hand in boosting the morale of USO employees and volunteers behind the scenes. You can read USO Vice President of Entertainment Rachel Tischler’s account of being coined by Odierno during one of her trips to produce USO entertainment tours in Iraq.