A New Home

Once I started working for the USO my friends in the service began sending me text messages whenever they stopped by   a USO Center.  Usually they are just passing through an airport and only have  time to grab a cup of coffee, but the texts usually read something like “volunteers were so friendly!” or “everyone was so helpful, tell them thank you!”.  Having visited many centers through my work with the USO, this never comes as a surprise.  Our volunteers and staff are known for providing outstanding service to our nation’s men and women in uniform and their families.  Yet, on a recent trip alongside a military family, I had the opportunity to witness first-hand how our centers go above and beyond to make America’s heroes feel at home wherever they are.

The Harris family gets a look around after being greeted by Ty Pennington as the Extreme Makeover Home Edition provides a house for the Shilo Harris family outside of Floresville, Texas on January 21, 2012. Photo: Express-News, TOM REEL / © 2012

The Texas family of four was traveling to Germany as part of a special Extreme Makeover: Home Edition that will air later this year.  The mother works as an Army advocate for wounded service members and the father is an Iraq war veteran with burns covering 60% of his body.  As a result of his injuries, the father tires easily and has problems regulating body temperature which makes traveling across multiple time zones and varying climates challenging, especially with a two year old son and nine year old daughter in tow.

As part of the television production we were treated to many amazing sights, smells and tastes that Germany has to offer.  Yet, where I saw the family the happiest and most comfortable, was the final day spent at the USO Warrior Center located adjacent to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center (LRMC).  With a fire “burning” in the fireplace (it’s a faux fireplace), a movie playing, spaghetti cooking on the stove, garlic bread in the oven and homemade carrot cake being cut on the counter, it felt like home.  The staff and volunteers immediately embraced the family, enlisting the daughter’s help to serve spaghetti and swapping Army wife stories with mom.

The family knew several people at the center as the father had been treated at LRMC following the IED explosion that wounded him in Iraq.  Yet, being in the room, you would have thought you had walked in on a family reunion.   That is what the USO does.  Whether you are in a USO Center in Europe, the Pacific, Afghanistan or the states, the USO creates an atmosphere of home, inclusion and support for our nation’s heroes and their families.  Thank you, USO team – especially USO Georgia and USO San Antonio, for making this family’s journey truly a special one. - Andrea Sok, USO Communications Manager

The USO <3's UFC's Clay Guida, Urijah Faber & Brittney Palmer!

UFC’s Urijah Faber, Clay Guida and Brittney Palmerrecently traveled to Italy, on what was the trio’s first USO/Armed Forces Entertainment tour. The group visited six bases in nine days, to sign autographs, pose for photos and share takedown techniques with troops.

From left to right, the UFC's Urijah Faber, Brittney Palmer and Clay Guida pose for a photo with troops in Italy as part of their first USO tour on Dec. 18.

Why did you decide to go on a USO tour?

Urijah Faber: I wanted to do my part to support our country and our troops overseas. I feel like I’m living the American dream and I’m fully aware that freedom isn’t free.
Clay Guida: It was a no brainer, I was honored to be chosen as one of the UFC representatives. I have a personal admiration and respect for our troops whever they are for whatever they do. I can only imagine how tough it must be to be away from home and family for such long periods.
Brittney Palmer: My manager recently went on a USO Tour, and he was telling me how rewarding the experience was for him. When I was presented the opportunity to go on a USO Tour, I immediately accepted. I’ve always respected our servicemen and women, and having the chance to thank them in person means so much to me. I hope that I can do another tour soon, as this experience changed my life!

What expectations did you have going in and how did that compare to the actual experience?

UF: I went on a tour in Afghanistan [visiting the troops] and I wasn’t expecting to have such nice places to stay and great food in Italy. They really treated us like kings. All the troops were awesome as expected.
CG: I didn’t really have any fixed ideas on what it would be like , I assumed it would be a bunch of meet and greets. As far as the experience it was all amazing. Doing the clinics always makes me feel at home , especially wrestling so that was fun. The experience as a whole was just so great , my family has its history in Italy so being able to see the sites , meet people and eat lots of food was something I have wanted to do for a long time.
BP: I expected an amazing time meeting the troops, and I was blown away by how many of the soldiers and their families were thanking ME for visiting them. They truly are my heroes.

What was one of your favorite moments on tour?

UF: Being on tour with Clay Guida and Brittney Palmer was super entertaining because our personalities came out and we generally got to entertain the troops through our interaction. Clay’s answers to their questions were priceless, sometimes never ending and had the crowd in hysterics.
CG:Having fun on the road with Urijah Faber and Brittney Palmer was lots of fun. Getting to meet the troops and see what it meant to them was special , its still new for me to be appreciated so much by fans , so to have people that I respect wanting my time is really flattering.
BP: I loved meeting the family members. In the States we’re grateful for all the troops do for us, but the sacrifices of the family members gets lost I think. I really enjoyed talking to the little kids and holding all the babies while Urijah and Clay taught the clinic!

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

UF: Keep doing your thing and we are very proud of you back home!
CG: I would say thank you to the thousands of servicemen and servicewomen for their sacrifice’s large and small. Thank you!
BP: To every service member, I’d tell him or her I’m immensely appreciative and grateful from the bottom of my heart for what you do. Your sacrifice and selflessness give all of us the opportunity to live our lives peacefully and free, and I’m indebted to you for it.

See more pics at USO.org!

Op Thanksgiving Eagle – “Brings A Beat To Our Military Children’s Hearts”

‎”Mrs. Fink–I loved your songs. Your beat is in my heart.” – Sammy, Kindergarten, Wetzel Elementary School, Baumholder. Father is currently deployed and in danger’s way. (The Assistant Principal led Sammy to me after the show so he could share his powerful words with me.)

Operation Thanksgiving Eagle at the USO Warrior Center in Germany

Be still my heart. Sammy and I then hugged, and had a priceless conversation about the power of music. Yes, with a five-year-old. I told him his words were the highlight of my day, and were worth traveling to Germany to hear.

The 450 students at this morning’s two performances at Wetzel ES were stellar. The principal, Ms. Simmons, and her assistant principal lead and educate these children lovingly and enduringly. Their students are 100% Army (so of course we wove the Army anthem into the script!), and over 90% currently have a parent deployed and in harm’s way.

Debbie Fink plays during the Operation Thanksgiving Eagle Tour at Vogelweh

As Ms. Simmons said (I am paraphrasing), “there’s a specialness to these kids. What they are dealing with is beyond the call of duty. They do their best, and are simply–special.” The assistant principal shared how she feels so privileged to work with them, and to help them with all their individual and collective needs. Looking at the upside, she shared that these are happier times right now, because the majority of their deployed parents are coming home before the New Year.

Yet, I wonder, how does it feel inside a child’s heart to see “all” the other parents come trickling home, when yours does not? Don’t we all remember a time when our parent was the very last to pick us up from school, or didn’t pick us up that time at all? Multiply that by a million, and that’s my civilian guess for how it feels. Add to this the possibilities that such a child might feel jealousy, anger, or resentment for the classmates whose parents DO come home. And top that off with those kids who then may feel badly or ashamed or embarrassed that this is how they feel, when they “should” feel happy for their peers’ long-awaited-for family reunions.

It’s comforting to know that these brave Wexler students are in a school environment that understands them, supports them, comforts them, and stands by them. It’s comforting to know that as Sammy holds the beat of our OTE performance’s music and message in his gentle heart, that he is in a space which will one day soon place drumsticks in his hands. May Sammy’s heart continue to sing; may his soul continue to dance; and may his father soon return home safely to swoop Sammy up and swing his son in his strong, heroic arms. – Debbie Fink, Acclaimed Author, Educator, Speaker & Performer

See more updates from the tour at Debbie Fink’s Facebook Page. Note: the child’s real name was changed to Sammy for reasons of confidentiality.

USO Europe Service Salute

The USO hosted their 19th Annual USO Europe Service Salute this month on Ramstein Air Base in Germany. Twelve outstanding junior enlisted military personnel, representing the U.S. and German armed forces, were recognized for their outstanding military and community achievements. Senior American and German military, diplomatic, political and corporate leaders were present at the event to salute to the “best of the best.”

The USO Europe Honorees. Photo by Jamie Goloyugo

The USO Europe Service Salute also celebrates and reinforces the strong partnership between the armed forces of the United States and Germany. Herr Professor Dr. Hans-Jürgen Seimetz represented the event’s German patron, Rheinland Pfalz Minister President Kurt Beck. The event’s U.S. patron, Ambassador to Germany Philip D. Murphy, was represented by Frankfurt Consul General Edward A. Alford. General Mark Welsh, Commander Africa Command and Generalleutnant Rainer Korff, Kommandierender General Multinationales Korps Nord-Ost were also participants in the awards ceremony.

The EUCOM Color Guard. Photo by Jamie Goloyugo

The evening featured a reception followed by dinner and culminated in a formal awards presentation to recognize the twelve distinguished honorees. The U.S. Air Force’s Tops In Blue provided entertainment.

The 19th Annual USO Europe Service Salute was made possible through the generous sponsorship of numerous U.S. and German companies. Platinum Sponsors include: TKS Telepost Kabel-Service Kaiserslautern GmbH & Co. KG, United Airlines and the Wounded Warrior Project. Diamond Sponsors include Deutsche Lufthansa AG, P&A GmbH, P & G and Stars & Stripes.

A Night of Honor, A Night of Love

The happy couple!

Last week Garett Brada told his dad, “Today’s the day.”

Brada wasn’t referring to the prestigious honors that would be bestowed to him later that evening by the U.S. and European military. What occupied Brada’s mind was how he would propose to his longtime girlfriend, Erica Saiz, turning a night set aside to honor him into an evening to celebrate his love for her.

Brada and Saiz were guests at the USO’s annual tradition, the All Services Honoree Dinner. Brada, a Machinery Technician Third Class for the U.S. Coast Guard, was among 11 other honorees, one from each branch of the service for the U.S. Military as well as the European Military Forces and U.S. Africa Command. The men and women were being honored for their courage, commitment and dedication to serving our respective nations.

The honoree dinner traditionally takes place the evening before the USO Europe Service Salute- a formal event to recognize and honor outstanding U.S. enlisted service members in conjunction with their host country military counterparts.

USO Europe and their corporate sponsors host the honorees, their commanding officers, and guests at an intimate dinner the night before the Service Salute. The dinner serves as an icebreaker. Guests mingle with one another as well as take in the beautiful German culture during an evening filled with traditional food, drink and entertainment.

During the informal and quaint ceremony each honoree was presented with a medal and plaques celebrating their achievements and symbolizing the relationship and support provided between the U.S. and European armed forces.

Although, all of that pomp and circumstance was probably lost on Banda and Saiz as moments before, Banda dropped to one knee with the 13th century castle nestled into the German countryside serving as a backdrop for his proposal.

“He kept asking me to go over to this spot to take a photo- to get a photo with the views. I thought it was odd,” said Saiz.

The couple met in the Maui, Hawaii airport seven years ago. “I actually saw her in church the night before,” said Banda. “I lost sleep thinking about her and the next day I saw her in the airport. “

“He walked right up to me and interrupted a conversation I was having with a woman,” continued Saiz.

“I could have proposed to her that night in the airport,” said Brada.

The couple is unfortunately living apart with Brada currently forward deployed out of Manama, Bahrain and Saiz residing in Seattle, Washington. They hope to spread roots in California after they get married.

Although those thoughts and plans seem a little removed as the couple basks in their engagement. “We are just so excited,” said Saiz. Now they look forward to calling the states to share the news with family and friends. – Andrea Sok, USO Communications Manager

Elton John Concert Helps U.S. Troops, Military Families Feel the Love

Photo Courtesy Stars and Stripes Europe

Can you feel the love tonight? For 500 American troops and military family members who got free tickets an Elton John concert in the historic German city of Freiburg im Breisgau, the answer is a resounding yes.

Thanks to the generosity of eps infrastructure and service GmbH, which have donated thousands of marquee concert tickets to U.S. forces since 2007, military families had the privilege of watching one of the world’s greatest entertainers belt out mega-hits like “Tiny Dancer,” “Your Song,” “Rocketman,” and “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.”

Photo Courtesy Stars and Stripes Europe

U.S. forces lucky enough to land tickets, which were distributed by USO Europe at USO centers throughout Germany, got the chance to forget about the stress of life during wartime for a few hours on July 1. By all accounts, the service members and military families in attendance had a wonderful time at the event.

With a stunning southwest German sunset as a backdrop, Elton John played another one of his biggest hits, “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me.” A YouTube clip shows the capacity crowd giving the singer a standing ovation at the performance’s conclusion.

When the sun did finally set on Freiburg im Breisgau on the night of July 1, one fact was bright and clear. The USO, along with generous donors like eps infrastructure and service GmbH, will never let the sun go down on our troops and their families. - Tom Sileo, USO Director of Story Development