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 taking 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.”

Alabama Baseball Tournament Unites Community, Raises More Than $60,000 Over Three Years for the USO

The check presentation. USO photo

The Hits for Heroes check presentation. USO photo

Each spring in America, colored stirrups are excavated from the bottom of sock drawers, hardened orange clay is knocked loose from cleats and home plate is dusted clean so the local baseball diamond – and community – can come to life.

In Dothan, Alabama, the game has evolved beyond America’s pastime to become the way this small town says thank you to the men and women who protect their freedom.

Organized by a self-proclaimed stay-at-home wife who “couldn’t stay at home while service members sacrificed,” Hits for Heroes Director Angela Dunning brought more than 20 teams together in her local area to participate in a two-week baseball tournament to raise awareness of the sacrifices America’s troops make and to raise money so the USO can provide them more comforts when they’re away.

Players and coaches wore camouflage Hits for Heroes jerseys at each game. And during the fifth inning, Dunning invited everyone who is a veteran or military family member onto the field to be honored.

“Our community has just wrapped its arms around it,” said Dunning, who canvassed Dothan to gather corporate sponsors and participants.

“It’s more about the cause than it is about baseball, but because you’re including baseball, we get so many more people participating. And since every single person in America needs to thank our military, it has … become the way this town says ‘thank you.’

“And when it comes to the best vehicle in which to deliver that message of thanks, the USO is a no-brainer.”

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This year’s Hits for Heroes tournament raised $23,000 for the USO, bringing the three-year total donation to more than $60,000.

“I’ve yet to meet a single person who has a relationship with the military — either through their spouse or themselves — who doesn’t have a great story to tell about the USO,” Dunning said. “So we feel honored to partner with the USO and hope we can continue this effort for years to come.”