USO Tour Veteran Kellie Pickler Shares Why She’s Excited to Perform at the 2014 Gala

Seven-time USO tour veteran and recording artist Kellie Pickler took a break from her pre-Gala preparations to share why she is excited to perform at the 2014 USO Gala tonight.

“I’m honored to be here tonight and be a part of honoring our service men and women. It’s going to be a great night,” Pickler said.

The award-winning country music artist, who first gained fame as an “American Idol” contestant, has entertained more than 33,000 troops and military families while touring with the USO.

Texans’ J.J. Watt Helps Military Families Score The Ultimate Game Day Experience Through the USO

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Attending a Texans game isn’t cheap. From paying for tickets and parking, to making sure the whole family has enough to eat and drink, a trip to watch the Texans play costs the typical family hundreds of dollars. It’s a bill many Houston-area military families can’t foot.

That’s where Texans defensive end J.J. Watt, the Texans All Community Team (TACT) program and USO Houston come in.

Thanks to the TACT program, military families that might not have extra cash for Texans tickets have the opportunity to enjoy a game for free.

Texans players can purchase tickets for a charity of their choice via the TACT program. For the past three years, Watt, whose grandfather served in the Korean War, has chosen USO Houston as his TACT charity, helping to create memorable moments for over 100 military families.

TACT participants from USO Houston watch the Texans run through the tunnel onto the field. USO photo

TACT participants from USO Houston watch the Texans run through the tunnel onto the field. USO photo

“It’s a simple thing for me, but I realize it can have an impact,” Watt said. “It’s a way to reach out and help these people and do something nice for them while we’re in season.

“It’s all because of how appreciative I am for what they’ve done for us and what they continue to do and the sacrifices that they make.”

Troops and their families who win TACT program tickets through a USO Houston raffle enjoy an all-inclusive Texans experience, from receiving commemorative Watt TACT T-shirts to getting to watch the players run through the tunnel onto the field.

“Plus, they get a parking pass and they get a hot dog and Coke,” said USO Houston Programs Manager Anna Rzendzian.

Military families that win the USO Houston raffle are also invited to attend a special pregame tailgate where they can create signs thanking Watt for the chance to watch a game at NRG Stadium. Watt says families will sometimes send him photographs of themselves from the game holding up the signs they made.

The view from the USO Houston pre game tailgate. USO photo

The view from the USO Houston pre game tailgate. USO photo

“Just to see those photos and to see moms and dads with their kids at the games is really special and some of the signs they make are really cool,” Watt said. “One of my favorite signs is ‘The Army sent daddy to Iraq, J.J. sent us to this game.’ So, that was pretty cool.”

Beyond the TACT program, the Texans also donate a variety of tickets to be distributed to Houston-area troops and their families through the USO.

According to Rzendzian, these extra tickets, which are donated by season ticket holders through the Texans’ Cheering Children program, can range from 700-level seats to exclusive private suites. However, as Rzendian notes, the most requested tickets by military families are still the TACT seats donated by Watt.

“It’s interesting to see how many people will forgo the club seats because they want tickets that were bought by J.J. Watt. And those tickets are actually in the nosebleed section,” she said. “But they don’t care. Because J.J. Watt bought them those tickets. It’s really hilarious.”

Watt, a 2012 USO tour veteran, hopes that giving military families — especially ones with children — the chance to attend a Texans game will brighten their day.

“Kids who have a parent overseas are going through something that is difficult, you know,” Watt said. “Your parents are overseas fighting for our country, so I feel like if we can put a smile on your face for a few hours on Sunday, I bring them to a game, I think that’s a pretty cool experience.”

Deployed Guardsman Witnesses Birth, Builds Relationship with Child, Thanks to USO

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When his Marine father deployed during Desert Storm, 3-year-old Joseph Rainbolt had no idea he would one day nearly miss moments with his own child.

“He was in Saudi Arabia for nine months when I was only 3, so I can only imagine,” said Rainbolt, now a 26-year-old sergeant in the Louisiana National Guard who might have missed the birth of his first child had it not been for the USO.

Knowing his wife Brittany would be giving birth just five months into a year-long deployment, Rainbolt told the USO and his command of his situation when he arrived in Afghanistan. When she went into labor, the USO set him up with an Internet-connected computer and Skype.

“I was able to stay [at the USO] for hours and be with my wife and see my daughter,” he said.

April Rose, now 8 months old, didn’t just get to see her father the day she was born. Rainbolt also took advantage of the USO’s Tiny Tots program and the USO/United Through Reading Military Program for the seven months that followed, allowing him to keep a presence in his daughter’s life.

“The [Tiny Tots] gift bag was fabulous,” said Brittany Rainbolt, a 26-year old high-school English teacher. “It came with some really awesome stuff. There’s some soap in there, a USO bib, a onesie and some other general baby care products. We used all of it.”

In fact, little April-Rose has even worn the bib immediately before going on stage at a “Red White and Blue” beauty pageant, where she took first place.

“It’s her lucky USO bib,” Brittany Rainbolt said. “United Through Reading was also fabulous. We got so many books for April before she was born and after she was born and I think hearing his voice helped her to make a connection with him. When she saw him the first time she went straight to him. I was like, ‘go to Daddy’ and she held out her little arms for him. It was so cute.”

“Being away was really hard,” Rainbolt said. “As National Guard, I’m usually home. Being away is not my thing. But through the USO we definitely got to have a relationship together.

“I got to talk to her every day, not just every now and then,” he added. “We’ve come a long way since the ‘80s and ‘90s. The USO was great in helping us be able to keep communicating. Even though I wasn’t there, I still got to feel like I was involved in her life, and that meant everything to me.”

Video: USO Officially Opens Revamped Center at Boston Logan International Airport

BOSTON–The USO has had an active presence at Boston Logan International Airport for over 30 years, so when it came time for the airport to renovate, it allowed the USO to relocate and design a larger space to accommodate the needs of traveling service members.

“We are proud to be able to provide the USO with this new, larger space as they continue their important work supporting our troops and their families,” said Edward Freni, Director of Aviation at Massport.

At nearly twice the size of the previous USO space at Logan Airport, the new center is approximately 1,400 square feet and offers a large seating and living room area as well as an expanded refreshment counter, luggage storage space and food and supplies. New amenities include a space for military families traveling with children — which includes hands-on activities, games and reading materials — a recreation room where troops can play video games, board games and card games, and a designated charging area for personal electronic devices.

“At this new USO center, you will get a glimpse of how today’s USO meets the changing needs of a changing military” said Dr. J.D. Crouch II, USO President and CEO. “Most important is that the extra space that will permit our dedicated USO of New England team to accommodate more troops and families at one time.”

Your USO at Work: August 2014 — USO Center Helps Wounded Troops and Families Relax and Recharge

USO Warrior and Family Center at Bethesda is a Place Wounded Warriors Can Call Home

Sometimes, the mental grind of a recovery can be as tough as the physical obstacles.

That’s why the USO opened the second of two Warrior and Family Centers at Naval Support Activity Bethesda, Maryland, the home of Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, in April.

The USO Warrior and Family Center at Naval Support Activity Bethesda, Maryland, the home of Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, opened in April.

The USO Warrior and Family Center at Naval Support Activity Bethesda, Maryland, the home of Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, opened in April. USO photo by Joseph Andrew Lee

“You can come here and cook food if you want to. You can come here and barbecue if you want to. You can come here and watch movies, play video games, learn music, use the Internet … all that is here,” said medically retired Army Sgt. Kevin Gatson, a recent patient at Bethesda. “I think this will give someone a place to kind of sit back, reflect, relax, work on themselves just on a personal level — a worry-free zone in a sense.”

Like its sister center on the Fort Belvoir Community Hospital campus in Virginia, the USO Warrior and Family Center at Bethesda provides a place where families can come together for everything from meals and game nights to post-military career counseling and classes.

“I go to my room, because a lot of times I just don’t feel like talking to anybody,” said Marine Cpl. Rebecca Fletcher, who lost her leg in a motorcycle accident and is recovering from her injuries at Bethesda. “But coming down here (to the center), you end up running into someone that you know and you end up in a conversation. The next thing you know, you’re forgetting about the pain [and] you’re forgetting about the mental things that get to you throughout the day.”

“When you have had a full day of appointments … you’re exhausted both mentally and physically,” said Navy Capt. David Bitonti, Naval Support Activity Bethesda commander. He said that the new facility, which opened in April, is an additional place of respite for wounded troops and provides a place where they can relax and recover.

“[This center] allows you to go and recharge the battery so that when you have to do whatever it is that you need to do the next day, you’re the best person that you can be.”

Wounded Troops and Their Families Hit the Beach at Warrior Week

More than 550 wounded warriors and their families headed to Virginia Beach, Virginia, in May to enjoy surf, sand and sun as part of the USO’s inaugural Warrior Week.

“The city of Virginia Beach approached me and asked if the USO could expand the programs and services that we’re doing for the wounded, ill and injured here in Virginia Beach,” said Jeff Hill, USO regional vice president, U.S. “We did the research … and found out that outdoor activities [were] one of the favorite things that our wounded, ill and injured like to do.”

With the help of the USO and local adaptive outdoor recreational organizations, participants enjoyed activities like kayaking, surfing, waterskiing and deep-sea fishing. Wounded warriors and their families were also invited to attend free outdoor concerts and shows by local performers and the USO Show Troupe.

“We wanted outdoor recreational activities that could include the families,” Hill said.

At the end of each day’s activities, Warrior Week participants were invited to attend the Patriot Festival to enjoy food and free performances by top recording artists including The Band Perry, Jake Owen and Little Big Town.

“I can tell you the vast majority [of the wounded warriors] had an absolute blast,” Hill said.

Dr. J.D. Crouch II Becomes President and CEO of the USO

Former Assistant Secretary of Defense and Deputy National Security Advisor Dr. J.D. Crouch II was named the 23rd president and CEO of the USO on June 23.

Dr. J.D. Crouch II started his new role at the USO on July 28. USO photo

Dr. J.D. Crouch II started his new role at the USO on July 28. USO photo

“I know I am fortunate to be able to join a remarkable USO family that encompasses colleagues, volunteers, supporters and their families,” Crouch said. “I am proud to join and lead this team and eager to begin our work together.”

Most recently, Dr. Crouch served as CEO of QinetiQ North America, a position he left in May. From 2001 to 2003, he served as former President George W. Bush’s assistant secretary of defense for international security policy, focusing on missile defense, nuclear forces and technology security. He later served 10 months as the U.S. ambassador to Romania before returning to Washington in March of 2005 to assume the role of deputy national security advisor.

“I know that J.D. Crouch is the right leader at the right time for the USO,” said retired Air Force General Richard B. Myers, chairman of the USO Board of Governors. “He comes to the USO with a record of government service, leadership and innovation, but most important of all, he has a deep and abiding passion for our men and women who serve this country.”

Crouch started his new role with the USO on July 28.

Marines smile with a birthday cake at a USO Center on Okinawa, Japan. USO photo

Marines smile with a birthday cake at a USO Center on Okinawa, Japan. USO photo

Despite Logistics, USO Pacific Centers Help Troops Celebrate Birthdays Far From Home

Birthdays aren’t supposed to be stressful. But when you’re separated by the world’s largest ocean and a dozen time zones, nothing is easy.

Luckily, families with loved ones serving in the Pacific don’t have to figure out the closest bakery to base, or if that bakery can translate their message or even deliver the cake. All they have to do is contact USO Pacific and ask about Operation Birthday Cake.

“USO Pacific’s Operation Birthday Cake is an amazing signature program that connects loved ones around the world,” said Carly Harris, USO Pacific regional vice president. So far, the program has delivered over 1,000 surprise birthday cakes to troops serving in the Pacific.

For many stateside families, an OBC surprise is the easiest way they can send warm wishes and celebrate their deployed loved one’s special day.

“[The service member’s family is] just happy that we could reach out and do something special for their loved one on a day when sometimes they can’t even call because of the time difference, technology, or whatever the issue may be,” said USO Camp Casey Manager Katie Kerr.

Celebs and BET Experience Attendees Sends Messages of Thanks to Troops

The son of a deployed service member sends a message to his dad at the Mobile USO at the BET Experience at the Los Angeles Convention Center in late June. USO photo by Eric Brandner

The son of a deployed service member sends a message to his dad at the Mobile USO at the BET Experience at the Los Angeles Convention Center in late June. USO photo by Eric Brandner

Some did it for their family members. Others did it for fun. And some just thought it was the right thing to do.

The USO parked one of its custom USO Mobile vehicles in the Los Angeles Convention Center on June 28 at the BET Experience and asked attendees and celebrities to send personal messages of thanks to America’s troops.

“So many of us want to say thank you and often times we don’t know how,” said Sonya Lockett, BET vice president of corporate social responsibility. “And this is just such a great way to be able to say thank you to our military all over the world.”

Lockheed Martin Volunteers, PGA Tour Fans Build Deployment Kits for Military Kids

When children are faced with a parent’s deployment — or worse, a parent who doesn’t return from deployment — they encounter emotions which may be difficult to express.

Marine Staff Sgt. Tyler Barnes, right, stationed at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va., assembles a deployment kit for military kids. USO photo

Marine Staff Sgt. Tyler Barnes, right, stationed at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va., assembles a deployment kit for military kids. USO photo

Understanding this, volunteers from Lockheed Martin helped Quicken Loans National golf tournament spectators at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Maryland, assemble hundreds of With You all The Way Deployment Kits for military children in June.

The USO, in partnership with the Trevor Romain Company and the Comfort Crew for Military Kids, uses the With You All the Way program to support children ages 6 to 18. The unique kit helps children deal with deployment challenges and even establishes valuable knowledge for the reintegration process.

The deployment kit is centered around the “With You All the Way! Dealing With Deployment” DVD, which was created as a collaboration between The Comfort Crew and the USO. The Comfort Crew was founded by humorist Trevor Romain, who frequently tours with the USO, sharing life lessons with military children such as how to deal with bullies, facing fears, coping with separation and understanding grief.

The kits are designed to help kids tackle difficult issues unique to growing up in a military family.

“I am a full-on supporter of the USO and what they do for military families,” said Marine Staff Sgt. Tyler Barnes, a military caddy who helped construct deployment kits. “I’ve seen all of the support here at home and downrange. It’s just a great organization and they do a lot of great stuff for the military.”

Air Force Vet Now Serves Troops at USO Shindand

In his words, Frank Stinson joined up with the USO in 2009 because he “just wanted to give something back to our active-duty military.”

USO Shindand Center Manager Frank Stinson

USO Shindand Center Manager Frank Stinson

Today, the 21-year Air Force veteran is serving again—as the center manager of the USO Center on Forward Operating Base Shindand in Afghanistan.

USO Shindand, situated on a dusty airfield on the western plains of Afghanistan, offers forward-deployed troops a respite away from the everyday rigors of combat. Stinson, an Arkansas native, said that the troops who visit his center come to recharge and reconnect with loved ones.

“They want a relaxed place to come [to] and they want computer access and phones to be able to call home,” Stinson wrote in an email.

In addition to valuable connectivity, USO Shindand also offers troops two TV lounges and a movie theater boasting a 72-inch plasma TV. The three-tent facility was built by troops and civilian contractors in 2012 and 2013 and has a welcoming, small-town feel.

Stinson said that meeting troops, learning about their varied backgrounds and giving them much-needed support are the best parts of his job.

“With what we provide to the troops, this is the most gratifying job I have had.”

A Major League Experience: Chicago Cubs Pitcher Edwin Jackson Hosts Military Families at Wrigley Field

Cubs’ Edwin Jackson with military families from the USO of Illinois. Photo courtesy of the Chicago Cubs.

Chicago Cubs pitcher Edwin Jackson — second row above the USO banner — sits with military families from the USO of Illinois. Photo courtesy of the Chicago Cubs.

Edwin Jackson knows what it’s like to be the new kid on the block. From growing up in a military family to playing in the big leagues, the Chicago Cubs pitcher is used to packing up and moving with very short notice.

So, to help military kids who also face frequent changes and moves, Jackson and the USO of Illinois hosted several military families at Wrigley Field as part of Edwin’s Entourage earlier this August.

“Any time you have a chance to give back to the community, especially with kids that comprehend a lifestyle you were brought up in, it’s special,” Jackson said. “It’s not like their parents giving them advice. They’re looking at someone closer to their age, and someone they can relate to a little bit more.”

Cubs pitchers Edwin Jackson and Wesley Wright signed autographs and posed for photos with the USO group. Photo courtesy of the Chicago Cubs

Cubs pitchers Edwin Jackson and Wesley Wright signed autographs and posed for photos with the USO group. Photo courtesy of the Chicago Cubs

The military families watched the Cubs batting practice Aug. 11 and met with Jackson, 30, as he spoke about his appreciation for the military and the importance of pursuing dreams.

“The messages are pretty firm and to the point, but it’s delivered in a fun way, a way in which they can understand how important it is to focus on their dreams and not give up,” Jackson said. “Anytime I have a chance to bring those kids out here and let them know that I went through the same lifestyle — the moving, the traveling, the picking up and bouncing around from city to city and being the new guy — it’s just a little bit of encouragement [and] a little bit of motivation to remind them they can still do whatever they want to do.”

Jackson also held a Q&A session with the families, a trivia contest with prizes, signed autographs and took photos with the participants before the game.