D-Day Vet Recalls Wartime Experiences After Honor Flight Visit to WWII Memorial

Fred Layher, right, stands for a photograph at the WWII memorial with his son, Ron, during an Honor Flight visit to Washington D.C., sponsored by Ford Motor Company on the anniversary of D-Day, June 6, 2012. USO photo by Joseph Andrew Lee

Sixty-eight years ago, Army Private Fred Layher lived through some of the most terrifying experiences of his life.

He was an amphibious engineer during the second wave of assaults on Normandy’s Omaha Beach. He fought in the waste-deep snow during the Battle of the Bulge. But among the most intimidating of all his experiences during the war in Europe in 1944 was the moment his fellow soldiers forced him on stage with actress Donna Reed—star of It’s a Wonderful Life—during one of the first USO shows in France.

“The guys they knew I was a timid type of guy, so they threw me up there on stage with her to see what I would do,” remembered Layher with a smile. “They were chanting and heckling me, and of course they just thought it was hilarious that I stood there paralyzed.”

“I was just 18 years old,” he added. “I knew how to use a weapon. I knew how to fight the Germans. But I had no idea what to do with this beautiful woman standing next to me.”

A month had passed since the Normandy invasion when the USO launched one of its most vigorous tour schedules in history—just in time for war-weary troops like Layher, who had been fighting hard to take the land from the Germans.

“I remember we really needed the comic relief at that time,” said Layher. “It was almost surreal what was happening in the war, what we’d been through and the things we’d seen.  It was all well and good that we were beating the Germans, but it came at a heavy cost. We lost a lot of guys, and the morale boost from that USO show couldn’t have been better timed.”

Thanks to a grant from Ford Motor Company, 86-year-old Layher was among 75 WWII veterans flown free of cost to visit the World War II Memorial in Washington D.C. today, on the anniversary of D-Day–the first wave of the Normandy invasion 68 years ago.

The trip was organized by Honor Flight Network, a non-profit organization on a mission to transport America’s veterans to Washington, D.C. to visit those memorials dedicated to honor their service and sacrifices.

“It’s a beautiful memorial,” said Layher. “Not quite as pretty as Donna Reed, but it does bring back the memories, which I’ll always be grateful for.”

Joseph Andrew Lee, USO Staff Writer

A Helping Hand: Travelers Aid and USO Share History of Serving Troops

Long before we had highway rest stops and airport food courts, the only way to travel cross-country was by rail, boat or a primitive network of roads.  Back in the mid-1800’s, the journey could be arduous, uncomfortable, even dangerous.

Pioneers faced huge hurdles as they headed west to explore the frontier or cash in on the Gold Rush—hurdles like exposure to cholera, unreliable stagecoach schedules and lack of access to food and medicine.

During that time, the city of St. Louis became a stopping point for weary road-warriors in need of rest and refreshment.  That’s why the city’s mayor left half a million dollars in his will to create the Travelers Aid movement, supporting anyone on a long distance journey through unfamiliar territory.  By the late 1800’s, a network of Travelers Aid chapters had sprung up in major cities in the Midwest and along the East coast.

At first the focus was on helping the most vulnerable.  Ray Flynt, president of Travelers Aid International, says the YWCA was a catalyst for creating many of the early programs because “their interest was in making sure that women and girls had some level of protection when they traveled and that they weren’t preyed upon by strangers.”

Later, Travelers chapters also became involved in welcoming new immigrants to the U.S, says Flynt.  “Making sure they knew what facilities were available, where they could get a room, what they could expect to pay for it… so they wouldn’t be abused by somebody that was trying to take advantage of them.”

Travelers Aid was the first non-sectarian social welfare organization in the country, and among its founding principles was to serve anyone regardless of religion, gender or race.  In 1941, it became one of the six groups that President Roosevelt tapped to form the United Service Organizations (USO.)

During World War II, Travelers Aid set up 153 “Troops in Transit” lounges at bus and rail stations nationwide to serve troops traveling to and from deployments or training camps.  Flynt says their mission was “to greet people, provide a smiling face, a welcome, a cup of coffee… [and] help sew a button back on a uniform.”

Then, as now, the organization depended on the efforts of hundreds of volunteers.  Travelers Aid is no longer connected with the USO, but it still has active chapters at about 20 airports and a handful of rail stations, providing information, directions and help with problem-solving.

Even though modern travelers carry laptops and smart phones, Flynt believes they still can benefit from a helping hand and smiling face.

“When you’re away from home, when you’re disconnected from your support systems, that’s where you really need someone you can turn to and that you can trust.” – Malini Wilkes, USO Director of Story Development

USO Metro’s One Million Milestone

The USO of Metropolitan Washington (USO Metro) has achieved a major accomplishment in its commitment to serve our troops. In December of 2011, USO Metro surpassed the one million mark for the number of troops they have supported in its airport centers.

USO Metro began taking care of America’s troops and their families at airports when it opened its first center inside Baltimore Washington International Airport (BWI) in 1999.

Volunteers work at the BWI airport center.

The timeline below shows in detail how the USO Metro airport services have expanded over the years.

USO Metro’s Airport Centers Timeline

  • 1999: BWI opens doors to USO Metro’s first airport center
  • 2001: Reagan National Airport (Reagan) center opens
  • 2005: Andrews Air Force Base opens an information desk
  • 2007: Washington Dulles International Airport (Dulles) center opens
  • 2010: Andrews Air Force Base airport center opens

According to USO Metro’s Airport Services Manager, Pam Horton, the 15,000-square-foot BWI center is both the largest and busiest center because of the Air Mobility Command (AMC) flights that many troops travel on through BWI. The other airport centers primarily serve troops who are flying on commercial flights.

Like all USO centers, the BWI center has many amenities geared to create a comfortable and home-like lounge for our troops. The facilities at BWI’s center include a concession filled with food and drinks, a sleeping room, children’s room, computer room, lounge with television and comfortable chairs, and Xbox games.

While BWI is the largest location, USO Metro’s achievement is a celebration for each airport center and USO Metro’s airport services program.

The number of guests at each airport center shows how each location has contributed to USO Metro’s grand total of 1,020,211 troops and family members served.

USO Metro Airport Centers’ Guests from 1998-2011

  • BWI = 762,797
  • Dulles = 129, 936
  • Reagan = 84, 567
  • Andrews AFB = 42, 911
  • Grand Total = 1, 020, 211

USO Metro Airport Centers’ Guests for 2011

  • BWI = 71, 313
  • Dulles = 30,302
  • Reagan = 21,777
  • Andrews AFB = 42, 911

Horton, who was first a USO Metro volunteer at BWI, says the milestone would not be possible without the support each airport center receives from its committed volunteers. The four airport centers currently have a total of 715 volunteers on file, all of whom are committed to at least two shifts each month.

Similar to USO centers around the world, USO Metro and its volunteers have remained dedicated to serving our troops, one by one.

Congratulations to USO Metro and your volunteers on touching over one million troops and family members! - Sarah Camille Hipp, Communications Specialist 

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The USO Mission: Serving the Troops for 71 Years

In early 1941, we were a nation on the brink of war.

England and France were already at war with Germany. Japan had invaded China years earlier, and soon Pearl Harbor would draw the U.S. into a worldwide conflict.

With global tensions escalating, our military was growing, and so were the needs of our troops. But at the time, there was no single organization focused solely on supporting our men and women in uniform.

At the request of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, six civilian agencies came together and created a partnership called the United Service Organizations for National Defense, later known as the USO. It became official on Feb. 4, 1941.

The original USO mission statement is typed on yellowing paper and bound in a slim black volume that we dug out of the archives at our Arlington, Virginia, headquarters.

It reads in part:

“The purposes for which this corporation is formed are to aid in the defense program of the United States by serving the religious, spiritual, welfare and educational needs of the men and women in the armed forces and defense industries [and]… to contribute to the maintenance of morale in American communities…”

The original six organizations making up the USO were the Salvation Army, YMCA, YWCA, National Catholic Community Services, National Jewish Welfare Board and National Travelers Aid Association.

During the war, the USO opened more than 3,000 centers across the country, setting up facilities in any available space—log cabins, museums, castles, barns, railroad sleeping cars and storefronts. The USO soon became famous for its Camp Shows, with more than 7,000 entertainers traveling overseas to perform for the troops.

In the decades that followed, the USO continued serving troops with entertainment, recreation and social support programs in Korea, Vietnam, the Middle East and the Balkans.

In the 21st century, the USO has followed our servicemen and women to bases in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait and Qatar. Now it’s tackling another challenge—expanding services for wounded, ill and injured troops along with their families and caregivers.

Seventy-one years later, the mission statement is shorter and simpler, but the mission itself remains the same:

“The USO lifts the spirits of America’s troops and their families.”

- Ellen Bjork, USO Director of Internal Communications, & Malini Wilkes, USO Director of Story Development; Photography by Joseph Andrew Lee, USO Staff Writer

America’s Away Team

This Sunday is one of the biggest days in all of sports: The Super Bowl. Pitting the New York Giants against the New England Patriots in a near-identical rematch of the 2008 Super Bowl, the fan rivalries are heating up. Surely Tom Brady will be looking for revenge after his perfect season was ended by the Giants in the Super Bowl four years ago. As the nation prepares for the showdown of the season, here’s a look back at the long and proud partnership between the USO and the NFL.

In 1965, then-Commissioner Pete Rozelle was looking for a way to demonstrate the NFL’s support for United States servicemen and women in Vietnam. He conceived the idea of sending NFL players to Vietnam on “goodwill tours” to visit and inspire the troops. After partnering with the USO they became the first sports organization to send a group of players to Vietnam.

From 1966 to 1973, NFL players visited remote firebases, aircraft carriers, and other installations in Vietnam, Guam, Thailand, and Japan. Since then, active and retired NFL players and coaches have lifted the spirits of America’s troops by participating in countless USO tours in places like Somalia, Bosnia, Italy, South Korea, Japan, Germany, Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan.

More recently, since the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan in 2001 and Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, the NFL, with the help of the USO, has sent many players and coaches to the Middle East. Commissioner Roger Goodell became the first sports commissioner to visit troops overseas when he toured Iraq and Afghanistan in 2008 with Osi Umenyiora of the New York Giants.

In 2005, the NFL and USO again teamed up to preserve the legacy of Pat Tillman, a former Arizona Cardinal and Army Ranger killed in action in 2004, by constructing a USO center in his honor. Former New England Patriot and current New York Giants Assistant Special Teams Coach Larry Izzo traveled to Afghanistan to take part in the grand opening of the Pat Tillman USO Center at Bagram Air Base.

No matter who comes out as this weekend’s victor, remember the men and women sporting America’s camouflaged away uniforms. The USO is proud of their long history with the NFL and is grateful for the opportunity to better lift the spirits of America’s troops and families. Who do you think we should send next? – Joseph P. Scannell, USO New Media Intern

Your USO is Changing

It’s easy to focus on how America and the world changed after September 11, 2001:

  • Having to get to an airport 2 hours early
  • Government buildings becoming fortresses
  • Bag checks at museums and other public places

The cost has been substantial, and we also pay an emotional price for a little more security, or at least the feeling of security.

The world changed that day, and so did the USO.

On the morning of September 11, the USO made the instant shift from an organization serving the needs of a peacetime military, to one that had to adapt to meet the needs of troops that were once again going into harm’s way.

Keeping Troops and Families Connected

Troops in Kuwait talk to loved ones back home

Not long after the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom, “USA Today” published a story about the paucity of telephones in Kuwait.  Troops were having trouble calling home, and it was expensive.  We worked with our friends at AT&T to provide international calling cards to as many troops as we could reach.

That was an interim solution. We still distribute phone cards, but we also added our own satellite-based Private Telephone Network at every USO center in Southwest Asia, so troops could call and email home over a more robust system. The network also makes video chats possible. We’ve lost count of the number of fathers overseas who were able to “be in” the delivery room when their children were born.

“If I can do this, why can’t you?”

Of course, our entertainment tours continued and grew over the years. Toby Keith, one of our stalwarts, takes his band regularly to troops in Afghanistan. He performs with his band for hundreds of troops at large and medium-sized bases around the county, but also insists on taking Scotty, his guitarist to remote forward operating bases on every trip. After one of those FOB visits, he challenged us to deliver USO programs to troops who weren’t at larger, more secure locations, and we took up the challenge.

Today, we have six USO centers at FOBS and firebases around the country. They’re small, but we provide the same kind of break from routine the USO has been famous for for more than 70 years. We supply these forward-deployed USO centers, and the troops there run them.

Who Needs us Most?

We routinely look at how we’re doing on our mission of lifting the spirits of all troops and military families. As we set about doing that, we asked ourselves, “Who needs us most?” The answer changes as conditions dictate, but today our focus is on:

  • Troops who are deployed in combat zones, and their families;
  • Troops in remote forward operating bases and outposts;
  • Wounded Warriors and their families; and
  • Families of the Fallen

The last two categories are examples of how the USO has changed most in the ten years since 2001.

The USO runs two centers at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware. Dover is the home for the military’s only mortuary, and every dignified transfer ceremony for troops killed in the current conflicts takes place there. The USO at Dover has participated in every dignified transfer since before 9/11, including those troops killed at Ft. Hood. No matter what time the airplanes bringing remains home arrive, USO staff and volunteers are there to serve the needs of the troops stationed there and the families of the fallen who make the sad journey to Dover to witness the final return of their loved ones. USO centers at airports across the country also assist family members on their way to Dover and on the trips back home. We’re there to let them know the country supports them.

Caring for Wounded Warriors and Their Families

An artist's rendering of the interior of the new USO center at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. Courtesy graphic.

The USO is with troops suffering wounds and injuries in Afghanistan and Iraq almost from the moment they’re evacuated from the field. USO volunteers are at the hospitals there, providing encouragement. When the troops are airlifted to the Army hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, the USO Warrior Center there provides a place of respite for them and the families who go there to be with them.

When those troops come back to the U.S., many of them face months – sometimes years – of recuperation and rehabilitation, often at military hospitals in the Washington, D.C. area. The USO is there for them.

We’re expanding our service to these wounded troops by creating programs in we call Operation Enduring Care. It’s a national fundraising effort to help ease the transition to the next phase in the lives of these veterans and their families.

We recently broke ground on a new Warrior and Family Center at Ft. Belvoir. This 25,000-square-foot facility will be the largest USO in the world. Wounded troops and their families will have a place to meet away from the hospital. They can watch movies, cook family meals in the kitchen, or just relax in a quiet place. A similar USO will be built next year at the new Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, in Bethesda, Maryland.

While these centers will have a real and practical impact on the troops and families who visit there, our goal is to provide something a bit more intangible. These centers will represent the embrace and support of the American people – our donors who make what we do possible. They will be the first building blocks in what we hope will be a national community of care for wounded troops who return to their hometowns to start the next phase of their lives.

Change is a Constant

Today’s USO is changing to meet the growing needs of troops and military families, just as the USO changed from our birth during World War II, through Korea and Vietnam and the events leading us to where we are today. One day, we won’t have troops in combat in Southwest Asia, but we will have troops stationed around the world, far from home.  The USO will be there for them, too. We will be there for troops and families, Until Every One Comes Home. – John Hanson, USO Sr. Vice President