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.”

A Lifetime of Service: Officer-Turned-Businessman Talks About Supporting USO

When retired Army officer Tom Kilgore decided it was time to give back, it was clear which organization he would support.

“I became active with the USO shortly after my retirement [from the Army],” said Kilgore, who now heads risk management for ArcLight Capital Partners in Boston. “It was one of the organizations while I was on active duty which provided great value, I thought, to my soldiers and to my family.”

At West Point, Kilgore was taught that graduates engage in a lifetime of service.

“One of the ways in which you can continue a lifetime of service is to continue to give back to the organizations [that] have taken care of us while we were on active duty,” Kilgore said. “The USO affords me an opportunity to live up to the goals that were set for me as a young man, and the goals that I embrace and continue to hopefully embrace and live to this day.”

Congress, USO Pack Healthy Snacks for Troops on Capitol Hill

WASHINGTON—Wednesday’s USO Congressional Service Project at the Rayburn House Office Building offered a unique opportunity for members from different sides of the aisle to support the troops together.

Elected officials spent part of their morning assembling healthy snack packs the USO will then distribute to service members and their families.

The snack packs are a direct result of requests from the TellUSO survey and contain items like oatmeal, dried fruit, pretzels and nuts. The snacks were donated by Harris Teeter, a USO partner that has raised more than $1 million for the USO since partnering with the organization in 2012. The 1,500-plus snack packs created Wednesday will be distributed at the USO centers around the Washington metropolitan region.

“On behalf of nearly 20,000 associates who work for our stores, we’re so proud to be a part of this,” said Rodney Vines, Regional Human Resource Manager at Harris Teeter. “We want to be partners with the community that we serve, and we thank the USO for giving Harris Teeter the opportunity to thank our troops and serve them as members of our community.”

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. 

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.”