Operation C.H.A.M.P.S Founders Rev up for USO Tour to South Korea

Debbie and Jen Fink. Photo via operationchamps.org

Debbie and Jen Fink

Mother-daughter duo Debbie and Jen Fink, founders of Operation C.H.A.M.P.S and co-authors of “The Little C.H.A.M.P.S — Child Heroes Attached to Military Personnel,” are in South Korea on USO tour to talk with young children from American military families.

“There is just no greater honor, really … than to be partnering and working with the USO and to be taking this [programming] to these deserving un-sung heroes all over the world,” Debbie Fink said. “The USO gets it and the USO has the personnel to really take a vision and turn it into reality.”

From today through Sept. 23, the Finks and the USO, will greet about 2,400 military children at five installations throughout South Korea.

“I’m so honored to have the privilege to go on this tour and I can’t wait,” Jen Fink said.

Empowering Little C.H.A.M.P.S

During each 45-minute program, the elementary-aged kids will have the chance to participate in specially designed programming that blends math, English-language arts, sign-language, song and dance to directly address many of the unique challenges they face as military children.

LittleCHAMPSbook“What we aim to do is to provide support, comfort and gratitude to all elementary school C.H.A.M.P.S in [South] Korea that we have the privilege of spending time with,” Debbie Fink said. “It’s a pretty upbeat program carefully crafted such that it’s joyful — it’s a feel-good. They come in feeling great, they walk out feeling great with their heads up high in song.”

In addition to reading the “The Little C.H.A.M.P.S” book and singing the C.H.A.M.P.S song — the latter written by Jen Fink— kids will engage in interactive activities to learn how to cope with emotions, deal with changes and tackle any obstacles they might face as a byproduct of having a parent in the military. From identifying the plot and setting of “The Little C.H.A.M.P.S” to calculating the average number of family moves the group has made, each part of the program is specifically tailored to help military children understand what it means to be a C.H.A.M.P in a fun-yet-educational, way.

“Everything that we do is very intentional in terms of how it [relates] to the academics [and education requirements] of the school [system],” Debbie Fink said.

Each child will also receive a free copy of “The Little C.H.A.M.P.S.”

“Together the book and program really celebrates and validates our nation’s C.H.A.M.P.S,” Jen Fink said. “It celebrates the C.H.A.M.P.S’ family service to our nation, as well as celebrates and validates [their] emotions and coping mechanisms.”

Operation C.H.A.M.P.S: A Family Affair

While this is not the first Operation C.H.A.M.P.S tour, it will be the first time that both Finks, will be going on tour overseas together. Debbie Fink has gone on multiple USO tours overseas, including a visit to Europe in 2011 and Japan last year.

“To have a multi-generation experience … with Jen and to work together as a mother and a daughter team is very striking,” Debbie Fink said. “I know that when we hear [the children] singing the song that Jen wrote there will be a lot of tears shed behind the scenes because it’s an overwhelming, overwhelming experience to give children not only a voice, but to give them their song.”

To learn more about Operation C.H.A.M.P.S and their 2013 USO tour to Japan, check out the USO.org story here.

Your USO at Work: August 2014 — USO Center Helps Wounded Troops and Families Relax and Recharge

USO Warrior and Family Center at Bethesda is a Place Wounded Warriors Can Call Home

Sometimes, the mental grind of a recovery can be as tough as the physical obstacles.

That’s why the USO opened the second of two Warrior and Family Centers at Naval Support Activity Bethesda, Maryland, the home of Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, in April.

The USO Warrior and Family Center at Naval Support Activity Bethesda, Maryland, the home of Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, opened in April.

The USO Warrior and Family Center at Naval Support Activity Bethesda, Maryland, the home of Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, opened in April. USO photo by Joseph Andrew Lee

“You can come here and cook food if you want to. You can come here and barbecue if you want to. You can come here and watch movies, play video games, learn music, use the Internet … all that is here,” said medically retired Army Sgt. Kevin Gatson, a recent patient at Bethesda. “I think this will give someone a place to kind of sit back, reflect, relax, work on themselves just on a personal level — a worry-free zone in a sense.”

Like its sister center on the Fort Belvoir Community Hospital campus in Virginia, the USO Warrior and Family Center at Bethesda provides a place where families can come together for everything from meals and game nights to post-military career counseling and classes.

“I go to my room, because a lot of times I just don’t feel like talking to anybody,” said Marine Cpl. Rebecca Fletcher, who lost her leg in a motorcycle accident and is recovering from her injuries at Bethesda. “But coming down here (to the center), you end up running into someone that you know and you end up in a conversation. The next thing you know, you’re forgetting about the pain [and] you’re forgetting about the mental things that get to you throughout the day.”

“When you have had a full day of appointments … you’re exhausted both mentally and physically,” said Navy Capt. David Bitonti, Naval Support Activity Bethesda commander. He said that the new facility, which opened in April, is an additional place of respite for wounded troops and provides a place where they can relax and recover.

“[This center] allows you to go and recharge the battery so that when you have to do whatever it is that you need to do the next day, you’re the best person that you can be.”

Wounded Troops and Their Families Hit the Beach at Warrior Week

More than 550 wounded warriors and their families headed to Virginia Beach, Virginia, in May to enjoy surf, sand and sun as part of the USO’s inaugural Warrior Week.

“The city of Virginia Beach approached me and asked if the USO could expand the programs and services that we’re doing for the wounded, ill and injured here in Virginia Beach,” said Jeff Hill, USO regional vice president, U.S. “We did the research … and found out that outdoor activities [were] one of the favorite things that our wounded, ill and injured like to do.”

With the help of the USO and local adaptive outdoor recreational organizations, participants enjoyed activities like kayaking, surfing, waterskiing and deep-sea fishing. Wounded warriors and their families were also invited to attend free outdoor concerts and shows by local performers and the USO Show Troupe.

“We wanted outdoor recreational activities that could include the families,” Hill said.

At the end of each day’s activities, Warrior Week participants were invited to attend the Patriot Festival to enjoy food and free performances by top recording artists including The Band Perry, Jake Owen and Little Big Town.

“I can tell you the vast majority [of the wounded warriors] had an absolute blast,” Hill said.

Dr. J.D. Crouch II Becomes President and CEO of the USO

Former Assistant Secretary of Defense and Deputy National Security Advisor Dr. J.D. Crouch II was named the 23rd president and CEO of the USO on June 23.

Dr. J.D. Crouch II started his new role at the USO on July 28. USO photo

Dr. J.D. Crouch II started his new role at the USO on July 28. USO photo

“I know I am fortunate to be able to join a remarkable USO family that encompasses colleagues, volunteers, supporters and their families,” Crouch said. “I am proud to join and lead this team and eager to begin our work together.”

Most recently, Dr. Crouch served as CEO of QinetiQ North America, a position he left in May. From 2001 to 2003, he served as former President George W. Bush’s assistant secretary of defense for international security policy, focusing on missile defense, nuclear forces and technology security. He later served 10 months as the U.S. ambassador to Romania before returning to Washington in March of 2005 to assume the role of deputy national security advisor.

“I know that J.D. Crouch is the right leader at the right time for the USO,” said retired Air Force General Richard B. Myers, chairman of the USO Board of Governors. “He comes to the USO with a record of government service, leadership and innovation, but most important of all, he has a deep and abiding passion for our men and women who serve this country.”

Crouch started his new role with the USO on July 28.

Marines smile with a birthday cake at a USO Center on Okinawa, Japan. USO photo

Marines smile with a birthday cake at a USO Center on Okinawa, Japan. USO photo

Despite Logistics, USO Pacific Centers Help Troops Celebrate Birthdays Far From Home

Birthdays aren’t supposed to be stressful. But when you’re separated by the world’s largest ocean and a dozen time zones, nothing is easy.

Luckily, families with loved ones serving in the Pacific don’t have to figure out the closest bakery to base, or if that bakery can translate their message or even deliver the cake. All they have to do is contact USO Pacific and ask about Operation Birthday Cake.

“USO Pacific’s Operation Birthday Cake is an amazing signature program that connects loved ones around the world,” said Carly Harris, USO Pacific regional vice president. So far, the program has delivered over 1,000 surprise birthday cakes to troops serving in the Pacific.

For many stateside families, an OBC surprise is the easiest way they can send warm wishes and celebrate their deployed loved one’s special day.

“[The service member’s family is] just happy that we could reach out and do something special for their loved one on a day when sometimes they can’t even call because of the time difference, technology, or whatever the issue may be,” said USO Camp Casey Manager Katie Kerr.

Celebs and BET Experience Attendees Sends Messages of Thanks to Troops

The son of a deployed service member sends a message to his dad at the Mobile USO at the BET Experience at the Los Angeles Convention Center in late June. USO photo by Eric Brandner

The son of a deployed service member sends a message to his dad at the Mobile USO at the BET Experience at the Los Angeles Convention Center in late June. USO photo by Eric Brandner

Some did it for their family members. Others did it for fun. And some just thought it was the right thing to do.

The USO parked one of its custom USO Mobile vehicles in the Los Angeles Convention Center on June 28 at the BET Experience and asked attendees and celebrities to send personal messages of thanks to America’s troops.

“So many of us want to say thank you and often times we don’t know how,” said Sonya Lockett, BET vice president of corporate social responsibility. “And this is just such a great way to be able to say thank you to our military all over the world.”

Lockheed Martin Volunteers, PGA Tour Fans Build Deployment Kits for Military Kids

When children are faced with a parent’s deployment — or worse, a parent who doesn’t return from deployment — they encounter emotions which may be difficult to express.

Marine Staff Sgt. Tyler Barnes, right, stationed at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va., assembles a deployment kit for military kids. USO photo

Marine Staff Sgt. Tyler Barnes, right, stationed at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va., assembles a deployment kit for military kids. USO photo

Understanding this, volunteers from Lockheed Martin helped Quicken Loans National golf tournament spectators at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Maryland, assemble hundreds of With You all The Way Deployment Kits for military children in June.

The USO, in partnership with the Trevor Romain Company and the Comfort Crew for Military Kids, uses the With You All the Way program to support children ages 6 to 18. The unique kit helps children deal with deployment challenges and even establishes valuable knowledge for the reintegration process.

The deployment kit is centered around the “With You All the Way! Dealing With Deployment” DVD, which was created as a collaboration between The Comfort Crew and the USO. The Comfort Crew was founded by humorist Trevor Romain, who frequently tours with the USO, sharing life lessons with military children such as how to deal with bullies, facing fears, coping with separation and understanding grief.

The kits are designed to help kids tackle difficult issues unique to growing up in a military family.

“I am a full-on supporter of the USO and what they do for military families,” said Marine Staff Sgt. Tyler Barnes, a military caddy who helped construct deployment kits. “I’ve seen all of the support here at home and downrange. It’s just a great organization and they do a lot of great stuff for the military.”

Air Force Vet Now Serves Troops at USO Shindand

In his words, Frank Stinson joined up with the USO in 2009 because he “just wanted to give something back to our active-duty military.”

USO Shindand Center Manager Frank Stinson

USO Shindand Center Manager Frank Stinson

Today, the 21-year Air Force veteran is serving again—as the center manager of the USO Center on Forward Operating Base Shindand in Afghanistan.

USO Shindand, situated on a dusty airfield on the western plains of Afghanistan, offers forward-deployed troops a respite away from the everyday rigors of combat. Stinson, an Arkansas native, said that the troops who visit his center come to recharge and reconnect with loved ones.

“They want a relaxed place to come [to] and they want computer access and phones to be able to call home,” Stinson wrote in an email.

In addition to valuable connectivity, USO Shindand also offers troops two TV lounges and a movie theater boasting a 72-inch plasma TV. The three-tent facility was built by troops and civilian contractors in 2012 and 2013 and has a welcoming, small-town feel.

Stinson said that meeting troops, learning about their varied backgrounds and giving them much-needed support are the best parts of his job.

“With what we provide to the troops, this is the most gratifying job I have had.”

Our Youngest Donor Ever? 1-Year-Old’s Birthday Celebration Raises Funds to Buy In-Kind Snacks for Troops at USO Osan

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A birthday is a great reason to celebrate — and give back.

That’s exactly why Cherie and Air Force Capt. James Bell, parents of Collette Cruz Bell, decided to ask for donations to USO Osan in lieu of presents at their daughter’s first birthday. The Bells, who live on Osan Air Base, South Korea, raised nearly $100 to donate in Collette’s name, making her one of the youngest USO donors ever.

“My husband and I feel very blessed in that we are able to adequately feed and clothe our daughter,” Cherie Bell wrote in an email interview. “Consequently we thought that donations to the USO would be much better utilized than gifts for her first birthday.”

“We also wanted her to be able to have the memory later on of doing some great for others so that she will hopefully learn the joy in giving.”

Collette’s parents took the money and made an in-kind donation to USO Osan in the form of snacks, drinks and food for troops and their families to enjoy — something the Bell family knows will be appreciated.

“My husband and I have spent countless hours enjoying USO locations in airports and military installations,” Bell wrote. “Donating to the USO was our way of expressing gratitude to an organization that has always been there for us while also teaching our daughter a valuable lesson about giving.”

In addition to asking for donations to the USO for their daughter’s big day, the Bells threw a “Despicable Me”-themed barbecue for their friends, complete with a special banana-and-applesauce cake for Collette. The Bells also made a family trip to the beach as part of the birthday festivities.

Joan Rivers, the San Diego Padres and a Soaked 5K: A Look at USO Events Around The Globe

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As the summer draws to a close, USO centers around the world were busy hosting events to lift the spirits of troops and their families. Here’s a look at a few of the fantastic moments from USO centers around the world:

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Joan Rivers visits USO Denver. USO photo.

Joan Rivers Makes Surprise Visit to USO Denver
Long-time USO supporter Joan Rivers paid a surprise visit to USO Denver last Wednesday morning and made sure each guest, volunteer and staff member knew how much she appreciated them. Rivers was the 2001 USO of Metropolitan New York’s Woman of the Year.

“Thank you for your service,” Rivers told the group.

Military Kids Hit the Field at the Be a San Diego Padre for a Day Event
The USO partnered with Petco Park and the Padres to give military kids a Major League experience. Several local kids from military families spent the day practicing baseball fundamentals, talking with former Padre Damian Jackson and learning all about what it would be like to be a Major League Baseball player. Check out the video from the event here.

Sixth Annual Clark After Dark in Chicago
The USO of Illinois took to the streets Thursday night for its sixth annual Clark After Dark block party. Thanks to the support of Alderman Brendan Reilly of the 42nd Ward, Boss Bar and other USO partners, partygoers enjoyed live music, military vehicle displays and plenty of food. Despite the rainy weather, Chicagoans came out in full force to support their troops and show appreciation.

Heidi Murkoff smiles with an expectant military mother. USO photo.

Heidi Murkoff smiles with an expectant military mother. USO photo.

USO/What to Expect Special Delivery Baby Shower in Fort Drum, New York
On Friday, the USO and the What to Expect Foundation, founded by best-selling author Heidi Murkoff, delivered a special baby shower to expecting military spouses and service women stationed in Fort Drum, New York. The moms-to-be enjoyed an afternoon filled with shower games, food, a raffle and a question-and-answer session with Murkoff, who wrote the best-selling book “What to Expect When You’re Expecting.”

Second Annual H2GO in Okinawa, Japan
There aren’t many stickier places on the planet than the South Pacific in the summer, where near-100-degree temperatures are coupled with crippling humidity. To help troops and their families stationed in Okinawa beat the heat and stay in shape, volunteers at USO Kadena created H2GO, a 5K foot race with water-themed obstacles along the route.

The H2GO race let participants enjoy slip-n-slides, water cannons and the soaking power of over 20,000 water balloons.

Girls show off their nails and face paintings at Sun and Fun day with Kaiserslautern USO. USO photo.

Girls show off their nails and face paintings at Sun and Fun day with USO Kaiserslautern. USO photo.

Sixth Annual Sun and Fun Day in Kaiserslautern, Germany
As the dog days of summer come to an end, Kaiserslautern USO and TKS hosted the sixth annual Sun and Fun Day for troops and their families to help them enjoy the last of the warm weather. Despite some rain, over 2,300 visitors came out to enjoy the five-hour event that included food, raffles, live music and search-and-rescue dog demos.

Troops Get Their Game on at Camp Buehring Volleyball Tournament
Service members rallied their way to victory at a volleyball tournament Saturday night in Camp Buehring, Kuwait. Troops were able to form teams of six and compete for prizes — all while jamming out to the beats of DJ Break One. The winning teams were even awarded victory T-shirts!

USO Northwest Steps Up to Support Washington Mudslide Rescue Effort

USO photo

USO photo

It’s been a month since the mudslide disaster in Oso, Wash., claimed 39 lives and shattered even more families – many with loved ones still to be recovered.

The loss of Navy Cmdr. John Regelbrugge III of the USS John C. Stennis and Chief Petty Officer Billy L. Spillers stationed at Naval Station Everett brought the mudslide to the military community’s doorstep.

During the emergency, USO Northwest rallied to assist the recovery team and the National Guard. USO Northwest’s Seattle-Tacoma Airport Center and its Shali Center on Joint Base Louis-McChord sent much-needed supplies to those helping with the cleanup.

On April 1, Girl Scout Cookies collected and stored at the Shali Center were loaded into vehicles for the Washington Army National Guard J9 unit. The unit is responsible for deployment cycle support, family readiness and overall service member and family well-being.

“I had been thinking all morning about how nice it would be if some of the cookies could go to the National Guard troops helping out at the Oso landslide,” said USO volunteer Herb Schmelling. “So I was truly delighted when representatives of the WANG J9 arrived to pick up cookies for the Oso troops.”

The SeaTac USO center has donated 10 25-pound bags of coffee, 21 boxes of energy bars and 1,000 candy bars to the National Guard troops assisting in the recovery.

“We will continue to help the recovery team and our military community with anything they need,” USO SeaTac Center Manager Bill Baker said.

–Meaghan Cox, USO Northwest

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)