USO and TAPS Come Through for Army Family After Son’s Suicide

Corey Smith was a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom who committed suicide in 2012

Corey Smith, a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, committed suicide Dec. 29, 2012. Courtesy of the Smith family

Like every Saturday morning, Kathy Smith expected a phone call from her Army veteran son.

But on this Saturday, it was a call from someone else.

“Corey Jon Smith, what did you do? Oh my God kid! What did you do?” she recalls shouting aloud from her bathroom before gathering the family at her oldest son Travis’ house to share the tragic news.

Their beloved Corey, her youngest child who had struggled with post-traumatic stress for years after serving in Iraq and who was close to graduating with a psychology degree with the intention of helping others going through similar problems, had committed suicide at his home in Anchorage, Alaska.

“You know what, God,” she recalled saying, “I absolutely do not agree with this plan. I don’t like this plan and I don’t agree with it.

“But I believe in you and I trust you, and I’m trusting that you’re going to take care of us now, because we have to get to Anchorage.”

Corey Smith on deployment in Iraq, 2006. Courtesy photo

Corey Smith during a 2006 Iraq deployment.

Kathy said the family had recently spent the last of its savings on her nursing school tuition and were trying to figure out how to get gas and food for the week. There were no funds to get to Anchorage.

“When TAPS stepped into the picture with the USO, they covered all of those areas,” she said. “When I told you they were the answer to a prayer, I wasn’t kidding. They answered our prayers to a ‘T.’ There’s not a day that goes by that we don’t think of the people at TAPS and the USO.”

On Dec. 29, 2012, TAPS (Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors) received a call from a friend who lived near the Smith family in Big Lake, Minnesota, explaining the Smiths’ need to get to Anchorage quickly to comfort their 26-year-old now-widowed daughter-in-law and 3-year-old granddaughter.

TAPS moved quickly to make that happen. The only available flight plan included an overnight layover in Seattle, which meant asking the USO to act as a concierge for the family. Within days, the Smiths were on their way to Alaska, arriving at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport just as the ball was dropping to start 2013 in New York City.

“We were so exhausted,” Tim Smith said. “In a situation like that, you wouldn’t know what you want if you wanted it, your brain is so scrambled and confused — kind of just hanging in limbo.”

USO SeaTac Director Bill Baker greeted them and guided them to the USO, where they stayed until their 6 a.m. flight.

“It was a heartbreaking week to say the least,” Baker said. “My volunteers did an amazing job taking care of them and made them feel so comfortable and welcome when they asked if they could stay in the USO instead of a hotel so they could be closer to military troops.”

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With an early flight and Kathy nursing a broken foot from dropping her laptop bag on it that day, they decided staying at the USO was the most convenient decision.

“I remember we went to bed at about 1:30 or 2 a.m. but the gentleman on duty at the USO said he had an alarm set for us, and that he and another woman would be up all night to look over us” Kathy Smith said. “I know for a fact that they were because I saw them come in and check on us. I couldn’t sleep, so I watched her pull the covers up over my daughter.”

The Smiths made it to Anchorage for the funeral proceedings and back to their home outside Minneapolis without further incident, all the while being watched over by TAPS and USO volunteers.

“Throughout the whole time we would get calls from TAPS asking us if we needed anything or if we forgot anything,” Kathy Smith said. “They called to make sure we got to the USO safely and we got calls shortly after we arrived. Every step of the way they made sure that we weren’t stranded anywhere at any point in time.

“In that moment and in so many others, USO volunteers made a grieving family feel more comfortable and gave them such care during a very difficult time,” said Bonnie Carroll, President and Founder of TAPS. “It’s the perfect example of why and how our organizations rely on each other to care for military families during their most difficult moments.”

His sister Autum set up a peer support foundation called Coreysadventuresfoundation.org, to memorialize Corey by connecting veterans with each other and by connecting the families dealing with the aftermath of PTSD-related suicides. Corey believed in “Faith, Family, Friends, and Freedom,” but at his heart he was an adventure-seeker who believed in the brotherhood of one soldier to another. The Smiths believe the key is to facilitate outdoor adventures and activities where veterans and families can meet and connect.

“I miss him very much,” Kathy Smith said. “But there are still Saturdays when I wake up thinking Corey’s going to call today.”

USO Reunites Green Beret Team for Purple Heart Ceremony to Remember

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Army Special Forces teams are tight. When one person goes down, the entire team reels.

When Green Beret Sgt. 1st Class Joseph Lowery was shot in the head fighting in Afghanistan on July 7, even the battalion surgeon was unsure of Lowery’s prognosis when the team loaded him onto a C-17 at 3 a.m. The last thing the group did was present his Purple Heart to him in a hasty, bedside ceremony Lowery would never remember.

Then the Green Berets went back at work, doing their mission, completely unaware of the GoFund Me page Lowery’s mother had posted.

“Joseph used his eyes to communicate to me and others this week. One blink means yes!” Darlene Lowery, wrote on the page last summer.

Six months after Lowery was shot outside a village West of Kandahar, Afghanistan, he had progressed to near-full cognitive recovery. When his fellow Green Berets got word that he was conscious and communicating, they asked for leave to go visit.

Unfortunately, battalion surgeon Maj. Kenneth Johnson was only able to get tickets for himself, the medic who rendered care to Lowery and the two junior engineers on the team who worked closest to him. The whole team wanted to go, but the Army had its limits.

Frustrated, the battalion surgeon called Priya Butler, USO Director of Operations in Southwest Asia, for help getting his nine team members from Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, to Palo Alto, California, where they could present their friend with the Purple Heart in a ceremony he’d remember.

Butler reached out to USO Bay Area Director Jeff Herndon who contacted Piper Hardin, a USO major gifts director. Hardin called David Haddad, USO Arizona advisor and founder of the Friends of Freedom nonprofit. Haddad not only flew the entire team to San Francisco, but also used his connections to put all 10 men up at the Four Seasons.

“Within an hour my board approved everything and within 24 hours we were making arrangements to get the entire team there,” Haddad said.

Less than one day and 27 emails later, the mission was set. The team was booked to San Francisco where Haddad and Mike Conklin of Sentinels of Freedom hosted 150 people at a Purple Heart ceremony and barbecue.

Most of the Green Berets on the team had only talked to Lowery over Skype after the injury, and they were excited to see he’d regained many of his motor functions.

“He gets frustrated that he’s not recovering fast enough, and we have to explain that most people don’t recover from a gunshot wound to the head at all,” said Capt. Sean Barrett, Lowery’s team leader. “But that’s still not good enough for him. He’s a tough dude. The best part for us is that he didn’t lose any memory except for the memory of that day. His personality is exactly the same. As soon as we showed up he was cracking jokes about guys on the team without skipping a beat. It was awesome.”

Haddad, who claims to be nothing more than “your average American,” says the story of the connections from Conklin to Butler, Herndon and Hardin demonstrates how powerful a network the USO can be for helping troops.

“I felt more satisfaction in that encapsulated moment than just about any other moment in my career,” Haddad said, “because in this little moment everything worked, and that’s all in the mission of the USO. That’s why it works. It’s a great network of average Americans.”

Photos: USO Supporting Wounded Warriors at the Marine Corps Trials

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CAMP PENDLETON, California–The road to the Warrior Games starts here.

More than 300 wounded Marines, veterans and international troops from 10 countries are competing at the Marine Corps Trials in Southern California. When they’re done, the top 50 Marines across all sports will advance to compete against wounded warriors from the Air Force, Navy, Army and a team of special operators in June at the Warrior Games in Quantico, Virginia.

Hosted by the Marine Corps Wounded Warrior Regiment and support by the USO, the Marine Corps Trials select the best wounded Marine athletes in Paralympic sports including seated volleyball, cycling, shooting and archery.

The event runs through Wednesday and is opened to the public. For more information, go to woundedwarriorregiment.org.

Full Circle: How One Kind Moment Created A USO Volunteer for Life

The Flores family. Courtesy photo

The Flores family. Courtesy photo

When Nancy Flores stepped off a plane in Germany in 2003 with just her luggage and her cat, there was supposed to be someone from the military there to pick her up. There wasn’t.

“I saw that USO sign and thought, ‘I can go there. They will help me!’”

She was right. A USO volunteer invited her inside the center where more volunteers took the then-23-year-old’s luggage, looked up the phone numbers to her husband’s unit, gave her a snack and even cut down a plastic cup to make a water dish for her cat.

Her husband, now-retired Army communications Sgt. Johnathan Flores, had sent the duty driver to pick her up, but they had left an hour late and were stuck in traffic. It was something the volunteers at the USO at Frankfurt International Airport had seen before.

“At a very young age, I was alone in a foreign country and that was a very huge relief for me to find the USO,” said Nancy, who was 23 at the time. “[My husband is] my security blanket in those situations, so being alone in that situation was scary.”

When the driver arrived, the USO volunteers helped her on her way, and that singular moment of compassion spawned Flores’ lifetime commitment to both the organization and the military community.

“Seven years later I found out we had a USO on Fort Hood and as soon as I could I started volunteering,” she said. “I enjoy every day making soldiers and their families smile.”

She currently volunteers once or twice a week from four to six hours at a time, helping anywhere she’s needed, from flightline welcome home events to working behind a desk in a center.

But her favorite program by far is the Story Time Early Literacy Workshop. She’s volunteered once a month at the USO Fort Hood/Military Child Education Coalition event for the last three years, helping feed breakfast and read books to pre-school-age children who attend with their parents.

But her connection to the USO runs even deeper than a missed ride and the resulting volunteerism. Her son, Johnathan Flores Jr., 10, has watched her husband deploy three times. Nancy says it was the USO that made it possible for her husband and their growing boy to connect.

“We are a family of USO volunteers and we always will be very proud of making moments count for other military families just like the USO did for [us].”

The first time her husband deployed, Jonathan Jr. was only 3 months old. Nancy knew she would have some contact with her husband over the Internet, but didn’t know which moments he’d get to see from afar.

“Daddy does bed time,” she said. “That was a moment every day. And when he left it was sad that we had to break that pattern.

“But then out of nowhere we received these books he recorded at a USO center.”

When the USO/United Through Reading packages arrived, Flores broke down in tears knowing bedtime was back on again.

“I had no idea it was even coming,” she said. “Every night we played the video and, even though it was the same story, it was a moment with Daddy. He knew that Daddy cared.”

“We have that memory,” she said. “And that’s a really cool moment for us. Every time my son was missing Daddy we’d pop in that DVD.

“We were very honest with him that Daddy was away protecting America and doing his job. He learned really young to deal with it and I believe the USO was part of making that happen naturally.

“Now, even though we’re not technically in the military, we’re still very much a part of the military community. We are a family of USO volunteers and we always will be very proud of making moments count for other military families just like the USO did for [us].”

USO Volunteers Help Wounded Airborne Medic Traveling on Christmas Eve

Nathaniel Strangways poses with some of his children. Courtesy photo

Nathaniel Strangways poses with some of his children. Courtesy photo

It was going to be a long trip.

On Christmas Eve, Army Spc. Nathaniel Strangways set off to relocate his wife Hannah and their four children — ages 13, 9, 5 and 2 — from Tripler Army Medical Center in Hawaii to Tennessee, where he planned to medically retire due to back injuries.

The plan was simple: they’d fly from Hawaii, to Los Angeles, pick up a rental car and drive across the country to their new home near Fort Campbell, Kentucky.

There was only one problem.

“He wasn’t accounting for his injury when planning the logistics of the move and all of the luggage,” said Hannah Strangways, who realized when they landed at Los Angeles International Airport at midnight that they probably couldn’t handle managing the family’s luggage alone.

In 2008, while serving alongside an Iraqi Police Battalion, Nathaniel — who was an airborne medic — came to the aid of a wounded soldier. As they climbed some stairs, the wounded soldier was shocked by an explosion and fell backwards on top of Nathaniel. The fall herniated a disk in Nathaniel’s back. Nathaniel had surgery for the injury in 2011, but the pain persisted to the point where he could no longer serve his country.

After they deboarded, Hannah led her family to the Bob Hope USO, located outside the airport, to regroup.

“We got inside and there were these two people at the front desk who were genuinely worried for us,” she said, “They problem-solved for us and helped us get organized. It was such a relief.”

The USO volunteers transferred the family’s luggage into storage, showed the kids to a playroom and fed them some hot food so Nathaniel could get the rental car.

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“For a moment, I could finally breathe,” Hannah said. “They had this kids room with a little couch and two rocking chairs and books and toys, so my kids just sat and played. Seriously — without it, I mean — I know we could have done it, but it would have been so hard.”

Nathaniel returned with the only rental van the company had, which was barely large enough to fit the whole family and their luggage. USO volunteers and other troops came out to help the family with the heavy lifting, getting everything inside and tied down on top of the van.

“They loaded it well enough to [get] us to Arkansas, where we finally unloaded the baggage,” Nathaniel said. “Without them, I would have been stuck sitting there for hours. I’m not sure it would have even been possible.”

USO volunteers and troops helped load up the Strangways' rental van. Courtesy photo

USO volunteers and troops helped load up the Strangways’ rental van. Courtesy photo

Nathaniel said he always knew the USO was a place where he could sit down and decompress, or even call his wife and kids to let them know he was okay. But this time, he said, “the USO went above and beyond.”

“I can just imagine what it might have been like without the USO there to help us out,” Hannah said. “It can be hard when you are in a position to take care of your wife and kids and you are hampered due to injury.

“Thanks to the USO and the team effort, he left LAX feeling as proud as he would have if he had done it himself.”

Jay Leno is Auctioning Off his Prized 2008 Dodge Challenger SRT8 to Support the USO

Want this car? It can be yours if you're in Scottsdale next weekend. Courtesy photo

Want to buy Jay Leno’s car (and help the USO)? It can be yours if you’re in Scottsdale next weekend. Courtesy photo

USO tour veteran Jay Leno is doing something awesome for troops and families — again.

Next Saturday, Leno will auction off one of the coolest cars in his prized car collection — a 2008 Dodge Challenger SRT8 — to the highest bidder, with the proceeds going to the USO. The car is estimated to fetch between $50,000 and $80,000.

“I rarely sell any of my vehicles in my personal collection unless it’s for something as important as the USO,” Leno said.

Gooding & Company, an auction house known for selling some of the world’s most significant collector cars, will host Leno, USO President and CEO Dr. J.D. Crouch II and retired Army Gen. George Casey (a USO board member) for the auction Jan. 17 at the Scottsdale Auctions in Scottsdale, Arizona.

“We are honored to have Jay Leno, a long-time supporter of our nation’s troops and a dear friend of the USO, help us further our mission,” Crouch said. “This extraordinary gesture shows his genuine appreciation for everything [our troops] do for us at home and abroad.”

The car will be on display for public preview Jan. 14-17, and the live auction will be broadcast on www.goodingco.com.