USO Center Director Receives Army Outstanding Civilian Service Award for Work in Afghanistan


Regina Wages, left, receives the Army Outstanding Civilian Service Medal from Gen. John F. Campbell, Commander of U.S. Forces Afghanistan. USO Photo

Regina Wages now has something in common with World War II hero Audie Murphy, former Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig and “The Late Show” host and USO tour veteran Stephen Colbert.

On Sept. 24, Wages received the Army Outstanding Civilian Service Award for her work as director of the USO center at Forward Operating Base Fenty in Afghanistan. Army Gen. John F. Campbell, Commander of U.S. Forces Afghanistan, presented her with the medal during a recent visit by military senior leadership.

“Units have deployed and returned home over these years and Regina has just continued to take care of the troops and the leadership to make their service there more bearable,” USO Regional Vice President Bruce Burda wrote in an email.

Described by Burda as “the dynamic and bridging force at FOB Fenty over the past five years,” Wages, a former South Carolina police officer, “has worked hard to keep the center open around the clock so this small base always has a place for the troops to relax and get away from their routine. With only one or two staff members at most, she has taken advantage of every opportunity to build key relationships and has lifted tens of thousands of troops’ spirits during her time in Afghanistan.”

With her sixth Christmas in Afghanistan approaching, Wages has pledged to stay in Eastern Afghanistan as long as the USO needs her there.

“Just because we’re not in combat mode doesn’t mean ISIS and the Taliban got that memo,” she said during a recent phone call as an alarm sounded in the background. “As you can hear, FOB life is very much the same.”

Wages said her most rewarding experience was an opportunity to bring holiday cheer to troops in the most austere fighting positions.

“We flew in helicopters up into the Kunar on the Pakistan border to more than 30 camps, some literally on the sides of snow-covered mountains with my sergeant major sitting next to me wearing a Santa Claus hat,” she said. “They were running off a generators, these kids. There were no latrines or showers up there. They take baths every few days off a solar bag and they do their business in a hole.

“Taking them an Xbox or a PlayStation, and games on Christmas — these kids would cry. And their reactions, by far, made this whole journey worthwhile.”

USO South Carolina Moves Quickly to Support First Responders, Military Community Amid Flooding

Joanie Thresher tried to explain the situation through the tears.

“The roads are gone. They’re not just covered in mud. They’re gone.

“It’s just so heartbreaking.”

At least 18 dams were breached and more than 100 bridges washed away in South Carolina after a five-day deluge of rain from Hurricane Joaquin. The weather caused more than a dozen deaths and potentially more than $1 billion in damage statewide.

The flooding has been especially hard on the state’s military community. USO South Carolina has kept its Columbia Metropolitan Airport center open to troops while providing aid to service members and families around Fort Jackson – where the Army trains more than half its new soldiers – and 1,300 National Guard first responders.

“This flood is hitting the heart of our military community,” said Thresher, the director of USO South Carolina, in a Tuesday night phone call. “There are so many military families who live in the areas worst hit, and it’s supposed to get worse before it gets better.”

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Hurricane Joaquin put an all-stop to base operations Saturday, leaving dozens of troops stranded overnight at nearby Columbia Metropolitan Airport, where hundreds typically pass through the USO lounge daily on their way to and from basic training.

USO South Carolina has called on its volunteers and donors for logistical support to help deliver basic supplies like water to military families in need.

“Everyone is bringing in supplies from water to food, diapers, formula and baby wipes, everything you can imagine they are just bringing in truckloads to us to give to service members,” Thresher said. “It’s just unbelievable.”

Thresher said most of the USO support is focused on the Guardsmen working search-and-rescue missions along the coast, where water and energy drinks are crucial. Volunteers are also delivering water, food and supplies to the inland areas and communities near Fort Jackson.

Starbucks came through with almost 300 pounds of ground coffee, water and individually wrapped food. The Columbia Chamber of Commerce, GEICO, Lowes and other businesses made financial donations.

“[It’s like the USO is] the only bridge that’s still intact,” Thresher said, “because we’re blessed to be able to get onto the installations and on to the flight lines where we can help load Chinooks and sling-load pallets to be taken across the city to the people who need it because our roads are gone.”

USO Cincinnati Volunteer Builds Makeshift Crib to Ease Family’s Travel Woes


Brooke Moore, the daughter of Army Staff Sgt. Jason and Beth Moore, sleeps in a makeshift crib at a USO center at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in June. Photo courtesy of the Moore family

It started as an ordinary trip. Army Staff Sgt. Jason Moore and his wife Beth traveled from Fort Hood, Texas, to Ohio for a wedding, their two young children in tow.

After finding out a close family member in Ohio was diagnosed with cancer, Beth and the two kids stayed a few days longer while Jason went back to his duty station to report for work. But when the trio went to catch their flight at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, nothing went as planned.

“First the plane had some sort of maintenance issue which delayed us for hours,” she said. “Then it was announced it would be even a few more hours and then finally the flight was was outright cancelled.

“Fortunately we were right next to the USO, so I was able to bring the kids in there and wait for who knows how long.”

Thinking her husband would be there traveling with her for the duration of the trip, Beth left the family stroller at home and was ill-prepared to handle both the needs of a 7-month-old and a newly potty-trained 2-year-old toddler, who, of course, had to use the bathroom at the exact moment the 7-month-old needed to be put down to sleep.

Recognizing the needs of the overwhelmed mother, quick-thinking USO volunteer Peggy Littrell fashioned a makeshift crib from two chairs she found inside the USO lounge, facing them toward each other and lining the furniture with a blanket. Littrell watched the 7-month-old so Beth could take care of the 2-year-old.

“It was amazing,” Beth said. “I didn’t know people still do that anymore.”

Littrell kept the USO center open until midnight, when she contacted airport security to help the family their gate for departure.

“When I got home my husband couldn’t believe it when I told him what happened,” Beth said. “He saw the photo it was one of the rare times I’ve seen him cry. He typically doesn’t share something like this on social media, but It really touched him that someone would take so much time out to care for his family.”

“There’s no training orientation or anything like that in the world which teaches people to do stuff like this,” USO Cincinnati Volunteer Coordinator Kathy Williams about Littrell’s compassionate actions that night. “It’s instinct.”

Brewing Success: USO Partner Starbucks Helps Lead the Way on Military Transition

JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Washington—Any coffee lover can tell you how they got hooked on their favorite drink. Retired Army Maj. Steve Chavez has a story about how he got hooked on an entire coffee company.

To mark National Coffee Day, the USO is shining a light on how one of the USO’s coffee partners — Starbucks — has taken the lead in the military transition space, committing to hire 10,000 veterans by 2018.

The Seattle-based coffee giant — which has donated thousands of servings of its VIA coffee as well as thousands of pounds of ground coffee to the USO to distribute to troops around the world and is also financially supporting the USO Transition 360 Alliance — hired Chavez to work at their Joint Base Lewis-McChord location and empowered him to advance up the management chain. Watch his story.

Military Community Finds Strength in Gold Star Mothers

A 2012 Gold Star Mothers Day display at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. DOD photo

A 2012 Gold Star Mothers Day display at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. DOD photo

After 14 years of war, the bonds of America’s military community have been strengthened by the tempered hearts of a group of mostly civilians: Gold Star Mothers.

These mothers, along with the rest of the surviving families of service members who’ve died, often find strength in their military support network. They stay connected through organizations like the USO and TAPS, which help these families through their worst days.

“The gold stars are very small symbols and very subdued symbols in our society,” said Donna Engeman, a Gold Star Spouse and manager of the Army’s Installation Management Command (IMCOM) survivor outreach services program. “Outside the survivor community, there are not a whole lot of people who know what Gold Star means. But these symbols are so huge to the survivor community.”

The gold star symbolism goes back to World War I, when families with loved ones serving overseas displayed blue star banners in their windows. Families of the fallen then replaced the blue star banner with a gold star banner to bring awareness and honor to their lost loved one.

Gold Star Mothers Day, observed on the last Sunday in September, was established by joint congressional resolution on June 23, 1936, and has been observed each year since by presidential proclamation.

From the most junior enlisted to the most senior officer, it’s a day when all service members render a salute to the mothers who lost their children in service to America.

“We should be so proud of them and their sacrifice,” Gen. Ray Odierno told the Washington Post as he retired last month. “They love just staying connected to the Army, to the units that their children or sons or daughters or husbands were in, and for me [it’s] incredibly important that we do that.”