Your USO at Work: August 2014 — USO Center Helps Wounded Troops and Families Relax and Recharge

USO Warrior and Family Center at Bethesda is a Place Wounded Warriors Can Call Home

Sometimes, the mental grind of a recovery can be as tough as the physical obstacles.

That’s why the USO opened the second of two Warrior and Family Centers at Naval Support Activity Bethesda, Maryland, the home of Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, in April.

The USO Warrior and Family Center at Naval Support Activity Bethesda, Maryland, the home of Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, opened in April.

The USO Warrior and Family Center at Naval Support Activity Bethesda, Maryland, the home of Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, opened in April. USO photo by Joseph Andrew Lee

“You can come here and cook food if you want to. You can come here and barbecue if you want to. You can come here and watch movies, play video games, learn music, use the Internet … all that is here,” said medically retired Army Sgt. Kevin Gatson, a recent patient at Bethesda. “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.”

Like its sister center on the Fort Belvoir Community Hospital campus in Virginia, the USO Warrior and Family Center at Bethesda provides a place where families can come together for everything from meals and game nights to post-military career counseling and classes.

“I go to my room, because a lot of times I just don’t feel like talking to anybody,” said Marine Cpl. Rebecca Fletcher, who lost her leg in a motorcycle accident and is recovering from her injuries at Bethesda. “But coming down here (to the center), you end up running into someone that you know and you end up in a conversation. The next thing you know, you’re forgetting about the pain [and] you’re forgetting about the mental things that get to you throughout the day.”

“When you have had a full day of appointments … you’re exhausted both mentally and physically,” said Navy Capt. David Bitonti, Naval Support Activity Bethesda commander. He said that the new facility, which opened in April, is an additional place of respite for wounded troops and provides a place where they can relax and recover.

“[This center] allows you to go and recharge the battery so that when you have to do whatever it is that you need to do the next day, you’re the best person that you can be.”

Wounded Troops and Their Families Hit the Beach at Warrior Week

More than 550 wounded warriors and their families headed to Virginia Beach, Virginia, in May to enjoy surf, sand and sun as part of the USO’s inaugural Warrior Week.

“The city of Virginia Beach approached me and asked if the USO could expand the programs and services that we’re doing for the wounded, ill and injured here in Virginia Beach,” said Jeff Hill, USO regional vice president, U.S. “We did the research … and found out that outdoor activities [were] one of the favorite things that our wounded, ill and injured like to do.”

With the help of the USO and local adaptive outdoor recreational organizations, participants enjoyed activities like kayaking, surfing, waterskiing and deep-sea fishing. Wounded warriors and their families were also invited to attend free outdoor concerts and shows by local performers and the USO Show Troupe.

“We wanted outdoor recreational activities that could include the families,” Hill said.

At the end of each day’s activities, Warrior Week participants were invited to attend the Patriot Festival to enjoy food and free performances by top recording artists including The Band Perry, Jake Owen and Little Big Town.

“I can tell you the vast majority [of the wounded warriors] had an absolute blast,” Hill said.

Dr. J.D. Crouch II Becomes President and CEO of the USO

Former Assistant Secretary of Defense and Deputy National Security Advisor Dr. J.D. Crouch II was named the 23rd president and CEO of the USO on June 23.

Dr. J.D. Crouch II started his new role at the USO on July 28. USO photo

Dr. J.D. Crouch II started his new role at the USO on July 28. USO photo

“I know I am fortunate to be able to join a remarkable USO family that encompasses colleagues, volunteers, supporters and their families,” Crouch said. “I am proud to join and lead this team and eager to begin our work together.”

Most recently, Dr. Crouch served as CEO of QinetiQ North America, a position he left in May. From 2001 to 2003, he served as former President George W. Bush’s assistant secretary of defense for international security policy, focusing on missile defense, nuclear forces and technology security. He later served 10 months as the U.S. ambassador to Romania before returning to Washington in March of 2005 to assume the role of deputy national security advisor.

“I know that J.D. Crouch is the right leader at the right time for the USO,” said retired Air Force General Richard B. Myers, chairman of the USO Board of Governors. “He comes to the USO with a record of government service, leadership and innovation, but most important of all, he has a deep and abiding passion for our men and women who serve this country.”

Crouch started his new role with the USO on July 28.

Marines smile with a birthday cake at a USO Center on Okinawa, Japan. USO photo

Marines smile with a birthday cake at a USO Center on Okinawa, Japan. USO photo

Despite Logistics, USO Pacific Centers Help Troops Celebrate Birthdays Far From Home

Birthdays aren’t supposed to be stressful. But when you’re separated by the world’s largest ocean and a dozen time zones, nothing is easy.

Luckily, families with loved ones serving in the Pacific don’t have to figure out the closest bakery to base, or if that bakery can translate their message or even deliver the cake. All they have to do is contact USO Pacific and ask about Operation Birthday Cake.

“USO Pacific’s Operation Birthday Cake is an amazing signature program that connects loved ones around the world,” said Carly Harris, USO Pacific regional vice president. So far, the program has delivered over 1,000 surprise birthday cakes to troops serving in the Pacific.

For many stateside families, an OBC surprise is the easiest way they can send warm wishes and celebrate their deployed loved one’s special day.

“[The service member’s family is] just happy that we could reach out and do something special for their loved one on a day when sometimes they can’t even call because of the time difference, technology, or whatever the issue may be,” said USO Camp Casey Manager Katie Kerr.

Celebs and BET Experience Attendees Sends Messages of Thanks to Troops

The son of a deployed service member sends a message to his dad at the Mobile USO at the BET Experience at the Los Angeles Convention Center in late June. USO photo by Eric Brandner

The son of a deployed service member sends a message to his dad at the Mobile USO at the BET Experience at the Los Angeles Convention Center in late June. USO photo by Eric Brandner

Some did it for their family members. Others did it for fun. And some just thought it was the right thing to do.

The USO parked one of its custom USO Mobile vehicles in the Los Angeles Convention Center on June 28 at the BET Experience and asked attendees and celebrities to send personal messages of thanks to America’s troops.

“So many of us want to say thank you and often times we don’t know how,” said Sonya Lockett, BET vice president of corporate social responsibility. “And this is just such a great way to be able to say thank you to our military all over the world.”

Lockheed Martin Volunteers, PGA Tour Fans Build Deployment Kits for Military Kids

When children are faced with a parent’s deployment — or worse, a parent who doesn’t return from deployment — they encounter emotions which may be difficult to express.

Marine Staff Sgt. Tyler Barnes, right, stationed at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va., assembles a deployment kit for military kids. USO photo

Marine Staff Sgt. Tyler Barnes, right, stationed at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va., assembles a deployment kit for military kids. USO photo

Understanding this, volunteers from Lockheed Martin helped Quicken Loans National golf tournament spectators at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Maryland, assemble hundreds of With You all The Way Deployment Kits for military children in June.

The USO, in partnership with the Trevor Romain Company and the Comfort Crew for Military Kids, uses the With You All the Way program to support children ages 6 to 18. The unique kit helps children deal with deployment challenges and even establishes valuable knowledge for the reintegration process.

The deployment kit is centered around the “With You All the Way! Dealing With Deployment” DVD, which was created as a collaboration between The Comfort Crew and the USO. The Comfort Crew was founded by humorist Trevor Romain, who frequently tours with the USO, sharing life lessons with military children such as how to deal with bullies, facing fears, coping with separation and understanding grief.

The kits are designed to help kids tackle difficult issues unique to growing up in a military family.

“I am a full-on supporter of the USO and what they do for military families,” said Marine Staff Sgt. Tyler Barnes, a military caddy who helped construct deployment kits. “I’ve seen all of the support here at home and downrange. It’s just a great organization and they do a lot of great stuff for the military.”

Air Force Vet Now Serves Troops at USO Shindand

In his words, Frank Stinson joined up with the USO in 2009 because he “just wanted to give something back to our active-duty military.”

USO Shindand Center Manager Frank Stinson

USO Shindand Center Manager Frank Stinson

Today, the 21-year Air Force veteran is serving again—as the center manager of the USO Center on Forward Operating Base Shindand in Afghanistan.

USO Shindand, situated on a dusty airfield on the western plains of Afghanistan, offers forward-deployed troops a respite away from the everyday rigors of combat. Stinson, an Arkansas native, said that the troops who visit his center come to recharge and reconnect with loved ones.

“They want a relaxed place to come [to] and they want computer access and phones to be able to call home,” Stinson wrote in an email.

In addition to valuable connectivity, USO Shindand also offers troops two TV lounges and a movie theater boasting a 72-inch plasma TV. The three-tent facility was built by troops and civilian contractors in 2012 and 2013 and has a welcoming, small-town feel.

Stinson said that meeting troops, learning about their varied backgrounds and giving them much-needed support are the best parts of his job.

“With what we provide to the troops, this is the most gratifying job I have had.”

USO Entertainers Stephen Colbert, Katy Perry and Others Win Big at Emmys, MTV VMAs

Gen. Ray Odierno gives Stephen Colbert a haircut during Colbert's performance for U.S. military personnel June 7, 2009, in Baghdad. USO Photo by Steve Manuel

Gen. Ray Odierno gives Stephen Colbert a haircut during Colbert’s performance for U.S. military personnel June 7, 2009, in Baghdad. USO Photo by Steve Manuel

It was a big two days for USO entertainers, who brought home a total of six Primetime Emmy Awards and two MTV Video Music Awards on Sunday and Monday.

Stephen Colbert — whose “The Colbert Report” took home Emmys for Outstanding Variety Series and Outstanding Writing for a Variety Series — went on a high-profile USO tour to Iraq in 2009. Colbert’s mentor Jon Stewart‘s “The Daily Show” also won an Emmy for Outstanding Picture Editing for Short-Form Segments and Variety Specials. Stewart went downrange for the USO in the summer of 2011. And last year, former interim “The Daily Show” host John Oliver and a trio of show writers and producers visited troops in Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Comedians Jimmy Fallon and Louis C.K. also took home awards. Fallon — who emceed the USO-coordinated Fourth of July concert at the White House in 2009 — won Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series for hosting “Saturday Night Live.” Louis C.K. garnered Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series honors for “Louie.” He has gone on two USO tours — including a 13-base trip to Afghanistan in 2008 — and even worked the USO into an episode of his hit FX show.

“The Big Bang Theory” won Outstanding Multi-Camera Picture Editing for a Comedy Series. Actors from the show went on a USO tour to meet troops in the Pacific in 2012.

 Katy Perry salutes service members before performing "Firework"

Katy Perry salutes service members before performing “Firework” at the “VH1 Divas Salute The Troops” show in 2010. Courtesy photo

Meanwhile, Katy Perry took home Best Female Video at Sunday’s MTV Video Music Awards for “Dark Horse.” Haley Williams – lead singer of Paramore – also took home a VMA, winning the MTV Clubland Award for her EDM collaboration with Zedd on “Stay the Night.” Both women were part of the 2010 “VH1 Divas Salute the Troops” show presented by the USO. Paramore did their portion of that show from Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, as part of a USO entertainment tour.

USO Tour Veterans and MLB Players Adam LaRoche and Nick Swisher Named Finalists for Bob Feller Act of Valor Award

The Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche chats with troops in Souda Bay, Greece, during the 2013 USO Chairman's Holiday Tour on Dec. 7. USO photo by Mike Clifton

The Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche chats with troops in Souda Bay, Greece, during the 2013 USO Chairman’s Holiday Tour on Dec. 7. USO photo by Mike Clifton

When you give your time, people will notice.

Two Major League Baseball players who have gone on USO tours were named finalists for this year’s Bob Feller Act of Valor Award. Washington Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche and Cleveland Indians first baseman Nick Swisher are among the six players to make the list. The award will be presented on Veterans Day (Nov. 11) at the Navy Memorial in Washington.

LaRoche — a former Gold Glove and Silver Slugger winner — visited troops downrange in December as part of the 2013 USO Chairman’s Holiday Tour.

Nick Swisher receives a birthday cake during a USO tour stop at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, on Nov. 25, 2011. USO photo

Nick Swisher receives a birthday cake during a USO tour stop at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, on Nov. 25, 2011. USO photo

Swisher and his wife — actress JoAnna Garcia Swisher — celebrated their honeymoon with a USO tour to Afghanistan over Thanksgiving in 2011.

“We aren’t their family,” Swisher told the New York Daily News after the trip. “But for a quick bit maybe we could have been, especially over Thanksgiving.”

Baltimore Orioles pitcher Darren O’Day — who has hosted USO Barbecue for the Troops events each of the last two years with his wife, Fox News reporter Elizabeth Prann — was among 11 nominees for the award but was not selected as a finalist.

USO, Partners and Donors Help Out Military Families with Back-to-School Supplies

Ashley Sibinski, 10, looks through her new backpack Aug. 2 during the USO of Metropolitan Washington’s Operation Back-to-School event at the USO Warrior and Family Center at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. Photo by TD Jackson/Courtesy of the Belvoir Eagle

Ashley Sibinski, 10, looks through her new backpack Aug. 2 during the USO of Metropolitan Washington’s Operation Back-to-School event at the USO Warrior and Family Center at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. Photo by TD Jackson/Courtesy of the Belvoir Eagle

The USO – with a big assist from its donors and partners – is helping children from military families across the world get back to school in style. Here are a few recent stories:

USO Fort Hood, Operation Homefront Team to Help Texas Kids Get a Strong Start

Children from military families from kindergarten through high school received a free backpack containing grade-appropriate school supplies Saturday during a USO/Operation Homefront event at Fort Hood, Texas. Operation Homefront provided the backpacks while the USO hosted a bingo competition, sponsored a raffle and distributed snacks, according to the Killeen (Texas) Daily Herald.

“It’s a little extra something” USO Fort Hood Interim Director Isabell Hubbard told the Daily Herald. “This falls in line with all the family programs we offer. It’s one more USO moment to create.”

http://tbo.com/storyimage/TB/20140813/ARTICLE/140819705/AR/0/AR-140819705.jpg

Kmart’s Donation Helps USO of Central Florida Get School Supplies to Kids

With time running short and funding absent, Kmart of Brandon, Florida, came through for the USO by providing $1,000 to buy school supply kits for children of local military families. The Tampa Tribune said Brandon Kmart Manager Tim Burton facilitated the donation when he heard kids of families stationed at MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, needed a hand:

“[USO of Central Florida Vice Chairwoman Mary Zolna] had contacted me in regards to supporting them with school supplies for the base,” Burton told the Tribune. “Apparently they had lost funding and had a short window to make all of this happen. I reached out to my district manager, Jeffrey Nanace, and my regional vice president, William Ellis, who did not hesitate in authorizing me to accommodate the USO’s needs. Mary came in and we were able to get everything they needed.”

USO of Metropolitan Washington-Baltimore Provides Backpacks, Educational Games

Earlier this month, the USO of Metropolitan Washington-Baltimore handed out an array of back-to-school items at the USO Warrior and Family Center at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. Kids ages 5 to 12 had to earn their backpack, according to the Belvoir Eagle, by participating in three learning stations.

“Every little bit helps, especially since we are a one income home,” Sgt. Christopher Sleep of 1st Battalion, Warrior Transition Brigade, told the Eagle. “So, this helps for sure.”

… And if You Missed It, Here’s Our Take on How to Save on Back-to-School Shopping

Check out our 10-step guide on how to save cash when looking for back-to-school supplies.

Robin Williams Created Lasting Moments on 2007 USO Tour

Comedian Robin Williams greets troops during a 2007 USO Chairman's Holiday Tour stop at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, on Dec. 17, 2007. Photo by Chad J. McNeeley/Courtesy of the Department of Defense

Comedian Robin Williams greets troops during a 2007 USO Chairman’s Holiday Tour stop at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, on Dec. 17, 2007. Photo by Chad J. McNeeley/Courtesy of the Department of Defense

Robin Williams’ personality is too big to fit into one story.

Here are two moments from the 2007 USO Chairman’s Holiday Tour we couldn’t fit into yesterday’s tribute to Williams’ service to the military.

‘You Gave Me Yours, I’ll Give You Mine’

The December 2007 tour – which also included Kid Rock, comedian Lewis Black, cyclist Lance Armstrong, Miss USA 2007 Rachel Smith, Irish tenor Ronan Tynan and was led by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen – was a bit of a rough ride. There were travel delays and crazy weather – everything you’d expect when hopping in and out of remote locations in war zones.

At one point on the tour, Williams lost his voice.

“We got on a plane and flew to Afghanistan,” said John Hanson, a USO senior vice president who was on the 2007 tour. “Long flight – got there after the show was supposed to start and the audience had been standing outside in this wet, heavy snow. [Williams] could hardly speak. But he did the show. …

“The next morning … we got on a C-130 with body armor and it was stacked in front of us. … His manager said, ‘Sit next to Robin and whenever he starts talking, tell him to shut up cause he needs his voice this afternoon.’ …

“For some reason, we had to give up our body armor. These troops were coming on and offloading it. It was either a soldier or an airman – I don’t remember – but he said ‘Mr. Williams, I didn’t get to see your show last night, but thank you for coming. It means a lot to us.’ And Robin nodded. And the guy came back on later and said ‘You know, I’ve had this for a while and it’s protected me,’ and he pulled off a St. Christopher medal. And Robin [said] ‘I can’t take that.’

“[And the service member said] ‘It’s done well for me, please take it,’ and he took a couple of the [body armor] vests and walked off. So Robin sat there and he looked at it, and he looked at his manager and me and was puzzled [and] moved.

“The guy came back on to get the last batch of [body armor], and Williams said ‘Wait, you gave me yours,’ and unbuttoned his shirt and pulled out this huge silver cross and said ‘I’ll give you mine.’

“And the [service member] said ‘I can’t take this.’ And [Williams] said ‘if you don’t take that, I won’t take this.’ And so the guy walked off with it.”

Mork at War

Part of the 2007 Chairman’s tour involved officially opening the USO center at Joint Base Balad in Iraq, with some peculiar furniture.

“When we walked in, in the computer room, there was a gaming chair,” Hanson said. “It was a big, white plastic oval. Looked like a gigantic egg.

“And [Williams] ran across, jumped in it and spun around. And it was a weird cultural reference for a lot of the young guys because they didn’t really quite get it.

“And [Williams] said ‘I better stop this [or somebody’s going to get the idea for a TV series.’”

(For everyone under the age of 40, Williams’ breakout role on “Mork and Mindy” – a sitcom that ran from 1978 to 1982 where he played an alien named Mork who came to Earth in an egg-shaped spaceship.)

USO and Team Red, White, and Blue Help Troops and Veterans Scale New Heights at Rock-Climbing Camp

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

ESTES PARK, Colo.—For many people — especially those scared of heights — scaling a 50-foot mountain wall is the last thing they’d want to do on a warm August afternoon.

But for a group of adventurous transitioning troops and veterans who attended a special three-day rock climbing camp in Colorado, climbing along the steep peaks of the Rocky Mountains seemed like the perfect way to spend a long summer weekend.

The camp, hosted by the USO and Team Red, White, and Blue, taught leadership skills and built confidence among attendees while scaling new heights. The two organizations began partnering last year to deliver an environment for troops, civilians and veterans to come together, share their stories and to build a foundation for healthy, active living.

The camp was led by climber and Wheaties athlete Tommy Caldwell and his father, Mike Caldwell, a climbing guide with over 30 years of experience. For the second year in a row, the pair helped participants scale 50-foot-plus tall mountain walls in Jurassic Park and Lumpy Ridge.

“I didn’t have people to keep in touch with when I got out,” said camp participant and veteran Antonio Ruiz. “I wish this situation was available for me back then. It would have made a big difference in my life.”

(Photo by Tyrone Marshall/Courtesy of the Department of Defense)

Climbers receive instruction during the weekend camp. Photo by Tyrone Marshall/Courtesy of the
Department of Defense

During the three-day session, Tommy Caldwell shared his personal story of overcoming a traumatic experience with the camp participants in hopes of inspiring them to conquer life’s challenges.

In 2000, while on a climbing expedition in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan, his group was held hostage at gunpoint for six days before Caldwell seized an opportunity to overpower the kidnappers, allowing for their escape. Once home, he struggled to cope with the memories of his captivity. One day, while doing home repairs, Caldwell accidentally sawed off his finger. Unable to reattach it, doctors prepped him for the possibility that he’d never climb professionally again.

“At one point a doctor told me I should really think about what I wanted to do,” Caldwell said during his speech to attendees. “I got mad because how could he not believe in me? And that inspired me even more. I left the hospital and immediately went to the gym to train.”

(Photo by Tyrone Marshall/Courtesy of the Department of Defense)

Climbers gather during the weekend camp. Photo by Tyrone Marshall/Courtesy of the
Department of Defense

In addition to learning the ins-and-outs of outdoor climbing, campers participated in a leadership seminar lead by Team Red, White, and Blue Director of Operations J.J. Pinter.

“Think about all that leadership experience,” Pinter said, according to a Department of Defense story on the seminar. “There’s no reason that you can’t go back in your communities and be the leaders that our country is drastically needing.”

USO Communications Manager Sharee Posey contributed to this post from Estes Park, Colorado, and USO Multimedia Journalist Sandi Moynihan contributed to this post from Arlington, Virginia.