Special Delivery, Indeed: Air Force Spouse Leaves USO/What To Expect Baby Shower to Give Birth

Kylee Austin and Heidi Murkoff at the USO Special Delivery event, left, and then hours later at the hospital. Photos courtesy of the Austin family.

Kylee Austin and Heidi Murkoff at the USO Special Delivery event, left, and then hours later at the hospital with Kylee’s husband Air Force Capt. Josh Austin. Photos Copyright Candace Castor.

Heidi Murkoff said the room was beautiful — full of baby shower decorations and brimming with pregnant women.

Kylee Austin, an Air Force spouse and mom-to-be attending the baby shower at the Kadena Officers Club in Okinawa, Japan, had waited a year for the USO event to come back to the country after her friend raved about her experience at the 2014 edition.

“I thought my baby would come before the event and I was really sad I was going to miss out, but I figured I might register anyway just in case,” Austin said.

USO/What to Expect Special Delivery baby showers are a chance for new military moms and moms-to-be to bond with others in their community going through similar experiences, like being away from their family and coping with their spouse missing the birth of their son or daughter. The showers typically feature lunch, traditional baby shower games, supply giveaways and an intimate Q&A session with Murkoff, author of the “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” series.

But this wouldn’t be a typical baby shower.

Austin had gone to the doctor’s that morning and everything looked fine. She was enjoying the event with the other mothers and all of a sudden started having contractions. First seven minutes apart. Then six. Then five.

The USO volunteers were so worried for me, checking on me and offering to drive me to the hospital if necessary,” Austin said, “but I wanted to stick it out to hear what [Murkoff] had to say.”

Murkoff, familiar with pregnant mothers, noticed Austin pacing around the back of the room “looking very serious and talking on the phone.”

“She was doing a lot of belly clutching and holding her back,” Murkoff wrote in an email. “I thought — hmmm, that’s interesting. Sure enough, I found out during the book signing that she had been having contractions and another mama had taken her over to the hospital.”

The timing meant Kylee missed the opportunity to spend one-on-one time with Murkoff, but the USO made a point to bring Murkoff by hospital the next day to meet baby Tristan, who was born at 5:42 a.m. that morning.

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“It isn’t easy being pregnant under the best of circumstances — to do it while serving our country, far from the network of family and friends who usually help and support a mom-to-be through the journey — is exponentially harder,” Murkoff wrote. “To work with the USO to fill in some of those blanks for these mamas is an honor and an incredible opportunity. Plus I love the hugs and the baby cuddles.”

Murkoff says a special delivery during Special Delivery was bound to happen at some point. Still, this was a first for the program.

“The USO was just so sweet and supportive,” Austin said. “My favorite thing about being there was just getting to meet all the other ladies who were pregnant and getting the community support. It was such a neat experience for us and to tell our son in the future.”

True to military fashion, the Austins had their son Tristan while deployed and then less than two weeks later executed orders to return stateside, doing what military families do best.

“It was no surprise to us,” Austin said about receiving orders so soon, “but that’s why we have the USO there to help us out along the way. We take advantage of every center at every airport and that’s honestly what’s been getting us through.”

Mobile USO Helps Troops Through Long Summer Training Days

Images from the Mobile USO's stop in Oklahoma. Courtesy of Spc. Tyler Davis

Images from the Mobile USO’s stop in Oklahoma. Courtesy of Spc. Tyler Davis

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.

Ask Army National Guard Spc. Tyler Davis, a 21-year-old from Lawton, Oklahoma, who took to Instagram last week to show his appreciation when his unit, the 160th Field Artillery Brigade, received a surprise visit from a Mobile USO while conducting annual training.

“It was a huge relief to get a break from the heat and to get away from all the brass,” Davis said. “We just got to lay back and chill. It felt incredible.”

Davis, who’s been in the Guard for more than four years, was pulling 48-hour shifts in the blazing sun wearing bulky laser simulation gear when the Mobile USO arrived.

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

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

The fleet of USO vehicles is on the road throughout the continental U.S., serving troops and raising awareness about the USO.

“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

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Sometimes they are created to facilitate the changing travel needs of troops stateside. Sometimes they are erected downrange and built 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 in the Republic of Djibouti.

The United States established a strategic military presence in Djibouti in 2002, just 30 miles across the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait from Yemen. The Navy’s expeditionary base there is home to nearly 4,000 U.S. troops and serves as a hub in the fight against extremist groups as well as a staging point for counter-piracy operations in the region.

After last year’s announcement that the U.S. would spend $1 billion over the next 20 years to enlarge the base in Djibouti, the USO decided it was time to open up a permanent canteen to bring a slice of home to troops stationed there.

“Most of the troops here are unaccompanied and stay from 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.”

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Currently the only staffed USO center on the continent of Africa, USO Camp Lemonnier consists of two Quonset huts attached by a walkway, located in a region of the base nick named “tent city” because that’s where the more temporary housing and facilities are located.

The two tents contain a lounge area with leather chairs, a full canteen with snacks and treats from home, free toiletries and plenty of phones and computers 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.”

Follow the USO Camp Lemonnier Facebook page to learn about upcoming events and to see pictures from inside the center.

Alternative Healing: USO Warrior and Family Centers Offer a Different Type of Therapy for Wounded Warriors

When it comes to helping wounded warriors recover, the USO is always trying to fill in the gaps.

The two USO Warrior and Family Centers on the military hospital campuses at Bethesda, Maryland, and at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, have developed a suite of complementary and alternative healing programs for recovering wounded warriors.

“At the USO Warrior and Family Centers we are able to offer a variety of wellness programs — not only through acupuncture, yoga, massage, Reiki and reflexology — but also in arts, writing, cooking, gardening, and more,” said Ashy Palliparambil, a program specialist for USO of Metropolitan Washington-Baltimore. “There’s a plethora of options for the service members to choose from and having those options there for them lets them choose for themselves what works for them.”

Most of the wellness programming is serviced through two partnered nonprofits. Veteran-operated There and Back Again offers acupuncture, yoga and alternative healing retreats where recovering troops can find what works for them, while Cause offers Reiki, massage and reflexology.

“A lot of the recovering service members are either staying in the hospital or in the housing near the hospital,” Cause Program Director Sarah Marshall said. “They can either walk from their house or they can walk from the hospital — it’s maybe a five-minute walk tops — and the USO has everything they need.”

“Partnering with the USO and the hospital and being a private organization, they can come in on a walk-in basis or schedule an appointment in times when they are waiting for an appointment,” There and Back Again Program Manager Natasha Glynn said. “That fills the gap … when they feel like they may want to try something new or different in between.”

Little Things Often Mean the Most: How One Wounded Warrior’s Day was Brightened at the USO

Army Maj. David Keithan

Army Maj. David Keithan

After a brief surgical stay to repair the shoulder he injured during a 2006 tour in Iraq, Army Maj. David Keithan stopped into the USO Warrior Center in Landstuhl, Germany. He just wanted to “chill out and take a break for a minute” before walking the rest of the way to the Fisher House where he was staying.

After signing in, Keithan spotted a jar of spaghetti sauce and a packet of ramen on the counter and it transported him back to his childhood.

“I saw it and I just thought, ‘Man that looks good,’” Keithan said. “I know it sounds really, really weird but I used to eat that as a kid. I’d always throw the packet of flavoring in the Oodles of Noodles away because it was too salty and I’d put spaghetti sauce on it instead. It’s a quick meal and growing up I used to eat it that way all the time.”

Whether it’s the smell of fresh cooking, a familiar brand of coffee or just the “howdy” of an American volunteer, it’s often little things inside each USO center that connect troops to their communities back home.

Keithan, who has been in the Army more than 18 years, asked a USO volunteer if it was okay if his wife – who was traveling with him – cooked him some spaghetti the way he likes it.

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“It wasn’t anything gourmet, but it was exactly what I wanted at that moment,” he said. “It’s like chocolate chip cookies made by Grammie. Grammie loves her American service members, and when you eat that cookie you feel connected … and you love her like she’s your own grandmother. I don’t care how young and how tough these soldiers think they are, they all have mothers and grandmothers and they know exactly what I’m talking about.”

Being from a small town in Maine, Keithan says it’s the little things that continue to bring him back to the USO. On one USO visit, he found his favorite local brand of coffee from Boston, which reminded him of home. Another time he was just comforted by hearing a friendly northeastern accent.

“It comes from everywhere,” Keithan said. “We all have different cultures in the States and all these little things come from the people who donate to the USO and as little as those things are — it could be a packet of sauce from your favorite local fast food chain — it brings you back home in that moment.”

Video: USO MEGS Keep Troops Gaming in Far Corners of Globe

By 2008, roughly 97 percent of American 12-to-17 year olds were playing video games. Thousands of those kids are now in the military and they’re still gaming—even when they’re deployed—thanks to the USO-developed MEGS (Mobile Entertainment Gaming System).

“MEGS is a portable, ruggedized case containing a console gaming system and a television, which troops can take with them and easily set up anywhere they have a one-ten power connection and play DVDs and video games in a matter of minutes,” said Juston Reynolds, the USO Programs Manager responsible for launching and managing the program.

“The USO started this project about five or six years ago in order to meet the growing needs of deployed troops, and now the project is in its third iteration with the Xbox One and everyone downrange can’t get enough of it.”