Caregivers of Wounded, Ill and Injured Troops Get Lessons in Resiliency at USO Seminar

Brooks, left, chats with another caregiver attendee.

Angela Brooks, left, chats with another caregiver attendee.

FORT LEONARD WOOD, Missouri—Angela Brooks can’t remember the last time she put herself first.

Between working, taking care of her children and caring for her disabled Air Force veteran husband of 20 years —who struggles with PTSD — there’s little time left at to address her personal needs.

“I literally have the world on my shoulders,” Brooks said. “[Caregivers like me] do a lot and it’s not so much physical anguish, it’s mental anguish, and that’s hard, hard.”

So when Brooks heard Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, was hosting a USO Caregivers Seminar — a day of interactive programming designed to address the immediate needs of those who care for wounded, ill and injured service members — she knew she had to attend.

Brooks, second from the right, plays a icebreaker game between sessions

Brooks, second from the right, plays a icebreaker game between sessions.

“I came because I wanted it to be about me [and my needs for a change],” Brooks said.

After participating in the two morning sessions, which featured gameon Nation Vice President Blair Bloomston and Stronger Families Executive Director Noel Meador, respectively, Brooks — who’d never attended any type of caregiver-centric programming before — was already glad she came.

“I felt very isolated up until today,” Brooks said. “[But today at the USO Caregivers Seminar] I feel comfortable. I feel safe and I feel like I’m not going to be judged.”

Brooks, far right, takes a selfie as part of an icebreaker activity.

Brooks, far right, takes a selfie as part of an icebreaker activity.

Brooks even felt comfortable enough to share details about her daily challenges with the entire room during a communications skill development activity. Brooks admits she relished in the rare opportunity to talk about the sometimes-difficult task of being a caretaker with other people who are experiencing similar situations.

“I just want to learn more and be open and this environment is very opening and freeing,” Brooks said. “What I was talking about earlier, [my personal story], there was no way I would have said that in certain [other] settings.”

“I just really really appreciate people thinking of us,” Brooks said.

Bloomston, second from left, plays a game with a caregiver

Bloomston, second from left, plays a game with a caregiver.

According to Bloomston, even the simplest, quietest games can have a profound and lasting impact.

Take the game of Coins for example. To play, Bloomston asked attendees to think of a list of things that made them smile, shine and feel valuable. There was one catch: none of the participants’ ideas — which are called Coins in this game — can include things that were related to their role as a caregiver. For example, a standard list of acceptable Coins might include favorite foods, favorite places or simply the role of being a sibling, friend or family member.

Attendees play the game of 'Zip Zap Za' at the game on Nation session.

Attendees play the game of ‘Zip Zap Za’ at the game on Nation session.

Once attendees had their list, Bloomston asked them to pause and focus on their Coins for a moment. Many caregivers in the room started to smile. Then, after the time was up, Bloomston asked participants write down or remember their Coins so they could always carry them, metaphorically, in their pocket for empowerment the next time they face a difficulty as a caregiver.

Although it might not seem like much, Bloomston says the game, along with other gameon Nation games, can lead to huge improvements in how caregivers approach their challenges.

“You can tell somebody a statement like ‘Be confident’ or, you can put them through and experience and feel what it’s like to be confident and the spirit of play and the science of game dynamics makes that moving experience happen in a very quick way,” Bloomston said. “Caregivers can use these skills … to do their job with excellence and stay revitalized and give oxygen back to themselves.”

In fact, Bloomston’s already seen the positive impact on previous USO Caregivers Seminar attendees who have participated in gameon Nation sessions.

“The best part of the feedback is when I return to a base or when I return to a post years later and people come up to me and say ‘I still have my coins in my pocket,'” Bloomston said.

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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Peyton Manning, Stevie Nicks And Other Stars Shine at USO of Metropolitan Washington-Baltimore’s 33rd Annual Awards Dinner

ARLINGTON, Va. — For Peyton Manning, Stevie Nicks, Sebastian Junger and Seema Reza, it was a night to remember.

The four stars, along with nearly 30 Medal of Honor recipients, were honored last night for their contributions to the military community at the USO of Metropolitan Washington-Baltimore’s 33rd Annual Awards Dinner.

Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning accepts the USO-Metro Merit Award. USO Photo by Mike Theiler

Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning accepts the USO-Metro Merit Award. USO Photo by Mike Theiler

Manning, who traveled to Europe and the Persian Gulf on the USO Vice Chairman’s tour in 2013, has been an active supporter of the military throughout his entire NFL career.

“I really had a life-changing experience on my USO tour two years ago,” Manning said. “Just how they’re protecting our freedom, their service to our country, [it’s] very inspiring and I’m really glad that I took the trip.”

The Denver Broncos quarterback received the USO-Metro Merit Award for dedicating his time to help lift the spirits of troops all around the world

Stevie Nicks accepts the USO Achievement Award.

Stevie Nicks accepts the USO Achievement Award.

Five years ago, Nicks received a last-minute invitation to visit troops at Naval Support Activity Bethesda — home of Walter Reed National Military Medical Center — and has committed to spending time with wounded, ill and recovering service members ever since.

Nicks, who wrote the 2011 song, “Soldier’s Angel,” about her numerous visits with wounded troops as part of USO-Metro’s celebrity handshake tours, received the USO Achievement Award for donating her time, talent and treasure to helping bring smiles to recovering troops.

Sebastian Junger accepts the Legacy of Hope Award. USO Photo by Mike Theiler

Sebastian Junger accepts the Legacy of Hope Award. USO Photo by Mike Theiler

Junger, a war correspondent, best-selling author and Oscar-nominated filmmaker received the Legacy of Hope Award for his heart-wrenching storytelling. His most recent documentary works – “Restrepo,” “Korengal” and “The Last Patrol” – focus on the challenges military members endure during combat and upon returning home.

“I was thrilled to sort of discover that those works were very helpful to soldiers [and] emotionally useful to soldiers,” Junger said.

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Seema Reza (far left) poses for photos before the USO of Metropolitan Washington-Baltimore’s 33rd Annual Awards Dinner.

Reza, a poet and essayist, has spent years working with wounded, ill and injured service members at military hospitals and USO Warrior and Family Centers at Fort Belvoir, Virginia and Bethesda, Maryland.

She conducts art workshops for service members recovering from visible and invisible wounds and said “the work that I’ve been able to do is its own reward.”

Reza received the Col. John Gioia Patriot Award for her outstanding commitment to helping recovering troops navigate the healing process.

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.

USO Entertainers Shine at Academy Awards

USO entertainers have been raking in the nominations, awards and accolades this winter, and last night’s Academy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles was no exception.

If you missed last night’s festivities, here’s a look at this year’s Academy Award nominees and winners who also happen to be USO tour veterans and supporters.

“How to Train Your Dragon 2”

Academy Awards
Best animated feature film; Nominated

In 2010, actress America Ferrera traveled on an eight-day USO handshake tour to the Persian Gulf, where she visited with over 1,300 service members with actors Ryan O’Nan and Jason Ritter and writer/director Ryan Peters.

Check out what she had to say about the tour here:

 

More recently, in June 2014, actors Jay Baruchel and America Ferrera and writer/director Dean DeBlois joined more than 450 troops and military families at an advance screening of DreamWorks Animation’s “How to Train Your Dragon 2” at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey. The event also included a question-and-answer session with the trio.

Watch the highlights from the event here:

“Unbroken”

Academy Awards
Best cinematography; Nominated
Best sound editing; Nominated
Best sound mixing; Nominated

In 2010, Angelina Jolie, the director of “Unbroken” traveled to Germany to surprise wounded troops and the service members taking care of them.

This past December, as part of its partnership with Universal Pictures, the USO brought five service members and their guests to the premiere of “Unbroken” at the Dolby Theater in Los Angeles. Although Jolie was unable to attend the premiere due to illness, her husband, Brad Pitt, stood in for her, and personally greeted the USO guests.

Watch highlights from the “Unbroken” premiere here:

“American Sniper”

Academy Awards
Best actor in a leading role (Bradley Cooper); Nominated
Best picture; Nominated
Best film editing; Nominated
Best sound editing; Nominated and won
Best sound mixing; Nominated
Best adapted screenplay; Nominated

Bradley Cooper, a veteran of several USO tours, has traveled to Cuba, Kuwait and Afghanistan in addition to a seven-day, three-country tour with then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen in 2009.

Actor Bradley Cooper takes a moment to pose with service members stationed in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, during a week-long USO tour in 2008.  Cooper was in the region on his first tour to show support to U.S. troops and bring them a touch of home.

Actor Bradley Cooper takes a moment to pose with service members stationed in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, during a weeklong USO tour in 2008. Cooper was in the region on his first tour to show support to U.S. troops.

 

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.