USO Tour Veteran Kellie Pickler Shares Why She’s Excited to Perform at the 2014 Gala

Seven-time USO tour veteran and recording artist Kellie Pickler took a break from her pre-Gala preparations to share why she is excited to perform at the 2014 USO Gala tonight.

“I’m honored to be here tonight and be a part of honoring our service men and women. It’s going to be a great night,” Pickler said.

The award-winning country music artist, who first gained fame as an “American Idol” contestant, has entertained more than 33,000 troops and military families while touring with the USO.

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.

Deployed Guardsman Witnesses Birth, Builds Relationship with Child, Thanks to USO

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

When his Marine father deployed during Desert Storm, 3-year-old Joseph Rainbolt had no idea he would one day nearly miss moments with his own child.

“He was in Saudi Arabia for nine months when I was only 3, so I can only imagine,” said Rainbolt, now a 26-year-old sergeant in the Louisiana National Guard who might have missed the birth of his first child had it not been for the USO.

Knowing his wife Brittany would be giving birth just five months into a year-long deployment, Rainbolt told the USO and his command of his situation when he arrived in Afghanistan. When she went into labor, the USO set him up with an Internet-connected computer and Skype.

“I was able to stay [at the USO] for hours and be with my wife and see my daughter,” he said.

April Rose, now 8 months old, didn’t just get to see her father the day she was born. Rainbolt also took advantage of the USO’s Tiny Tots program and the USO/United Through Reading Military Program for the seven months that followed, allowing him to keep a presence in his daughter’s life.

“The [Tiny Tots] gift bag was fabulous,” said Brittany Rainbolt, a 26-year old high-school English teacher. “It came with some really awesome stuff. There’s some soap in there, a USO bib, a onesie and some other general baby care products. We used all of it.”

In fact, little April-Rose has even worn the bib immediately before going on stage at a “Red White and Blue” beauty pageant, where she took first place.

“It’s her lucky USO bib,” Brittany Rainbolt said. “United Through Reading was also fabulous. We got so many books for April before she was born and after she was born and I think hearing his voice helped her to make a connection with him. When she saw him the first time she went straight to him. I was like, ‘go to Daddy’ and she held out her little arms for him. It was so cute.”

“Being away was really hard,” Rainbolt said. “As National Guard, I’m usually home. Being away is not my thing. But through the USO we definitely got to have a relationship together.

“I got to talk to her every day, not just every now and then,” he added. “We’ve come a long way since the ‘80s and ‘90s. The USO was great in helping us be able to keep communicating. Even though I wasn’t there, I still got to feel like I was involved in her life, and that meant everything to me.”

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.

USO Sends Off Team USA Invictus Games Participants in Style

2012 U.S. Olympic swimmer Kate Ziegler poses with athletes at a USO-hosted pep rally Team USA Invictus Games particpants on Friday in Herndon, Virginia. USO photo by Mike Theiler

American Olympic swimmer Kate Ziegler poses with athletes at a USO-hosted pep rally Team USA Invictus Games participants on Friday in Herndon, Virginia. USO photo by Mike Theiler

The USO, Vice President Joe Biden and Dr. Jill Biden, the Washington Redskins and other star athletes banded together to give a warm farewell to Team USA’s Invictus Games participants over the weekend.

It all started with this tweet from Dr. Biden, who hosted a reception Thursday evening with her husband at the Vice Presidential residence for the wounded warrior athletes who’ll represent America in the London athletic competition that starts this week. USO President Dr. J.D. Crouch also attended.

https://twitter.com/DrBiden/status/507903458461384704

According to the Invictus Games’ website, the competition — which is being promoted by Prince Harry — will “shine a spotlight on Armed Forces personnel and veterans who have put their lives on the line for their country demonstrating how they and their families are valued, respected and supported. For competitors, it will offer a memorable, inspiring and [energizing] experience in their journey of recovery.”

The USO held a pep rally Friday night in Herndon, Virginia, featuring American Olympic swimmer Kate Ziegler and video messages from NBA Hall-of-Famer and Navy grad David Robinson and U.S. Olympic swimming gold medalist Natalie Coughlin.

Then on Saturday, the USO helped send off the athletes in style from Dulles International Airport, with the help of the Washington Redskins.

https://twitter.com/Redskins/status/508264406560423936