Your USO at Work: November 2014 — USO, Sesame Street Celebrate 500,000 Smiles

The Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families celebrated a major milestone with families at Fort Benning, Georgia, on October 3 when the tour entertained its 500,000th military family member. USO photo by Dave Gatley

The Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families celebrated a major milestone with families at Fort Benning, Georgia, on October 3 when the tour entertained its 500,000th military family member. USO photo by Dave Gatley

Sesame Street/USO Experience Reaches 500K Milestone

It’s always a sunny day on Sesame Street, but Elmo, Cookie Monster and the Muppets had an extra special reason to sing and dance with all their friends last month. The Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families entertained its 500,000th military family member.

“The fact that we hit that particular number is a giant milestone for us,” said Nicole McClendon, tour manager for the USO/Sesame Street Experience for Military Families.

The Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families has toured since July 2008 and has taken its message of facing fears and embracing change to more than 500,000 troops and military families. With help from Katie, a military child who is moving to a new place, and all of her friends, the tour has performed more than 893 shows on 147 military installations in 33 states and 11 countries.

“Five hundred thousand represents the number of smiles Elmo and Katie have brought to military kids and their families … as the tour has traveled around the world,” USO President and CEO Dr. J.D. Crouch II said in a release. “We thank our friends at Sesame Street for helping to make this possible and we look forward to seeing many more smiling faces as the tour continues its journey.”

USO’s Every Moment Counts Flag Breaks World Record

The USO's Every Moment Counts flag is displayed at The Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati on Sept. 11. USO photo by Mike Theiler

The USO’s Every Moment Counts flag is displayed at The Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati on Sept. 11. USO photo by Mike Theiler

With signatures gathered from all 50 states and seven countries, USO announced in September that it broke the Guinness World Records title for most signatures on a flag with 115,405 gathered digitally and in-person around the world. The USO shattered the current record set in 2012 by more than 82,132 signatures.

As part of its Every Moment Counts campaign, the USO rallied Americans to show support for troops and their families through the simple act of saying thank you with their signature.

“Every signature on the Every Moment Counts flag is a symbol of a grateful nation’s appreciation for all that our men and women in uniform and their families do for us on a daily basis,” said J.D. Crouch II, USO President and CEO.

Go to USOmoments.org to show your appreciation for our troops and their families.

Al Roker Sets Weather Forecast Record in Support of the USO

With six minutes to go in #Rokerthon, the expression momentarily drained from Al Roker’s face as his co-anchors piled into his small New York City studio.

NBC's Al Roker headlined the "Today"/USO Comedy Tour in Afghanistan in October. USO photo by Fred Greaves

NBC’s Al Roker headlined the “Today”/USO Comedy Tour in Afghanistan in October. USO photo by Fred Greaves

“I don’t think there are enough people in here,” Roker deadpanned. More than 33 hours  — and despite several jokes suggesting the contrary — he was still lucid.

And then he delivered more temperatures.

Roker, a USO tour veteran, set a Guinness World Record on Nov. 14 for the longest continuous televised weather forecast at 34 hours. He did it to raise awareness for the USO, asking a national audience, a litany of NBC affiliates and livestream viewers to visit his still-active Crowdrise page, where he raised more than $75,000 for the organization by the time he went off the air.

He had a lot of help while he was on the air, too. #Rokerthon was often the No. 1 trending topic on Twitter, with thousands of viewers (including USO centers around the world) tweeting in questions about the weather to keep Roker’s forecasting streak alive.

USO, Renovating Hope and Gary Sinise Foundation Repair Home of Wounded Vet

After returning from Afghanistan with PTSD and a traumatic brain injury, medically retired Army Nurse Corps officer Jim Gardon came home to a surprise.

Unfortunately it wasn’t the good kind.

“When Jim was deployed to Afghanistan, I hired a contractor to remodel the back two rooms of the house,” said his wife Cece Gardon. “He came in, pulled out the electricity, did a haphazard job of sheet rocking and left and never came back.”

Stuck with a huge bill for incomplete work, they didn’t have the money to invest in the project a second time. The USO introduced the Gardons to Paul Hoffecker, the CEO of Renovating Hope, after Cece attended a USO Caregivers Conference. Renovating Hope secured grants from the USO and the Gary Sinise Foundation to make sure the job could be completed once and for all.

“The USO has been better than the 15 different medications the VA has tried to improve my attitude,” Jim Gardon said. “This is something that actually physically, emotionally and socially helps the soldier.”

Visit USO.org/donate to learn how you can support our healing heroes and their families.

USO Supports Fort Drum Spouse Through Deployment – and Homecoming

Ashley Sandgren

Ashley Sandgren

Ashley Sandgren’s smiles said as much as her words. Sometimes anxious. Other times confident.

Either way, she knew her wait was almost over.

Just 24 hours away from reuniting with her husband, Army Sgt. Jeremy Sandgren, after his nine-month deployment to Afghanistan, the Virginia native talked through the emotions of what it was like to wait out the couple’s first overseas deployment.

“I think putting it out of your mind is helpful in some sense, but you shouldn’t live your life in denial that they’re in danger, because they are,” she said.

Not that she didn’t have plenty to do. A trained cosmetologist, Sandgren balanced her work with coordinating a family readiness group at Fort Drum, N.Y., and volunteering with the USO, where many Fort Drum spouses have found a home away from home while their significant others were deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade.

“I think this USO has such a huge heart,” Sandgren said. “I think it’s extremely important to have the community and the different groups to lean on when your soldier’s deployed. It helps in the sense that you realize that you’re not alone.”

BNSF Helps the USO Support Transitioning Veterans with a Landmark Donation

Job searches are never easy. The task can be even more daunting for veterans looking to land their first civilian position.

That’s where the USO and supporters like the BNSF Railway Foundation step in.

On July 24, the BNSF Railway Foundation announced a $3 million pledge to support USO Warrior and Family Care employment programs for active-duty troops transitioning out of the military. The first-of-its-kind, three-year pledge will fund USO programs designed to assist transitioning troops – including those who are wounded, ill or injured – entering the civilian workforce.

Former Army Officer Makes a Difference for USO, Troops

USO Houston Center Director Liz Vallette

USO Houston Center Director Liz Vallette

USO Houston Center Director Liz Vallette understands what it’s like to be far from home.

With a tour in South Korea and a deployment to Iraq, the former Army officer and West Point graduate also knows that the USO is able to deliver a piece of home to deployed troops around the world.

“I was eager to join an organization that I had directly benefited from during my service, from relaxing in airport USO centers … to enjoying a touch of home from entertainers,” said Vallette, who started with the organization in 2011.

She arrived at USO Houston after serving six years in the Army and another two working with an economic development group in Afghanistan. Having daily opportunities to positively impact the lives of troops and their families was a driving factor in her decision and working with outstanding, motivated colleagues is an added benefit, she said.

Under Vallette’s leadership, USO Houston is piloting innovative programs that connect transitioning troops and their families with high-profile companies in the city’s booming industries. Oil and Gas 101 – a free, two-day orientation to the oil and gas industry – helped troops network directly with Houston-area hiring managers. Vallette and her team are planning another session for 2015 and hope to help more troops prepare for life after the military.

Go to USO.org/donate to support our nation’s transitioning troops and their families.

Medal of Honor Recipient Rides Shotgun with Roush Fenway Racing’s Trevor Bayne at NASCAR Nationwide Series

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

PHOENIX–With Veterans Day approaching, Rouch Fenway Racing and USO Arizona teamed up to kick off this year’s festivities with a roar.

Roush Fenway Racing driver Trevor Bayne, had two special additions on his No. 6 AdvoCare Ford Mustang at this weekend’s NASCAR Nationwide Series (NNS) event at Phoenix International Raceway to honor those who have served.

In addition to featuring the USO logo on the side and back of his vehicle, Bayne sported Medal of Honor recipient Fred Ferguson’s name on his passenger door. Bayne, who finished ninth in the race, also took a moment to give troops a shout before hitting the track this weekend.

In addition to meeting Bayne and seeing his name on the car, Ferguson, who received the Medal of Honor in 1969 for actions in Vietnam, was formally recognized at the pre-race driver’s meeting with a standing ovation.

Ferguson enjoyed VIP treatment throughout the day Saturday, thanks to Rouch Fenway Racing. He along with Air Force Maj. Gen. Michael  McGuire, USAA Executive Director Military Affinity and retired Marine Lt. Col. Bob Wiedower and other guests got an exclusive behind-the-scenes view of raceday action.

Trace Adkins and Casey James Thank Troops Before Performing at Fort Hood

Before hitting the stage to perform for military families at a free concert at Fort Hood, Texas, this weekend, nine-time USO veteran Trace Adkins took a moment to thank troops around the world for their service.

Country music newcomer Casey James, who opened the concert for Adkins, also gave a quick shout out to troops before the show began.

The concert, sponsored by the USO, Fort Hood MWR and Pentagon Federal Credit Union (PenFed), featured nearly three hours of music at Fort Hood Stadium.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

‘I’ve Got Their Back’: Trace Adkins Gears Up to Perform a USO Show at Fort Hood

Multi-platinum country music recording artist, Trace Adkins. Photo courtesy Trace Adkins

Multi-platinum country music recording artist Trace Adkins. Courtesy photo

When Trace Adkins steps off stage after performing in Fort Hood, Texas, this Saturday, he knows he will feel the guilt. It’s a guilt the eight-time USO tour veteran says he feels after every USO show.

“You’ll never find a more appreciative audience than the members of the military,” Adkins said. “Every USO tour I’ve been on, I leave there feeling a little guilty every time. I always feel like they gave me more than I gave them. And it’s always felt like that.”

The multi-platinum country artist, who previously performed at Fort Hood during the 2010 WWE and NBC ‘Tribute to the Troops,’ says there’s something special about entertaining troops and their families that he’s looking forward to experiencing again at Saturday’s show, sponsored by PenFed Credit Union.

“[The band] just play[s] and we’ll dance and sing and laugh and clap and all have a good time, you know?” Adkins said. “And just, for a few minutes [the troops] get to just be at a concert. And not have to worry too much about the day gig.”

In addition to providing troops with an escape, Adkins, who’s entertained over 39,700 military family members on USO tours since 2002, hopes that his concerts give military members, especially those deployed overseas, a much-needed taste of home.

“Hopefully we’ll do something, we’ll do a hit that they were listening to on the radio when they were riding around in the truck in their hometown,” Adkins said. “And those kind of things trigger memories for people and make them feel just a little closer to home. You know? That’s what we hope to be able to bring them.”

Most importantly, Adkins, who’s smash hits include “You’re Gonna Miss This” and “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk,” says that he hopes troops who attend Saturday’s show will leave with their morale boosted and smiles on their faces.

“I just want them to know that I support them 100 percent. That I’ve got their back,” Adkins said. “They’ve always had mine.”

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

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.”

Sesame Street / USO Experience for Military Families Cast Members Share Their Favorite Tour Memories

Grover, Cookie Monster, Katie, Elmo, Honker and  Rosita sing and dance for service members and their kids during The Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families which kicked off April 7, 2012 at Scott Air Force Base. (USO photo by Fred Greaves)

Grover, Cookie Monster, Katie, Elmo, Honker and Rosita entertain service members and their kids during The Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families on April 7, 2012 at Scott Air Force Base. (USO photo by Fred Greaves)

Since 2008, the Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families tour has made unforgettable memories for military children and their families all around the world. The longest-running annual USO tour has delivered moments to hundreds of thousands of military children and their parents through more than 735 shows at more than 144 military bases in 11 countries.

In the spirit of the USO’s Every Moment Counts campaign — and in preparation for entertaining the tour’s 500,000th audience member — members of the 2014 cast and crew shares some their favorite Sesame Street/USO Experience memories.

Here’s just a small sample of the amazing stories they had to tell:

“My favorite moment actually happened in Spain. … A little girl came up, she gave me a picture to give to Elmo. I brought it backstage, gave it to Elmo, and the picture said, ‘Thank you Elmo for coming all the way across the sea to Spain, just to see me.’ And I think it really brought home exactly how important it is for these kids to see this show.” — Stephanie Harmon, performance director

“I have many favorite moments, but one that happens every single day [is] when hundreds of kids and parents walk out with huge smiles on their faces, holding onto their Elmo spinning lights, telling me how much they enjoyed the show, and they constantly say thank you to me. Its a stream of ‘thank you’s. And since I think the show is our way of saying thank you to those same military families, it’s great to just get that cycle of thank you.” — Nicole McClendon, tour manager

Want to learn more about the Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families or see if a show is coming near you? Find out more here.