From Enlisted to VIP: Trio of USO Events Turn Troops into Guests of Honor

This September, we’ve helped treat recovering troops to an exclusive meet-and-greet, distributed tickets for an exclusive basketball game and brought some accomplished cartoonists downrange to create some exclusive drawings.

Here’s a look at a few USO news items – from New York to Ohio and all the way to Afghanistan – that have happened the last few weeks:

Jon Stewart Hosts Recovering Troops During USO Visit

A group of wounded, ill and injured troops and their guests meet with "The Daily Show" host Jon Stewart, center, in New York City on Thursday. Stewart hosted the USO outing. USO photo

A group of wounded, ill and injured troops and their guests meet with “The Daily Show” host Jon Stewart, center, in New York City on Thursday. Stewart hosted the USO outing. USO photo

Jon Stewart, the popular anchor of Comedy Central’s long-running “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” hosted a USO contingent of wounded, ill and injured troops at the show’s New York City studio on Thursday. Comedians from “The Daily Show” – including summer interim host John Oliver – recently visited troops downrange, too.

Cleveland Cavaliers Turn Annual Exhibition into Military-Only Event

The NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers’ annual Wine and Gold game – the intra-squad scrimmage that traditionally kicks off their preseason – will be a private event this year for troops and their families. Tickets for the game, which will be played at Baldwin Wallace University, will be distributed through the USO of Northern Ohio.

Toons for the Troops in Afghanistan

Army Spc. Jovi Prevot of the Mississippi Army National Guard has his caricature made by two-time Pulitzer Prize winning editorial cartoonist Michael Ramirez on Sept. 6 in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Army National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Scott Tynes

Army Spc. Jovi Prevot of the Mississippi Army National Guard has his caricature made by two-time Pulitzer Prize winning editorial cartoonist Michael Ramirez on Sept. 6 in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Army National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Scott Tynes

A group of eight National Cartoonist Society artists visited troops in Afghanistan on a USO tour earlier this month. See this DVIDS story for more details.

Ayla Brown Performs for Troops and Families at Nashville Yellow Ribbon Event

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Country singer Ayla Brown preformed in Nashville for Army National Guard troops and Army reservists. USO photos by Joseph A. Lee

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — More than 1,500 Army National Guard and Reserve soldiers and their families from 43 states enjoyed an intimate USO performance by country music singer and former American Idol contestant Ayla Brown on Saturday at the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center here.

Brown is the oldest daughter of former United States Senator Scott Brown (R-Mass.), who also happens to be a colonel in the Army National Guard, so she’s no stranger to the military scene. In fact,  she entertained 15,000 troops at  Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan, in November 2010.

“With a grandfather in the Air Force and my father in the Army, an appreciation for the military is something I’ve grown up with,” Brown said. “After moving out here to Nashville, I told the USO that if they ever need me to donate my time, just pick up the phone and call — and here I am.”

Her latest album, written specifically for military families, is called “Heroes and Hometowns.” The seven-song EP features a studio version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” in addition to original, patriotic songs. Fans can purchase her new single – “Pride of America” – through her website or iTunes.

The Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program is a congressionally mandated program for soldiers in the deployment cycle. The one- or two-day events feature experts who brief soldiers and their family members on topics such as healthcare, financial readiness, legal issues, employment services, child and youth services, health and wellness, education benefits and veteran’s affairs.

Story and photos by Joseph Andrew Lee, USO Staff Writer

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Brown’s performance got the crowd on its feet.

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Brown took time to meet attendees after her show.

Legendary Dad: How Online Gaming Brought One Marine Family Closer Together

Today, troops and families around the world come together with video games – many of them at USO centers. But that wasn’t always the case. USO Staff Writer Joseph Andrew Lee remembers the beginning of online console gaming– and how it brought him closer to his family despite being stationed half a world away:

When I visit my parents’ house, the first thing I hear when I walk through the door is a face-melting guitar solo followed by a string of heavy machine gun fire.

No, I’m not an Osbourne or a Schwarzenegger. My parents are online gamers. My father is well known (and feared) across the spectrum of first-person shooters, while my mother is known to snap-kick like Steven Tyler when she heats up on a Guitar Hero riff.

For years now, the living room gaming console has made my parents’ house a home. It’s not just a toy. For them, it’s a fountain of youth.

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Tommy Lee aka Legendary Dad, can be seen on Skype while playing Battlefield 3 against his son, Joe Lee just last week. USO photo by Joseph Andrew Lee

As a teenager, “Goldeneye 007″ was a mainstay on Nintendo 64. In fact, I believe 007 was the first video game my dad ever attempted to master. He would get so angry whenever my brother and I would ambush him. He would ignore the dinner bell for hours until he was able to kill one of the two of us. Then — and only then — was it was time to eat. (Yes, sometimes I was hungry enough to let him win.)

My dad was already in his 50s when I left for boot camp in 1997, so my brother and I give him a lot of credit: He didn’t just play video games with us, but he actually took the time to learn how to set an effective proximity mine and launch an MGL round at just the right angle so it would land directly in someone’s path. Trust me, this takes skill, and is good reason to be impressed. If technology were alive it would have a restraining order against my dad.

When I left home at 17, I probably missed those gaming days the most. Not so much getting blown up by a random grenade, but the trash-talking and hanging out with my family and friends. Keeping my dad up to date on the latest games and watching him become proficient at them was really fun for us. We felt like it kept him young. When my siblings and I left the house, it was sad to think that without us he might grow old and lose track of how to play the newer, more technical games.

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“Goldeneye 007″: A father’s introduction to gaming.

I spent the first two years as a Marine in Okinawa, Japan, and I missed my dad and brother a lot. I could tell they missed me, too, but phone conversations between the boys always felt forced and awkward. Maybe it was just me, but I just never felt it was a guy thing to jabber on the phone about Grandma’s new hip or to describe what I just ate for dinner (pre-Instagram).

In the year 2000, (queue up Conan O’Brien bit) the world was supposed to change dramatically. In most respects it stayed very much the same. In the world of console gaming, however, there were some significant changes taking place.

Two paradigm-shifting consoles hit the ground running in the first few years of the century, and once they got their respective online networks established in 2002, Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network began connecting families like mine.

The PlayStation Network was a free service, so it probably comes as no surprise this was the console of choice for a broke, young, enlisted Marine like me. The first big shooter to come out for the PlayStation Network was a game called SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs.

I was immediately engrossed.

The title was revolutionary in that every copy was packaged with a microphone headset intended to promote in-game communication. But as a perhaps unforeseen byproduct, the headsets created a new communication platform for fathers and sons, brothers and friends. Finally, the men in my family had a way to discuss Grandpa’s colon cancer with dignity — while shooting each other in the face.

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“SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs” became an international family affair for the Lees.

The first of my family to connect online was my brother and me. As an active duty Marine, my skills were valued in this new form of online competition, and as an aspiring Web designer, his skills were also useful. We made friends with other gamers quickly and formed a team (called a “clan” in first-person shooters) named Special Operations Training Group (SOTG). He built out our website and discussion forum while I designed our team’s tactical strategies. At its peak, SOTG had more than 200 adult gamers who played SOCOM daily. Many were active duty military. Some were on my base. Some were veterans assigned to Camp Couch, 1st HOME. Others aspired to be – and eventually became – servicemen and women themselves. All are still my close friends today.

Gaming was a reprieve from military life as well as a direct portal home. Knowing my family and friends were just a power button away lifted my spirits greatly while I was in the service. Before online console gaming, my brother and I spoke once every couple of years. Now we were hanging out daily.

Over the years the games have changed but the bond has stayed the same.

“Goldeneye” turned to “SOCOM” turned to “Battlefield” turned to “Call of Duty,” but I feel comforted knowing that somewhere out there, my dad is virtually mowing down fields of teenage gamers with an arsenal of automatic weapons. Maybe even with a flame-thrower (tear).

My Mom still kicks shoes across the living room, rocking out to Drowning Pool while simultaneously baking a five-layer wedding cake for one of my sister’s friends.

My brother doesn’t play so much these days, but when I have a chance, I still jump online to hang out with (and generally get “pwned” by) my father, whose call sign couldn’t be more accurate.

His name is Legendary Dad. Find him online and he will kill you.

–By Joseph Andrew Lee, USO Staff Writer (aka SOTG Marine)

News Roundup: A Day in the Park for Stuttgart Students, Milwaukee-Area Troops

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USO volunteers and staff served food to Patch High School seniors June 4 as part of graduation week festivities. USO photo

With 72 years of practice, the USO knows how to throw a party.

And after sitting through ceremony practice last week, 170 graduating students from Patch High School in Stuttgart, Germany, needed a break.

USO Stuttgart – with help from the parents of the graduating seniors – held a barbecue for the grads June 4, with USO staff and volunteers served up hamburgers, hot dogs, sides and desserts.

When they were done eating, students were treated to an afternoon of lawn games including a water balloon toss, volleyball and croquet.

“We appreciate the USO so much for coming out and supporting the seniors,” said Sheryl Wagner, the Patch High School Guidance Department secretary and mother of a senior.

USO of Wisconsin, Milwaukee Brewers Honor Troops with Mass First Pitch

Fifty-eight troops participated in a mass first pitch May 27 at Miller Park in Milwaukee. USO photo

Fifty-eight troops participated in a mass first pitch May 27 at Miller Park in Milwaukee. USO photo

Fifty-eight people lining the infield of Miller Park were all thinking the same thing: “Just don’t let me throw it in the dirt.”

On Memorial Day, the USO of Wisconsin and the Milwaukee Brewers teamed to do something special for thousands of troops. Not only did they combine to donate and distribute 5,000 tickets to the May 27 Brewers game against the Minnesota Twins, but they also placed 58 troops on the field before the game to throw out simultaneous ceremonial first pitches.

The Brewers Community Foundation also held a 50/50 raffle that afternoon, with proceeds going to the USO of Wisconsin.

–Story by USO Story Development

Military Children Create Patriotic Artwork

A young girl points to her award winning artwork

A young girl points to her award winning artwork.

In honor of April’s ‘Month of the Military Child,’ the USO of Hampton Roads and Central Virginia (USO HRCV) held a unique contest to engage local children and raise awareness of the USO’s mission.

For the third year, the USO HRCV called on all school-age children in the area to compete in an art contest that turns the winning artworks into panels that will be displayed in the Richmond International Airport.

The children, ages 5 to 18, were instructed to create illustrations that incorporated a patriotic theme. On Monday, April 29, USO HRCV announced the winners of their contest. This year, winners were from Hampton, Chesterfield, Prince George, Henrico, and Hanover counties.

See the slideshow below for a look at some of the winners as they display their beautiful and patriotic creations.

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Sarah Camille Hipp, Communications Specialist

Moms Find Another Way to Give Back at USO

We’ll all be thinking of, calling and thanking our mothers Sunday.

But that doesn’t mean they’re taking the day off.

Hundreds of moms will be clocking in volunteer hours at USO centers across the globe this Mother’s Day. Some do it as a hobby. Others out of a sense of duty. And some give countless hours at USO centers to repay the treatment given to their families.

Here are the stories of two such volunteers – Pam Horton and Michelle Bajakian – in their own words:

Pam Horton, USO of North Carolina volunteer

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USO of North Carolina volunteer Pam Horton

My dad was career Army. I was raised to be patriotic, to have a strong sense of pride and love for our country. I still get choked up when I hear the national anthem! My dad retired when I was 16. Thirty-five years later, my youngest son enlisted in the Army.

We moved to Apex, N.C., just as our son finished up his training. He had been assigned to a unit that was already deployed!  We were at [Raleigh Durham International Airport] putting him on the plane, knowing we wouldn’t see him again until he returned home from Afghanistan, when we were approached by a woman from the USO. She thanked him for his service, thanked us for our sacrifice, told us about the USO center, asked if she could give him any snacks to take on the plane, thanked us again and went on her way. After my eyes stopped dripping, I thought, ‘I can do THAT!’ and went in search of her.

I enjoy talking with the people that come through the center, to find out where they’ve been, or where they’re headed. I try to be upbeat and chatty, to help pass the time for them. I’ve even learned to play a mean game of Crazy Eights! Sometimes, they don’t want to talk, so I respectfully give them their privacy. It’s all about making them comfortable and happy while they are in the center.

I thoroughly love that I can help ease the minds of moms who come into the Center with their children who are about to go to basic [training] or deploy. …

It sure sounds like I volunteer for me, doesn’t it?  It helps that I enjoy it, but it really is all about our military and their families. They sacrifice for us and we should show our appreciation for that.

Michele Bajakian, USO Fort Drum volunteer

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USO Fort Drum volunteer Michele Bajakian

“There are a lot of good reasons to volunteer with an organization like the USO, but I am a volunteer today because four years ago, the USO was there for my family when we needed them the most.

My husband was deployed to Afghanistan while we were living in Germany. I took my two children, who were 9 and 11 years old at the time, to visit their grandparents in Texas. I received a phone call from my husband, saying that he was being medically evacuated to Landstuhl, Germany, because a mass was discovered in his neck.

Needless to say, I was very concerned and needed to get back to Germany fast. One of the flights from Texas was to New Jersey and we spent a sleepless night in their terminal. The next morning, we caught an early flight to Boston and had to wait several hours before our flight to Germany.

The kids and I were exhausted from a sleepless and stressful night. I saw the USO sign in the terminal and I felt so relieved. This was the first time that I had ever entered a USO. The people working at the center were so kind and thoughtful. There was a quiet room there and comfy couches to sleep on. My children and I were able to get some much needed rest and felt ready to continue on our trip after spending time with Boston’s USO.

The two years that followed were pretty tough, but my husband is now in remission from Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. He is doing so much better now and we have a lot to be thankful for.

Every time I see the USO sign, I think about that trip that my children and I made and who was there waiting for us in Boston four years ago. I completed my training at Fort Drum to become a volunteer [in March] and I am so happy every time I walk into the center. I volunteer for the USO because I want to be there waiting for some other soldier or their family who needs a little extra TLC, a cup of coffee, or a smile.

–Story by USO Story Development

Visit USO Wishbook to give troops a gift for Mother’s Day like a phone call home or a program experience for a family of a wounded, ill or injured service member.