Your USO at Work: April 2015 — USO Celebrates Expecting Military Moms

Heidi Murkoff, left, laughs with Gretchen Stradley during a group baby shower at U.S. Army Garrison Bavaria in Germany on March 13. The USO and Murkoff, author of "What to Expect When You're Expecting," hosted the shower for over 70 expectant moms. U.S. Army photo

Heidi Murkoff, left, laughs with Gretchen Stradley during a group baby shower at U.S. Army Garrison Bavaria in Germany on March 13. The USO and Murkoff, author of “What to Expect When You’re Expecting,” hosted the shower for over 70 expectant moms. U.S. Army photo

USO Celebrates More Than 70 Military Moms With Baby Shower in Germany

Whether you’re having your first child or your third, the experience is a cause for celebration. For some military moms-to-be, sharing the experience with extended family is not always an option.

To help fill that void, the USO, in partnership with the What to Expect Foundation and best-selling author Heidi Murkoff, hosted a Special Delivery baby shower for more than 70 military moms in Germany.

“It’s never easy being a mom, especially for first time,” Murkoff said in an Army.mil story. “But, these families and these women are so far-flung and so separated from their net of support; they’re completely on their own.”

The March 13 baby shower at U.S. Army Garrison Bavaria featured food, gifts and games in addition to a Q&A session  with Murkoff. The event also gave expecting moms a chance to form bonds and friendships with each other.

Valerie Pamphile said she attended because she wanted to be around other pregnant women because studies show that “when you’re around other women at your gestational age, you thrive.”

You can help the USO create special moments for military moms by visiting USO.org/donate.

Mother of Fallen Soldier Finds a Moment of Solace Through Visit to USO 

Vicki Dickinson doesn’t remember much about the two years after her son was killed. Between the funeral, the tears and the coping, everything felt like a blur.

Army Staff Sgt. Michael Dickinson hugs his mother, Vicki. Photo courtesy of Vicki Dickinson

Army Staff Sgt. Michael Dickinson hugs his mother, Vicki. Photo courtesy of Vicki Dickinson

But she does recall one moment in perfect detail. While walking through an airport about a year after Army Staff Sgt. Michael Dickinson II’s 2006 death in Iraq, she visited her first USO.

Michael, a Battle Creek, Michigan, native, told his mother about his visits to USO centers around the world.

“He would always try to find the USO and [relax],” she said of her son, who was killed in a firefight nine days before he was supposed to come home. “And he’d say, ‘They’ve always got great snacks, things to drink. They’ve got nice comfortable places to lie down, take a little nap if you need it.’”

So when she had a few minutes between flights that day, Vicki went to a USO airport center to see for herself. She walked into the center and told a volunteer about her son and his fondness for the USO.

After a volunteer offered her a quick tour and refreshments, Vicki settled into one of the cozy couches and quietly pictured her son resting on a similar couch a few years prior.

“[I thought] ‘I can see him here. I can see him on that couch, playing a game,’” she said. “It made me feel good that my son got to do that. That he knew that he was cared about.”

The USO Spring Troop Visit led by Admiral James A. Winnefeld, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, brought lots of smiles to troops stationed around the world during an eight-day, seven country USO tour. Troops stationed at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, got a short reprieve from their duties on March 6 to enjoy a USO show and to take a group photo with the athletes and entertainers on the tour. USO photo

The USO Spring Troop Visit led by Admiral James A. Winnefeld Jr., the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, brought lots of smiles to troops stationed around the world during an eight-day, seven country USO tour. Troops stationed at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, got a short reprieve from their duties on March 6 to enjoy a USO show and to take a group photo with the athletes and entertainers on the tour. USO photo

Vice Chairman Takes All-Star Cast on USO Tour Around the World

Adm. James A. Winnefeld Jr., vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, led a full roster of entertainers, celebrities and sports stars on a USO tour around the world in March.

NFL players Andrew Luck, Dwayne Allen and David DeCastro, Indianapolis Colts head coach Chuck Pagano, musicians Phillip Phillips, Diana DeGarmo and Ace Young, actors Dennis Haysbert and Jason “Wee Man” Acuna and Miss America 2015 Kira Kazantsev all circled the globe with the admiral to greet and entertain troops and their families.

The group visited troops in Germany, Italy, Bahrain, the USS Carl Vinson and the USS New York in the Arabian Gulf, Afghanistan, Diego Garcia, South Korea and Hawaii before closing out the tour at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland.

“It was a huge honor of mine to get to go overseas and thank them in person,” Kazantsev told DoD News. “I’m so honored that I got to be a part of it. This crew and the cast were amazing. We were like a family.”

By visiting USO.org/donate today, your support will help the USO  deliver top-notch entertainment to troops and families all over the world.

Kellie Pickler Jumps At The Chance to Play Checkers to Benefit the USO 

Kellie Pickler and Thomas Rhett will be playing checkers for a cause on April 18, but the twist is that the country music stars won’t be sitting at a table while they play.

Country music star Kellie Pickler performs a USO show for troops stationed in Italy as part of the 2014 USO Holiday Tour. USO Photo by Dave Gatley

Country music star Kellie Pickler performs a USO show for troops stationed in Italy as part of the 2014 USO Holiday Tour. USO Photo by Dave Gatley

Instead, the Cracker Barrel Old Country Store Country Checkers Challenge will play out on a giant checkerboard at the ACM Party for a Cause Festival in Arlington, Texas.

Team captains Pickler and Rhett will move their “game pieces” – 12 country music celebrities and six lucky fans – to support two military service organizations. Pickler is playing on behalf of the USO and Rhett chose Disabled American Veterans (DAV) as his benefiting charity.

Through a $35,000 donation from Cracker Barrel, ACM Lifting Lives, the charitable arm of the Academy of Country Music, will donate $25,000 to the winning team’s charity and $10,000 to the losing team’s charity.

Pickler, an eight-time USO tour veteran, told TheBoot.com that she’s discussing strategies and thinking positive thoughts ahead of the April 18 showdown.

“I’m going to stay positive, I’m going to pray for a miracle and we’re going to win.”

You can get involved, too. Go to crackerbarrelsweepstakes.com by April 19 to enter for your chance to win cash prizes!

USO Opens New Facility at Seattle’s SeaTac Airport

The USO was joined by local officials and military leaders as it welcomed guests into its new center at SeaTac Airport in February.

From a full-service kitchen to enhanced entertainment amenities, the 7,500 square-foot center will provide a touch of home for service members and their families as they travel through the airport and beyond. With major Army, Navy and Air Force installations nearby, the region is home to one of the largest concentrations of military personnel in the United States.

“This is the pointed edge of the spear of the USO,” said J.D. Crouch II, CEO and President of the USO. “This is where we meet the men and women and their families who we are dedicated to supporting. It’s places like this all around the world … which allow us to always be by their side.”

With support from USO Northwest staff and volunteers, the new center will be open to visitors 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

USO Centers Around the World Host Eggstravagant Easter and Spring Celebrations

As flowers begin to bloom and birds begin to sing, USO centers are busy planning and hosting special Easter- and spring-themed events for troops and their families.

Here’s a look at what USO centers are doing around the world.

Europe

USO Grafenwoehr, Germany
On Easter Sunday, USO Grafenwoehr will host the Hippity Hoppity Easter Festival featuring crafts, Easter basket drawings, an Easter egg hunt and photos with the Easter Bunny. Military families attending the event can also enjoy a barbecue festival.

USO Kaiserslautern, Germany
On March 28, USO Kaiserslautern supported the 10th AAMDC Easter Egg Hunt on Rhine Ordinance Barracks with its mobile canteen. The USO provided attendees plenty of food to enjoy between hunting for eggs and taking photos with the Easter Bunny. USO Kaiserslautern served a menu of hot dogs, popcorn and cotton candy made in its brand new cotton candy machine.

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USO Stuttgart, Germany
USO Stuttgart hosted an Easter egg hunt Thursday for military children ages 5 and under. The Easter Bunny even made a special visit by the center to help the little hunters search for Easter treats.

USO Naples, Italy
USO Naples hosted a children’s activity event March 28 at the local MWR’s Easter Eggstravaganza. Over 1,000 people stopped by the USO tent, which featured face painting, pin the tail on the Easter Bunny, a can toss, bean bag games, a bunny hop relay and more.

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USO Rome, Italy
On March 28, USO Rome participated in the annual Easter Egg Hunt event at the U.S. ambassador’s residence. More than 100 children and their families attended the event and enjoyed the games, prizes, balloons and face painting.

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Pacific

USO Yokosuka, Japan
USO Yokosuka hosted a special egg-dying event Thursday. All of the painted eggs were donated to be part of an egg hunt at an orphanage near Camp Fuji.

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USO Kadena, Japan
Military families looking to ring in the spring season can stop by the Four Diamonds Softball Complex on Saturday for USO Kadena’s annual Eggsplosion event. Visitors can enjoy a giant Easter egg hunt, inflatables, pictures with the Easter Bunny and more from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. local time.

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Southwest Asia

USO Camp Buehring, Kuwait
On Easter Sunday, troops can stop by USO Camp Buehring at 6 p.m. local time for a special Easter Eggstravaganza celebration.

USO Kandahar, Afghanistan
To celebrate Easter and the start of spring, USO Kandahar will host a special spring pancake event Sunday at noon local time. Troops can enjoy a home-cooked meal of flapjacks and maple syrup while relaxing at the USO.

Stateside

USO Colorado Springs, Colorado
On Saturday , USO Colorado Spring will host a special Easter egg hunt for military children ages 1 to 10 from 1 to 3 p.m. local time. In addition to searching for Easter treats, kids can take pictures with the Easter Bunny and Ernie the Eagle, enjoy entertainment by the Shriner clowns and Cartoon Bill, and enjoy crafts, pizza and other snacks.

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USO Fort Hood, Texas
USO Fort Hood was on the ground at the Fort Hood Warrior Transition Unit’s Spring Fest last weekend, where more than 200 military members celebrated the arrival of spring. As part of the festivities, attendees enjoyed Easter egg hunts, face painting and visiting with the Easter Bunny.

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USO of Wisconsin
The USO of Wisconsin will kick of spring with a bang at its annual USO Easter Eggstravaganza at Cudahy High School on April 11 from 11:45 a.m. to 2 p.m. local time. This family event, which is open to the public, will feature games, crafts, egg hunts, pictures with the Easter Bunny and more. All proceeds raised from the day’s festivities will go towards supporting military families through the USO of Wisconsin’s various programs. You can register for the event here.

USO San Diego
The Easter Bunny stopped by USO San Diego’s Downtown Center on March 29 to meet with military families over a spring-themed breakfast. Families enjoyed waffles, eggs, bacon and fruit prepared by GR Catering/Gourmet Rotisserie Events before story time with United Through Reading and meeting the Easter Bunny. There was music from the Hullabaloo band, balloon artists and baskets of toys for each child in attendance.

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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.”

After Father’s Sudden Death, Soldier Turns to the USO for A Crucial Assist

Photo courtesy Army Spc. Austin Hunsinger

Army Spc. Austin Hunsinger at work. Photo courtesy Army Spc. Austin Hunsinger

Losing a parent can be devastating.

But losing a parent while on military duty adds a new set of obstacles that can overwhelm the most prepared soldier. Army Spc. Austin Hunsinger knows this all too well.

In December 2012, after learning his father suddenly passed way, Hunsinger — who was stationed in Fort Bragg, North Carolina — had to juggle an emergency leave request, funeral arrangements and booking last-minute flights all in a matter of hours.

When he finally arrived at the airport to go back to Rochester, New York, he was exhausted. He’d been up all night speaking with his family. So he sat down in the airport, fell asleep and missed his flight.

When Hunsinger woke up and realized what had happened, he knew he needed help fast. He headed straight to the Charlotte-Douglas International Airport USO. A little shaken up and worried he wouldn’t be able to get another flight in time for the funeral, Hunsinger explained what happened to the USO staff.

The grave of Charles Hunsinger, Army Spc. Austin Hunsinger's father. Photo courtesy Army Spc. Austin Hunsinger

The grave of Charles Hunsinger, Army Spc. Austin Hunsinger’s father. Photo courtesy Army Spc. Austin Hunsinger

“The USO is always there and they’re always the first people I go to when I’m traveling,” Hunsinger said.

Within a matter of minutes, a USO volunteer helped Hunsinger re-book his flight to Rochester, getting him home just in time for his father’s services the next day.

“That was a really hectic time for me and [the USO] just relieved the stress at the right point,” Hunsinger said.

“[The USO had] perfect timing, for them to be there and for them to help me get a flight and to provide me with a place to rest my head [was great].”

USO Fort Drum‘s Allen Jones contributed to this story.

Girl Scouts from Kansas, Missouri Bringing Sweet Treats to Troops at USO Fort Riley

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Whether they’re stateside or abroad, troops love Girl Scout cookies. The colorful boxes, iconic cookie names and familiar flavors provide service members around the world with a taste of home.

So when the Girl Scouts of Northeast Kansas and Northwest Missouri wanted to support troops in their communities via their donation-based Cookie Share Program, they partnered with the local USO at Fort Riley, Kansas.

“This is a really great partner for us — the USO,” said Gina Garvin, Girl Scouts of Northeast Kansas and Northwest Missouri’s vice president of brand and marketing.

Sharing is Caring

As the troops’ 2015 Cookie Share partner, USO Fort Riley will receive boxes of cookies sold door-to-door, online and at booths through March 15.

The girls give their customers the option to buy a box of cookies to donate directly to the USO, even if they don’t want to purchase a box to for themselves.

Once the cookies are delivered, USO Fort Riley will distribute the boxes to troops on local bases in the surrounding area.

“I hope that that box of Girl Scout cookies, whether they’re coming home or they’re here working at home, it gives [troops] a sense of … ‘Welcome home,’” Garvin said.

Although this is the first time USO Fort Riley will be the official Cookie Share partner, the troops have donated cookies USO Fort Riley before. In 2014, the local Girl Scout troops raised enough cookies for USO Fort Riley to use at programming events throughout the entire year.

Cookies Close to Home

Garvin said the large local military population was the main reason the troops chose to partner with USO Fort Riley.

In fact, a number of troops supporting this year’s Cookie Share Program, like Fort Riley’s Brownie Troop 5682 and Junior Troop 5683, are entirely composed of military children.

“We know these Girl Scouts. We want to support them,” Garvin said. “We want to put our arms around them and so this is just a really great way to do that.”

Troop 5682 and 5683 co-leaders Crystal Buotte Lary and Christina Glassford said their troops were immediately on-board with the USO connection, especially since they’d just prepared and sent boxes to troops overseas for the holidays.

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“What the USO does for families and especially deployed spouses, soldiers, single soldiers, we wanted our troops to be a part of that, to give back,” Glassford said.

From including the USO in their door-to-door sales pitch to decorating their cookie booths red, white and blue, the girls of Troops 5682 and 5683 took the 2015 Cookie Share cause to heart.

“We’re seeing them all get behind the USO and I think it’s because they can now see the military in their communities,” Garvin said.

Celebrate Valentine’s Day With These Five Huggable USO Moments

In the spirit of Valentine’s Day and making memories for military families, here’s a look at five of the most huggable USO moments from the past year.

1. Americans Around the World Send USO Love Notes to Troops

In the past two years during the weeks leading up to Valentine’s Day, the USO has asked people at home and overseas to send love notes to troops and their families. People all around the globe embraced the challenge and sent in 3,713 notes of love and affection to troops between January and March of last year.

2. USO and NASCAR Help a Soldier Surprise His Family on Father’s Day

Sgt. Sean Brady, center, is reunited with wife Lauren, right, son Sean and daughter Sarah prior to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan International Speedway.  (Photos by Sean Gardner/NASCAR via Getty Images)

Sgt. Sean Brady, center, is reunited with wife Lauren, right, son Sean and daughter Sarah prior to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan International Speedway. Photo by Sean Gardner/NASCAR via Getty Images

Not even a made-for-TV movie writer could dream up a military homecoming this special.

Last June, the USO and NASCAR teamed up to pull off the ultimate homecoming for Sgt. Sean Brady and his family, reuniting them on the pit road on Father’s Day before the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan International Speedway.

But that’s not all.

In the spirit of making moments count, the USO turned the tables on Brady and gave him a Father’s Day surprise, too. Check out the video to see what happened:

 

 

3. A Happy Ending: USO Steps in to Make a Wedding Happen for a Young Military Couple

The unpredictable military lifestyle can making planning big life moments, like weddings, a little difficult.

This was the case for Pvt. Chase Howard and his then-fiancee, Brittany, who had been trying to find a date to tie the knot for months. So when a Chase received a four-day pass over Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend last year, the couple finally had the perfect opportunity to say ‘I do.’

The only problems were that the couple only had a week to plan the ceremony and had no nearby family to help make the arrangements. That’s when Howard called his mother, who got in touch with the USO.

With some quick planning and a few good Skype connections — one with Chase’s father in Afghanistan and another with Brittany’s parents at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington — the Howards had a day to remember at the USO Warrior and Family Center in Fort Belvoir, Virginia.

4. USO Sets Up Surprise Homecoming for a Soldier’s Family on “The Meredith Vieira Show”

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Every service member deserves a special homecoming.

But for Lt. Beau McNeff and his wife Ceci, who had missed their last two wedding anniversaries due to deployments and work-ups, something a bit more extravagant seemed to be in order.

The USO, which benefitted from more than 250 hours of McNeff’s volunteer service while he was stationed at Forward Operating Base Fenty in Afghanistan, selected the McNeff family for a surprise reunion on “The Meredith Vieira Show” and also arranged three days of fun for the family in Manhattan. Read more about the homecoming here.

5. A Perfect Proposal: USO San Antonio Helps an Army Private Pop the Question (Again)

Volunteers hold up signs during the surprise proposal at USO San Antonio. USO photo

Volunteers hold up signs during the surprise proposal at USO San Antonio. USO photo

When most girls dream about their perfect proposal, they imagine their future husband down on one knee — not a long-distance call from a boyfriend hundreds of miles away.

Unfortunately for Pvt. Zoe Tunchez and Pvt. Emmanuel Aleman, who were stationed at different Army bases, a happy phone conversation seemed like the closest to a fairy-tale proposal they would get.

That is, until Aleman, his mother, Marita Maldonado, and the team at USO San Antonio joined up to give Tunchez the surprise proper’ proposal of a lifetime just hours before the wedding ceremony. Read more about the couple’s magical USO moment here.