8 Ways the USO Connects Troops To Home

A service member uses the internet at the USO.

From the moment they step into boot camp to the time when they transition to civilian life, troops rely on the USO to help them stay connected to their to friends and family. Here’s eight of the ways the USO does it.

1. Getting troops online: Free Internet access is one of the most popular services at USO centers today. While some USO centers offer computers for troops to use, nearly all of them offer free WiFi for people who bring their own devices. Even our Mobile USO units, like the ones we sent to Brooklyn to comfort troops cleaning up after Superstorm Sandy, are WiFi-enabled so troops serving in remote locations can get online.

2. Skyping into the delivery room: Did you know that the USO helps expecting military dads Skype into the delivery room for their baby’s birth, even if they’re abroad? Marine Capt. Nick Whitefield experienced this USO service first-hand when he watched his wife Laura deliver the couples’ second child, Ethan Whitefield, via a USO-provided Skype connection at Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan.

“The fact that I could be there, electronically, over Skype was huge,” Nick said. “It was great. It was a phenomenal experience.”

A troop makes a call from the USO in Bagram, Afghanistan. USO photo by Dave Gatley

3. Free phone calls home: In 2003, the USO launched Operation Phone Home to provide troops with free phone cards so they can call their loved ones at no cost — even when they’re in remote locations. Some USO centers abroad also offer troops access to a private phone network so they can call home on a safe, secure and reliable line inside the center.

One of these free phone calls even helped a new dad hear his baby girl’s first cries in 2006.

“The USO made that call possible for me,” said former Marine Alexander Carpenter. “And to this day I have never said thank you. … Thank you USO.”

4. Keeping story time alive: Thanks to the USO partnership with United Through Reading, deployed troops can record themselves reading a storybook at a USO center and send the DVD recording back home for their children to watch and digitally connect with them in their absence.

Navy Lt. Matthew Stroup records himself reading a book to his children during a United Through Reading event in Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of Matthew Stroup

Navy Lt. Matthew Stroup records himself reading a book to his children. Photo courtesy of Matthew Stroup

While preparing for a deployment form Japan to the Middle East in 2012, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Victor Glover told his squad about the United Through Reading program and received an overwhelming number of requests to participate. He even recorded stories for his own children.

“It was important. They really got a kick out of being able to see me,” Glover said. “At the end of the recordings, I said a message to them. I used each of their names and I said something to the effect of ‘I love you, be good, be supportive to your mom and goodnight’ because I imagined they’d do the books right before bedtime.”

5. Giving the gift of gaming: Video games are one of our younger service members’ favorite ways to unwind. That’s why most USO centers have gaming stations featuring popular video games like “Call of Duty” and “Halo.” At some centers, service members can even play the games against friends and family around the globe online in real time.

But troops aren’t always stationed near brick-and-mortar USO centers. With that in mind, the USO developed the Mobile Entertainment Gaming System (MEGS) so service members can enjoy video games no matter their location.

6. Serving up comfort foods from home: Sometimes, all it takes to make service members feel connected to home is taste of their favorite foods. That’s why USO patrons can always find a variety of snack, drink and meal options at centers around the world. Some centers, like USO Great Lakes, provide a free, home-cooked meals for troops, while others, like many Southwest Asia centers, always seem to be churning out comforting sweet treats, like homemade ice cream.

A Halloween/Thanksgiving USO Holiday Box from 2011.

A Halloween/Thanksgiving USO Holiday Box from 2011.

7. Bringing the holidays to troops abroad: Being deployed during a special holiday can make troops feel even further from home. That’s why many USO centers host a number special parties and events around those red calendar days.

Troops in remote areas far from a USO center can even get in on the fun, too, thanks to the USO Holiday Boxes program. These special seasonal boxes, filled with games, decorations and other festive supplies are designed to help service members celebrate the year’s special days in any location. There are four seasonal boxes units can request throughout the year, including a Halloween/Thanksgiving box that helped a handful of service members have a spooky Halloween back in 2011.

8. Welcoming troops home: Even though a homecoming is already a joyful occasion for military families, the USO has a history of stepping in to make the day even more memorable. From helping arriving troops freshen up before reuniting with their loved ones to coordinating surprise homecomings like this, this, and this, the USO there to celebrate military families finally reconnecting after a long deployment apart.

Worldwide USO Teamwork Helps Bring Marine Home for Grandfather’s Funeral

A old photo of J.D. Scott during his military service. Photo courtesy Bryant Scott

A old photo of J.D. Scott during his military service. Photo courtesy Marine Lance Cpl. Bryant Scott

Bryant Scott knew he was in for a long trip, a lot of waiting and some personal grief.

But he didn’t expect the two people holding the sign.

The Marine lance corporal was stationed on Okinawa, Japan, in April when his grandfather — Korean War veteran J.D. Scott — suffered a stroke and unexpectedly passed away.

Bryant put in a request for emergency leave so he could travel to Granbury, Texas, to attend the funeral. Once his command approved the request, Bryant waited three days at Kadena Air Base before securing a seat on a military flight to Travis Air Force Base, California.

“I had no real logistical plan besides return stateside and improvise as much as possible,” Bryant wrote in an email.

During a layover in Hawaii, Bryant called a cab company and arranged for it pick him up at Travis and drive him to the Sacramento International Airport — the closest commercial airport to the base — where he’d try to find a flight home. That’s when the USO stepped in.

Lance Cpl. Bryant Scott. Photo courtesy Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Bryant Scott

Lance Cpl. Bryant Scott. Photo courtesy Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Bryant Scott

While Bryant was flying over the ocean, his family readiness officer told the USO Pacific office about the situation. USO staff there reached out to the USO Regional Office back in the United States to see if anyone at USO Bay Area could drive Bryant to Sacramento so he wouldn’t have to pay for a long, expensive cab ride late at night. Chris and Mary Ann Mezzapelle, who were volunteering at USO Travis at the time, heard about the Marine’s situation and offered to pick him up and drive him wherever he needed to go.

Bryant landed at Travis around 10:30 p.m. and — much to his surprise — saw the Mezzapelles, who were waiting for him with a “Lance Cpl. Bryant Scott” sign and a USO gift basket.

“I was still somewhat shocked,” Bryant wrote. “I think I asked for their identification to make sure they were legitimate [USO volunteers], or something along those lines.”

After a series of explanations, introductions and assuring Bryant that he wouldn’t have to pay for any cab rides that night, the Mezzapelles helped the Marine book a more convenient flight home out of San Francisco International Airport for the next morning and drove him to that airport. At some point during the drive, the Mezzapelles stopped at Denny’s and treat Bryant to a meal.

“They didn’t ask for anything in return, no matter the amount of times I offered to pay them for gas, food and their time,” Bryant wrote. “I still am just so overwhelmed by their kindness.”

The Mezzapelles pose in front of the USO logo. Photo courtesy Chris Mezzapelle

The Mezzapelles pose in front of the USO logo. Photo courtesy Chris Mezzapelle

Once they arrived at San Francisco International, where the Mezzapelles also volunteer, Mary Ann escorted Bryant to the 24-hour USO center so he could get some rest before his early flight the next morning.

“It sounds kind of selfish, but it makes us feel great,” Chris said. “We really enjoy doing [volunteer work at the USO]. I used the USO when I was in the service back in the early seventies.”

The next morning, rested and refueled with USO refreshments, Bryant took off for Texas, making it home in time to pay his respects to his grandfather.

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“After all the horrible events that had happened to my family, along with the animosity and adversity I encountered while trying to make it home, I was overcome with heartfelt joy and gratitude,” Bryant wrote. “I didn’t know what to say to show my appreciation, hopefully my face and constant ‘thank you’s (which probably became annoying after a while) was enough to show how truly appreciative I am/was.”

Bryant even wrote a poem in honor of the Mezzapelles:

A miracle does not always have to be a mighty act of God
Or some great deed
Or overcoming the impossible
Or walking barefoot on the sea
Miracles come unexpectedly
As an answer to a prayer
To how an act of love
And that someone truly cares
It can be lending a hand to a neighbor
It can be helping a friend in need
It can be doing someone a favor
Without asking for anything
With any act of kindness
Mighty, great, or small
Miracles can happen all the time
When you reach out and lift other from despair
I know because there was a time when I was in need
and you were the ones who were truly there

Caregivers of Wounded, Ill and Injured Troops Get Lessons in Resiliency at USO Seminar

Brooks, left, chats with another caregiver attendee.

Angela Brooks, left, chats with another caregiver attendee.

FORT LEONARD WOOD, Missouri—Angela Brooks can’t remember the last time she put herself first.

Between working, taking care of her children and caring for her disabled Air Force veteran husband of 20 years —who struggles with PTSD — there’s little time left at to address her personal needs.

“I literally have the world on my shoulders,” Brooks said. “[Caregivers like me] do a lot and it’s not so much physical anguish, it’s mental anguish, and that’s hard, hard.”

So when Brooks heard Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, was hosting a USO Caregivers Seminar — a day of interactive programming designed to address the immediate needs of those who care for wounded, ill and injured service members — she knew she had to attend.

Brooks, second from the right, plays a icebreaker game between sessions

Brooks, second from the right, plays a icebreaker game between sessions.

“I came because I wanted it to be about me [and my needs for a change],” Brooks said.

After participating in the two morning sessions, which featured gameon Nation Vice President Blair Bloomston and Stronger Families Executive Director Noel Meador, respectively, Brooks — who’d never attended any type of caregiver-centric programming before — was already glad she came.

“I felt very isolated up until today,” Brooks said. “[But today at the USO Caregivers Seminar] I feel comfortable. I feel safe and I feel like I’m not going to be judged.”

Brooks, far right, takes a selfie as part of an icebreaker activity.

Brooks, far right, takes a selfie as part of an icebreaker activity.

Brooks even felt comfortable enough to share details about her daily challenges with the entire room during a communications skill development activity. Brooks admits she relished in the rare opportunity to talk about the sometimes-difficult task of being a caretaker with other people who are experiencing similar situations.

“I just want to learn more and be open and this environment is very opening and freeing,” Brooks said. “What I was talking about earlier, [my personal story], there was no way I would have said that in certain [other] settings.”

“I just really really appreciate people thinking of us,” Brooks said.

Bloomston, second from left, plays a game with a caregiver

Bloomston, second from left, plays a game with a caregiver.

According to Bloomston, even the simplest, quietest games can have a profound and lasting impact.

Take the game of Coins for example. To play, Bloomston asked attendees to think of a list of things that made them smile, shine and feel valuable. There was one catch: none of the participants’ ideas — which are called Coins in this game — can include things that were related to their role as a caregiver. For example, a standard list of acceptable Coins might include favorite foods, favorite places or simply the role of being a sibling, friend or family member.

Attendees play the game of 'Zip Zap Za' at the game on Nation session.

Attendees play the game of ‘Zip Zap Za’ at the game on Nation session.

Once attendees had their list, Bloomston asked them to pause and focus on their Coins for a moment. Many caregivers in the room started to smile. Then, after the time was up, Bloomston asked participants write down or remember their Coins so they could always carry them, metaphorically, in their pocket for empowerment the next time they face a difficulty as a caregiver.

Although it might not seem like much, Bloomston says the game, along with other gameon Nation games, can lead to huge improvements in how caregivers approach their challenges.

“You can tell somebody a statement like ‘Be confident’ or, you can put them through and experience and feel what it’s like to be confident and the spirit of play and the science of game dynamics makes that moving experience happen in a very quick way,” Bloomston said. “Caregivers can use these skills … to do their job with excellence and stay revitalized and give oxygen back to themselves.”

In fact, Bloomston’s already seen the positive impact on previous USO Caregivers Seminar attendees who have participated in gameon Nation sessions.

“The best part of the feedback is when I return to a base or when I return to a post years later and people come up to me and say ‘I still have my coins in my pocket,'” Bloomston said.

Operation That’s My Dress: Female Troops, Military Spouses Get Styled Up at USO Event

NEW YORK–As a busy mom and public affairs officer in the Navy, Petty Officer 1st Class Bickiana Patton doesn’t have many opportunities to show off her feminine side. But thanks to the USO — and sponsors Sherri Hill, Ann Taylor and Ralph Lauren — Patton was able to let her hair down and enjoy an afternoon of fashion and pampering at USO Operation That’s My Dress at Fleet Week New York 2015.

“I have to admit, it was wonderful,” Patton said. “The USO helped me feel like a diva today.”

Now in it’s third year, USO Operation That’s My Dress, which normally caters to military teens attending formal events, has expanded to include events tailored towards female service members and military spouses.

“There are many, many sacrifices these women make to serve our country or to go with their husband,” said USO of Metropolitan New York Vice President of Programs Ray Kennedy. “And today is a way to make sure we know that we value them, we understand their femininity and we want to make them feel beautiful inside and outside.”

The afternoon of glitz and glam kicked off with a performance by the USO Show Troupe and a fashion show featuring professional models and the Miss USA and Miss Teen USA titleholders. After the show, attendees enjoyed hair and make-up demonstrations by professional stylists before heading upstairs to find the perfect dress. Spouses and female service members were event treated to free accessories by JTV jewelry to complete their look.

“My husband and I are transferring very soon, so just to be able to do this before we move … we just want to thank you,” said Coast Guard spouse Casey Van Huysen.

USO Korea Helps Military Families Fuel Up Before Meeting Secretary of State John Kerry

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The USO on South Korea reacted quickly to support troops and their families as they met and listened to Secretary of State John Kerry during his visit Yongsan Garrison near Seoul.

USO Korea staff and volunteers were on-site at the Collier Field House, where Kerry spoke, providing troops and families with water, healthy snacks and USO fans, wristbands and stickers.

“The children absolutely loved all of the … [giveaway] items, especially fans and wristbands,” USO Korea Area Programs Manager Michelle Zamora-Trilling wrote in an email.

As the event transitioned inside, USO Korea staff continued to provide refreshments and even got to snap a few pictures with Kerry.

Love Connection: USO of New York Volunteers Marry After Meeting at the Port Authority Center

Prentice-Faller and Faller pose at the Douglas MacArthur Center USO. Photo courtesy Joy Prentice-Faller

Joy Prentice-Faller and Maj. Joe Faller pose at the Douglas MacArthur Center USO. Photo courtesy Joy Prentice-Faller

Joy Prentice-Faller wasn’t looking for love when she started volunteering at the USO in 2011.

Instead, it found her.

It started one Saturday morning in 2012 at the USO of Metropolitan New York’s Douglas MacArthur Center inside the Port Authority Bus Terminal, when Prentice-Faller showed up early to teach Marine Reserve Maj. Joe Faller how to open the center.

Unbeknownst to Prentice-Faller and Pat Walsh — the USO of Metropolitan New York’s manager of programs and services who coordinated the shift — Faller had already been trained.

“We realized that it wasn’t his first time [opening the center] and that we had just kind of gotten put on the schedule together,” Prentice-Faller said. “But that started more of the first conversation [between us].”

After that shift, the duo started to see each other outside of the USO and eventually began dating.

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“I think volunteering together gave us something in common, or just kinda showed us that we had similar values because we could kinda work together as a team, or work together and be on the same page,” Faller said.

No one at the center knew about their relationship until about six months later, when the couple was walking side-by-side in New York City’s Veterans Day parade.

“[Walsh] kind of figured it out when [she saw that] we were holding hands walking up Fifth Avenue with the USO float,” Prentice-Faller said.

Pat Walsh gives a toast at Prentice-Faller and Faller's wedding. Photo courtesy Joy Prentice-Faller

USO of Metropolitan New York’s Pat Walsh gives a toast at Prentice-Faller wedding. Photo courtesy Joy Prentice-Faller

The two got engaged in 2013 and were married last year. They even asked Walsh to give a toast at the reception and talk about how they met.

“So when nobody was really telling that story [of how they met at the USO], I thought, I have to tell it,’” Walsh said.

“When you put people on the same shift, you don’t know that [they’re] going to get married, of course.”
The couple still volunteers at the USO’s Port Authority location.