Why We Volunteer: Army Spc. Thibaut Lenkoue and Patrick Jenkins – USO Warrior Center at Ramstein Air Base, Germany

The USO is highlighting its volunteers from around the world to mark National Volunteer Week, which runs April 21-27. We asked a few of them to tell us why they give their time to the USO. Here are two of their replies.

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From left, USO Warrior Center volunteer Patrick Jenkins, entertainer Nick Cannon and Army Spc. Thibaut Lenkoue — also a USO volunteer — pose earlier this month at the USO Warrior Center at Ramstein Air Base, Germany. USO photo

Volunteering for me means love, giving and sharing great moments.

When I first came here, I thought only civilians worked at the USO. I enjoy every single moment that I spend here. The USO [volunteers and staff] are awesome, always polite, hard working professionals. I was happy to spend time here because I had found a home far from home. So when I discovered that I could volunteer at the USO, I decided to do so to take care of other members of this new family [and] give back what I have enjoyed.

It is always a pleasure to take care of people and make them realize that we appreciate all [their] sacrifices.

–Army Spc. Thibaut Lenkoue, volunteer at the USO Warrior Center at Ramstein Air Base, Germany

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Volunteering is an important way to give back what the soldiers have sacrificed and given to me. If you haven’t already taken part of this opportunity of volunteering for the USO, I highly recommend it.

I am a 21-year-old student who recently relocated all the way from Florida to Ramstein, Germany. My mom, a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force, was temporarily deployed here and I took the opportunity to come here and stay for school.

I started volunteering at the USO Warrior Center in February and I have over 350 hours and counting. I don’t think of it as “getting hours,” because I have to, or just being here for the events or the food (even though most people will tell you that all I do is eat). I volunteer for our soldiers [because] we try to make this a home away from home. In return, it makes me feel that I am at home and – in a way – leaves me feeling like I’m helping with the whole mission.

The staff have become my parents and the soldiers and volunteers have become my brothers and sisters. I always say “If I’m not working or at school you can find me at the USO Warrior Center volunteering,” as as I like to think of it as going home (I just have to leave every night).

–Patrick Jenkins, volunteer at the USO Warrior Center at Ramstein Air Base, Germany

The USO <3’s Drowning Pool

Multi-platinum hard rock band Drowning Pool has been on tour twice for the USO and has just announced their plans to go out for a third time this year!

The band rocks out for the troops during their 2006 tour to Kuwait, Iraq and Germany

Drowning Pool rocks out for the troops during their 2006 tour to Kuwait, Iraq and Germany

In 2005, Drowning Pool set out on their first USO tour visiting troops serving in Kuwait. Their second USO tour, in 2006, saw them returning to Kuwait as well as performing for troops stationed in Iraq and Germany. In total, they have performed 16 USO concerts and delivered their musical talent to more than 20,000 servicemen and women. This is the first USO tour for lead vocalist Jasen Moreno, who joined the multi-platinum band in 2012.

The band catches a break between shows on their 2006 USO Tour

The band catches a break between shows on their 2006 USO Tour

Bassist Stevie Benton took the time to answer a few questions for us:

Why did you start touring with the USO?

Thru the years, we had met a large number of service members at our shows in the states. We would often have some drinks and listen to stories about their deployment. It occurred to us that since these men and women were putting their lives on the line for our country, the least we could do was bring them a rock show and a little taste of home while they were stationed overseas. Thankfully, a friend of ours put us in contact with the USO to make it happen.

What’s one of your most memorable experiences with us?

Our most memorable USO show, and probably our most memorable show ever, was playing in Bagdad on the 10 year anniversary of 9/11. I still get chills thinking about it.

If there’s one thing you could say to all the men and women serving right now, what would it be?

I’m sure they must feel a bit isolated and out of touch during their long deployment. But u are not forgotten. You will always have our support and our appreciation.

Buy a copy today!

Buy a copy today!

As part of their continued support of our troops, on April 3, 2013, the band hosted an album release party and invited servicemen and women from their hometown of Dallas, Texas, to celebrate the launch of “Resilience.” The night included a private acoustic performance and an opportunity to meet the band. More than 100 guests attended the event and all proceed from the release party will be donated to the USO. – Vyque White, USO Director of New Media

USO Brings Food and Football to the Troops

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Pictures from the tailgate and watch party held at the new USO Warrior & Family Center on Fort Belvoir

Last night millions of people got together with their friends and family to eat party food and watch one of the most popular TV events of the year: the Superbowl. But there are still countless troops deployed far away from the comforts of home. That’s where the USO steps in.

At USO centers around the globe, troops got to settle in for food and football and smiling faces! Here is just a sampling of some of the fun:

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Thanks for Thanksgiving!

Let’s talk turkey.

The basic annual pay for junior enlisted troops comes in around $25,000.

It’s on this salary alone that many are supporting an entire family. During the holidays, these dollars can get extremely tight. So tight that a traditional Thanksgiving dinner might end up “off the table.”

In Kaiserslautern, Germany, there is a USO program that has kept that dinner on the table for the past 14 years, and more and more enlisted troops and families are fed each year.

It’s called Thanks for Thanksgiving, and this year it fed a record 600 junior enlisted and their families!

Junior enlisted troops were individually selected based on their family size and financial needs to receive a full Thanksgiving dinner, complete with stuffing, cranberry sauce, and even a movie to watch with the family. USO photo

“It’s the USO’s way of saying “Thank You” for their service during these past years of multiple deployments, long separations of families, and to assist in taking some of the financial stress off their shoulders,” wrote Colleen Lynch, USO Kaiserslautern Area Operations Manager in an email reporting the program’s most successful year to date.

Each year, on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, the USO partners with Army Community Services, the Vogelweh Commissary, and several other community organizations to provide a full, traditional Thanksgiving meal to deserving junior enlisted service members and their families.
According to USO Europe, this year’s dinner was also the most generous to date.

Of course, the meal included a sizeable turkey. But in addition, troops received a grocery bag with two boxes of stuffing mix, two cans of green beans, two cans of cranberry sauce, a can of sweet potatoes, pumpkin pie, dinner rolls, a can of fruit, a box of hot chocolate mix, 12 Nestle ice cream sandwiches, and a Stars and Stripes newspaper and calendar.

Senior enlisted leadership from each participating unit and the Sergeants Major Association worked together to assemble the bags for their troops at 7 a.m., prior to the first families arriving.

“The program is really about seniors caring for juniors,” said Michael Lewis, Director of Operations for USO Europe. “They personally prepared the bags and personally delivered the groceries to their troops, along with a heartfelt ‘Happy Thanksgiving.’”

The USO mobile canteen was on site serving breakfast burritos, coffee, hot chocolate, hot cider and orange juice, and commissary employees cooked eggs and sausage non-stop from 5:30 am until the end to keep the canteen supplied.

Service Credit Union came through with $25,000 worth of in-kind donations to support the program, including a $25 Visa gift card for each of the families. Once families received their dinner they had the opportunity to select a DVD for each family thanks to Disney and the USO.

“I believe that we have achieved our goal beyond our expectations this year thanks to everyone involved,” wrote Lynch. “On behalf of the USO I would like to express our thanks to each and every one of you involved for making this event so successful and I look forward to continuing the tradition next year! – Story by Joseph Andrew Lee, USO Staff Writer

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Cake Decorator Raises Dough for USO

Chris with one of his masterpieces!

Meet Chris Kasparek, the cake boss of Naples, Italy.

He’s a Navy civilian, marathon runner and cake designer extraordinaire.  And he’s putting all his talents to work for the USO.

Kasparek hadn’t planned on running a marathon this year, but a few months ago he saw a Facebook post about Team USO and decided he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to compete for a good cause.

“I had run three [marathons] in the last five years and had felt my body just wasn’t up for it,” he said, “And then I saw the link and was inspired.”

Team USO has a limited number of guaranteed registrations for the New York City marathon for runners who raise a minimum of $3,000.  Slots are also available for the Marine Corps marathon, with a fundraising requirement of $1,200 and the Air Force marathon with a $700 requirement.

Kasparek, the Navy’s director of child and youth programs in Naples, will compete in the New York City event, and he knew exactly how he would raise the dough. He put out the word to friends and colleagues, offering one of his famous custom cakes in exchange for a contribution.

The 37-year-old husband and father of two first started baking cakes for his children’s birthday parties, carrying on a tradition passed down by his father.

“My dad had decorated our cakes when we were kids growing up… I watched him and it was just like, ‘I want to do that for my kids.’  They’ve already said they want to do it for their kids.” 

You name it, he’s baked it—pirates and princesses, penguins and ponies, and every imaginable superhero.

So far, Kasparek has raised $3,360 for the USO, with about $700 coming from his cakes.  He’s hoping to push past the $4,000 mark by race time.

He’s been passionate about the USO since working with them last year after the deadly earthquake and tsunami in Japan.  He was sent to the Seattle airport to help coordinate child care for Japanese families who’d been evacuated to the U.S., and he was immediately impressed by the USO’s efficiency and compassion.

“Through their communications avenues, donations were coming in—diapers, food for the babies, games, coloring books, just everything that would make these families comfortable as they arrived from Japan… Whatever we needed, they found a way to get for us.”

Kasparek feels it’s his turn to give back to the USO and the troops.

He recently added a weight loss challenge to his fundraising efforts.  He’s trying to shed 35 pounds by race time.  If he doesn’t lose it all, he’ll pay back part of your pledge and cover the difference himself.

“I’ve slowed down on the cakes so I can concentrate on training,” said Kasparek, “Cakes don’t help training.” – Malini Wilkes , USO Director of Story Development

With You All the Way Hits Germany

We recently completed our spring portion of the With You All the Way tour. We spoke to about 15,000 kids, all of them overseas. This portion of the tour had somewhat of a bittersweet ending. The good news is that we get to rest a little bit over the summer. The bad news is that we are going to miss being around this brave group of kids for a while. Plus, a number of bases we visited are closing or consolidating, which means big changes for the military and many of the families.

Trevor RomainWe were in three cities in central Germany, Weisbaden, Heidelberg, and Stuttgart. The Heidelberg area is home to two elementary schools, Manheim Elementary school and Patrick Henry Elementary school. Manheim Elementary is closing its doors this year. Due to the army drawdown and plans for realignment in Europe, schools and bases are closing down. It has been open since 1946, and in the early nineties it had about 2,000 students. Today, there are only about 200, and those kids will be moving somewhere else next year. In fact, many are having to move now, back to the states. Many more know they are moving soon, but don’t know where they are going.

We spoke to one little girl, who towards the end of the presentation, finally had the courage to say something. Her dad was currently deployed, and she  and her mom were having to move to Colorado in the next couple of days. She was petrified, and rightfully so. I can’t imagine have my family be uprooted to a somewhere far away while I was deployed to Afghanistan and not able to offer any help. However, because the little girl had the courage to speak up, we were able to offer some assistance and expedite shipping of her USO family empowerment pack so she could have it for her travels.

Patrick Henry Elementary school is also going to close soon. These families are really in a state of flux because they know they are going to have to move but don’t know when and don’t know where. Living in this state of uncertainty is causing much stress on a lot of families. We had two great presentations at Patrick Henry. The kids were so engaged and had plenty to say. One thing that stood out in particular for me though, was a shy little girl in the back who had the courage to raise her hand.  We ask the kids what they learned during the video portion of our presentation. So she felt the need to say something. I asked, what she learned and very quietly but confidently said, “You don’t have to be in a special group to be special.” Wow, I hope everyone can learn from that.

Trever Romain consoles a young girl during his With You All The Way tour in Vicenza, Italy, recently.

We spent our last couple of days in Stuttgart. We had no idea how big Stuttgart was. There is about 5 million people in the city and surrounding area. Stuttgart is a beautiful city. It is where old meets new. Buildings that are 700 years old living happily with very modern buildings. We went to a school called Patch Elementary, on the Patch military base, which is a large army base. We had some really good presentations again. But we want to leave you with one email we received from a mom. It really makes us feel good about what we are doing and how important the work the USO is doing for military families:

 Dear Mr. Romain.  Thank you for coming to Patch Elementary School in Stuttgart.  My son did not stop talking about your visit all the way home in the car.  Then something happened when we got to the house.  You see my husband was hurt and he lost part of his leg and my son seems ashamed and angry about what happened. He always wanted to take his anger out by himself and stay locked in his room alone and did not want to deal with his dad.  And it was so hard for my husband.  He said that kind of pain was worse than his injury. Today when he came home my son wrote a letter to his dad and said he loved him and wanted to help him get better. I’m not sure what you said to him but thank you and Mr. Woody and the USO for your presentation and for helping our kids on the bases.  You just don’t know how much it means to us. I cannot thank you enough for your help.

– Trevor Romain, Performer, Author & USO Supporter