8 Ways the USO Connects Troops To Home

A service member uses the internet at the USO.

From the moment they step into boot camp to the time when they transition to civilian life, troops rely on the USO to help them stay connected to their to friends and family. Here’s eight of the ways the USO does it.

1. Getting troops online: Free Internet access is one of the most popular services at USO centers today. While some USO centers offer computers for troops to use, nearly all of them offer free WiFi for people who bring their own devices. Even our Mobile USO units, like the ones we sent to Brooklyn to comfort troops cleaning up after Superstorm Sandy, are WiFi-enabled so troops serving in remote locations can get online.

2. Skyping into the delivery room: Did you know that the USO helps expecting military dads Skype into the delivery room for their baby’s birth, even if they’re abroad? Marine Capt. Nick Whitefield experienced this USO service first-hand when he watched his wife Laura deliver the couples’ second child, Ethan Whitefield, via a USO-provided Skype connection at Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan.

“The fact that I could be there, electronically, over Skype was huge,” Nick said. “It was great. It was a phenomenal experience.”

A troop makes a call from the USO in Bagram, Afghanistan. USO photo by Dave Gatley

3. Free phone calls home: In 2003, the USO launched Operation Phone Home to provide troops with free phone cards so they can call their loved ones at no cost — even when they’re in remote locations. Some USO centers abroad also offer troops access to a private phone network so they can call home on a safe, secure and reliable line inside the center.

One of these free phone calls even helped a new dad hear his baby girl’s first cries in 2006.

“The USO made that call possible for me,” said former Marine Alexander Carpenter. “And to this day I have never said thank you. … Thank you USO.”

4. Keeping story time alive: Thanks to the USO partnership with United Through Reading, deployed troops can record themselves reading a storybook at a USO center and send the DVD recording back home for their children to watch and digitally connect with them in their absence.

Navy Lt. Matthew Stroup records himself reading a book to his children during a United Through Reading event in Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of Matthew Stroup

Navy Lt. Matthew Stroup records himself reading a book to his children. Photo courtesy of Matthew Stroup

While preparing for a deployment form Japan to the Middle East in 2012, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Victor Glover told his squad about the United Through Reading program and received an overwhelming number of requests to participate. He even recorded stories for his own children.

“It was important. They really got a kick out of being able to see me,” Glover said. “At the end of the recordings, I said a message to them. I used each of their names and I said something to the effect of ‘I love you, be good, be supportive to your mom and goodnight’ because I imagined they’d do the books right before bedtime.”

5. Giving the gift of gaming: Video games are one of our younger service members’ favorite ways to unwind. That’s why most USO centers have gaming stations featuring popular video games like “Call of Duty” and “Halo.” At some centers, service members can even play the games against friends and family around the globe online in real time.

But troops aren’t always stationed near brick-and-mortar USO centers. With that in mind, the USO developed the Mobile Entertainment Gaming System (MEGS) so service members can enjoy video games no matter their location.

6. Serving up comfort foods from home: Sometimes, all it takes to make service members feel connected to home is taste of their favorite foods. That’s why USO patrons can always find a variety of snack, drink and meal options at centers around the world. Some centers, like USO Great Lakes, provide a free, home-cooked meals for troops, while others, like many Southwest Asia centers, always seem to be churning out comforting sweet treats, like homemade ice cream.

A Halloween/Thanksgiving USO Holiday Box from 2011.

A Halloween/Thanksgiving USO Holiday Box from 2011.

7. Bringing the holidays to troops abroad: Being deployed during a special holiday can make troops feel even further from home. That’s why many USO centers host a number special parties and events around those red calendar days.

Troops in remote areas far from a USO center can even get in on the fun, too, thanks to the USO Holiday Boxes program. These special seasonal boxes, filled with games, decorations and other festive supplies are designed to help service members celebrate the year’s special days in any location. There are four seasonal boxes units can request throughout the year, including a Halloween/Thanksgiving box that helped a handful of service members have a spooky Halloween back in 2011.

8. Welcoming troops home: Even though a homecoming is already a joyful occasion for military families, the USO has a history of stepping in to make the day even more memorable. From helping arriving troops freshen up before reuniting with their loved ones to coordinating surprise homecomings like this, this, and this, the USO there to celebrate military families finally reconnecting after a long deployment apart.

USO Follows Troops Back to Baghdad with New Location

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If the military is going back into Iraq, then so is the USO.

USO services hadn’t been requested in the region since the 2011 drawdown. But that changed over the July 4th weekend when — with the help of troops there — the USO stood up an unstaffed location in Baghdad.

The facility was set up in a matter of days and features Internet connectivity, food and beverages, video games and a plethora of creative games and holiday supplies from USO2GO kits to keep troops there entertained.

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Your USO at Work: June 2015 — The USO Looks to Cover Every Angle of the Transition to Civilian Life

USO’s Transition 360 Alliance Combines the ‘Very Best’ to Help Troops Reintegrate into Civilian Life

It’s five nonprofits with one goal: help transitioning troops right now.

Transition StackedThe USO recently announced the formation of the USO Transition 360 Alliance, an initiative that attempts to cover every angle of a military family’s transition into civilian life when troops’ service ends.

We are partnering with Hire Heroes USA, The Comfort Crew for Military Kids, Stronger Families and newcomer RallyPoint/6 (RP/6) to form a comprehensive menu of programming for everyone from new and pending veterans seeking new careers to young military children who are facing yet another move.

“The USO has brought these groups together to combine the very best of what each of us has to offer America’s transitioning military families, on a scale that no single organization could achieve alone,” USO CEO and President J.D. Crouch II said in a release.

While three of the four nonprofits will be familiar to service members who’ve taken advantage of USO programming, the USO says the difference will be the alliance’s ability to work seamlessly to present a holistic approach to military transition.

USO Transition 360 Alliance Partners

Comfort Crew for Military Kids: Supports military kids and teens as they overcome the obstacles unique to growing up in a military family.

Hire Heroes USA: Provides active-duty and wounded, ill and injured troops and their spouses with tools, resources and networking opportunities to meet their career goals.

RP/6: A team of case navigators known as scouts employ a unique concierge approach, creating action plans for the service members and their families to ensure they are supported through a “no wrong door” experience.

Stronger Families: Helps military couples to reconnect and strengthen their relationships by establishing effective ways of communicating and building trust and hope.

Read more about the USO Transition 360 Alliance here.

Female Troops, Military Spouses Get Styled Up at USO Operation That’s My Dress

As a busy mom and public affairs officer in the Navy, Petty Officer 1st Class Bickiana Patton doesn’t have many opportunities to show off her feminine side. But thanks to the USO — and sponsors Sherri Hill, Ann Taylor and Ralph Lauren — Patton was able to let her hair down and enjoy an afternoon of fashion and pampering at USO Operation That’s My Dress at Fleet Week New York 2015.

“I have to admit, it was wonderful,” Patton said. “The USO helped me feel like a diva today.”

Now in its third year, USO Operation That’s My Dress, which normally caters to military teens attending formal events, has expanded to include events for female service members and military spouses.

The afternoon of glitz and glamour kicked off with a performance by the USO Show Troupe and a fashion show featuring professional models and the Miss USA and Miss Teen USA titleholders. After the show, attendees enjoyed hair and makeup demonstrations by professional stylists before heading upstairs to find the perfect dress. Spouses and female service members were even treated to free accessories by JTV jewelry to complete their looks.

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

Angela Brooks, left, chats with another USO Caregivers Seminar attendee at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, last month. USO photo by Sandi Moynihan

Angela Brooks, left, chats with another USO Caregivers Seminar attendee at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, last month. USO photo by Sandi Moynihan

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 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.”

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.

After participating in the two morning sessions, which featured game on 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 even felt comfortable enough to share details about her daily challenges with the entire room during a communication activity. Brooks admits she relished in the rare opportunity to talk about being a caretaker with others who are experiencing similar situations.

“I just want to learn more and be open and this environment is very opening and freeing,” Brooks said. “I just really appreciate people thinking of us”

You can help caregivers like Brooks get the support they need by visiting USO.org/donate.

USO and Sesame Street Debut New Performance Focused On Military-to-Civilian Transition

More than a million troops are expected to leave the military between 2011 and 2016. That’s why the USO and Sesame Street teamed up to help military kids cope with the challenges of transitioning from military to civilian life.

The cast of the Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families shakes hands with young audience members. USO Photo by Dave Gatley

The cast of the Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families shakes hands with young audience members. USO Photo by Dave Gatley

The organizations are addressing these new realities by debuting a show focused on military-to-civilian transition. The performances of “Katie’s Family Transitions to Civilian Life” are in addition to the already-popular show, “Katie is Moving to a New Base.” Both shows will run as part of the 2015 Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families tour, which kicked off on May 7 at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska.

“Just as separating from the military can be a challenge for an adult, we knew that that could be a challenging transition for a kid as well,” Rachel Tischler, USO vice president of entertainment, told DOD News.

Sesame Street and the USO know that when one family member serves, the whole family serves. In the new show, military families are taken on a journey as Katie, a character created for the USO, starts a new adventure outside of the military. She makes new friends, keeps in touch with old pals and learns how to talk to her parents about the challenges she’s facing.

“We like to feel it starts a dialogue so kids can then open up even more about what it is they’re going through because they just heard Katie and Elmo talk about it,” Tischler said.

This year, more than 100 performances at 45 military bases in nine countries are scheduled. Click here to see if the 2015 Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families is coming to a base near you.

USO and The Grand Ole Opry Salute Troops with an All-Star Concert

The world famous Grand Ole Opry in Nashville welcomed troops and family members last month and treated them to a special red carpet arrival and a star-studded show featuring USO tour veterans Trace Adkins, Kellie Pickler, Craig Morgan and Lee Greenwood.

“I tell people all the time, one of the greatest stages to play on in the world is the Grand Ole Opry stage,” said Morgan, who served in the Army for more than a decade. “The only stage that’s better is the one we’re standing on when we’re in front of the men and women who are serving. Tonight we got to put them both together, so it was extremely special.”

The Opry, which will celebrate its 90th anniversary later this year, partnered with the USO and MusiCorps to honor troops and families during Military Appreciation Month. The show was part of the Opry’s Cause for Applause series, where the musical institution is highlighting causes it believes in.

“I’m very proud that the Opry has decided to get involved on this level with the USO,” said Adkins, who returned from a USO tour to Kuwait, Afghanistan and Germany in time to take part in the Opry concert.

The USO invited troops from Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and the Nashville area to take part in the VIP experience.

“It’s important that our military knows that we love, support and are praying for them,” eight-time USO tour veteran Kellie Pickler told Country Weekly. “We have their backs because they have ours.”

USO Joins Forces With Indian Motorcycle, Zac Brown Band to Support Military

Indian Motorcycle has a proud military history, building bikes for the military during World Wars I and II, so it makes sense that the company would team with the USO to continue its longtime support of our troops.

IndianIndian, America’s first motorcycle company, recently announced a partnership with the USO and donated $100,000 to the organization. It’s also partnering with the Zac Brown Band, which has entertained thousands of troops on its USO tours. The three-time Grammy Award winners will meet with troops on select stops of their 50-city North American concert tour and will also donate tickets to each of their concerts. Indian Motorcycle will distribute the donated tickets to military personnel and first responders.

“We are proud to serve as brand ambassadors for Indian Motorcycle, and are happy to continue supporting the troops through our friends at the USO,” Zac Brown said in a release.

“There is a very natural relationship between Zac Brown Band, Indian Motorcycle, the USO and the military families we all support,” said Steve Menneto, vice president of motorcycles for Polaris Industries. “Bringing the band onboard as a brand ambassador is both a pleasure and a tremendous value for our partners and our rider community.”

Kroger’s Honoring Our Heroes Program Builds on Generosity of Its Customers

Kroger recently announced a robust, multifaceted program involving events and customer engagement that will help honor our military heroes all summer long.

Kroger Co LogoThrough its annual Honoring Our Heroes program, Kroger is inviting its customers to support the USO in multiple ways. Shoppers can give to the USO through register scan cards and coin boxes or by donating online at HonoringOurHeroes.com. Kroger will match every donation dollar-for-dollar, up to $1 million.

“Honoring Our Heroes started as a small project in 2010, with coin boxes in 1,200 stores,” said Lynn Marmer, Kroger’s group vice president of corporate affairs. “When we raised $400,000, we knew our customers were as committed to recognizing our troops and their families as we are, and we decided to amplify our effort.”

In addition to donating at stores or online, customers can also purchase special gift cards in $5, $10, and $15 denominations that will be delivered to local USO centers.

Kroger and the USO also teamed up to treat troops and military families to some barbecue. As a token of the company’s appreciation for the many dinners families miss together because of deployments, Kroger hosted Red, White and BBQ events in 10 locations across the United States and three additional celebrations on U.S. bases in Germany and Kuwait.

“While we can never truly thank our service men and women enough for the sacrifices they make, we are deeply committed to recognizing our troops and their families through our partnership with the USO,” Marmer said.

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.

Your USO at Work: April 2015 — USO Celebrates Expecting Military Moms

Heidi Murkoff, left, laughs with Gretchen Stradley during a group baby shower at U.S. Army Garrison Bavaria in Germany on March 13. The USO and Murkoff, author of "What to Expect When You're Expecting," hosted the shower for over 70 expectant moms. U.S. Army photo

Heidi Murkoff, left, laughs with Gretchen Stradley during a group baby shower at U.S. Army Garrison Bavaria in Germany on March 13. The USO and Murkoff, author of “What to Expect When You’re Expecting,” hosted the shower for over 70 expectant moms. U.S. Army photo

USO Celebrates More Than 70 Military Moms With Baby Shower in Germany

Whether you’re having your first child or your third, the experience is a cause for celebration. For some military moms-to-be, sharing the experience with extended family is not always an option.

To help fill that void, the USO, in partnership with the What to Expect Foundation and best-selling author Heidi Murkoff, hosted a Special Delivery baby shower for more than 70 military moms in Germany.

“It’s never easy being a mom, especially for first time,” Murkoff said in an Army.mil story. “But, these families and these women are so far-flung and so separated from their net of support; they’re completely on their own.”

The March 13 baby shower at U.S. Army Garrison Bavaria featured food, gifts and games in addition to a Q&A session  with Murkoff. The event also gave expecting moms a chance to form bonds and friendships with each other.

Valerie Pamphile said she attended because she wanted to be around other pregnant women because studies show that “when you’re around other women at your gestational age, you thrive.”

You can help the USO create special moments for military moms by visiting USO.org/donate.

Mother of Fallen Soldier Finds a Moment of Solace Through Visit to USO 

Vicki Dickinson doesn’t remember much about the two years after her son was killed. Between the funeral, the tears and the coping, everything felt like a blur.

Army Staff Sgt. Michael Dickinson hugs his mother, Vicki. Photo courtesy of Vicki Dickinson

Army Staff Sgt. Michael Dickinson hugs his mother, Vicki. Photo courtesy of Vicki Dickinson

But she does recall one moment in perfect detail. While walking through an airport about a year after Army Staff Sgt. Michael Dickinson II’s 2006 death in Iraq, she visited her first USO.

Michael, a Battle Creek, Michigan, native, told his mother about his visits to USO centers around the world.

“He would always try to find the USO and [relax],” she said of her son, who was killed in a firefight nine days before he was supposed to come home. “And he’d say, ‘They’ve always got great snacks, things to drink. They’ve got nice comfortable places to lie down, take a little nap if you need it.’”

So when she had a few minutes between flights that day, Vicki went to a USO airport center to see for herself. She walked into the center and told a volunteer about her son and his fondness for the USO.

After a volunteer offered her a quick tour and refreshments, Vicki settled into one of the cozy couches and quietly pictured her son resting on a similar couch a few years prior.

“[I thought] ‘I can see him here. I can see him on that couch, playing a game,’” she said. “It made me feel good that my son got to do that. That he knew that he was cared about.”

The USO Spring Troop Visit led by Admiral James A. Winnefeld, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, brought lots of smiles to troops stationed around the world during an eight-day, seven country USO tour. Troops stationed at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, got a short reprieve from their duties on March 6 to enjoy a USO show and to take a group photo with the athletes and entertainers on the tour. USO photo

The USO Spring Troop Visit led by Admiral James A. Winnefeld Jr., the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, brought lots of smiles to troops stationed around the world during an eight-day, seven country USO tour. Troops stationed at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, got a short reprieve from their duties on March 6 to enjoy a USO show and to take a group photo with the athletes and entertainers on the tour. USO photo

Vice Chairman Takes All-Star Cast on USO Tour Around the World

Adm. James A. Winnefeld Jr., vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, led a full roster of entertainers, celebrities and sports stars on a USO tour around the world in March.

NFL players Andrew Luck, Dwayne Allen and David DeCastro, Indianapolis Colts head coach Chuck Pagano, musicians Phillip Phillips, Diana DeGarmo and Ace Young, actors Dennis Haysbert and Jason “Wee Man” Acuna and Miss America 2015 Kira Kazantsev all circled the globe with the admiral to greet and entertain troops and their families.

The group visited troops in Germany, Italy, Bahrain, the USS Carl Vinson and the USS New York in the Arabian Gulf, Afghanistan, Diego Garcia, South Korea and Hawaii before closing out the tour at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland.

“It was a huge honor of mine to get to go overseas and thank them in person,” Kazantsev told DoD News. “I’m so honored that I got to be a part of it. This crew and the cast were amazing. We were like a family.”

By visiting USO.org/donate today, your support will help the USO  deliver top-notch entertainment to troops and families all over the world.

USO Tour Vet’s Victory in Checkers Challenge Benefits Troops and Families

Country music star Kellie Pickler performs a USO show for troops stationed in Italy as part of the 2014 USO Holiday Tour. USO Photo by Dave Gatley

Country music star Kellie Pickler performs a USO show for troops stationed in Italy as part of the 2014 USO Holiday Tour. USO Photo by Dave Gatley

Country music star Kellie Pickler, an eight-time USO tour veteran, topped fellow musician Thomas Rhett in the Cracker Barrel Old Country Store Country Checkers Challenge on Saturday.

After Pickler’s big victory in Arlington, Texas, the Cracker Barrel and ACM‘s Party for a Cause presented her team with a $25,000 check that will help support USO programs and services. Rhett, who played for Disabled American Veterans, received a $10,000 donation for the organization.

After presenting the trophy to wounded warrior and retired Marine Spanky Gibson, Pickler told CountryWeekly.com that her team’s victory was great, but there were more important things at stake.

“It’s not about us, or winning,” she said. “It’s about raising awareness and money for a great cause.”

USO Opens New Facility at Seattle’s SeaTac Airport

The USO was joined by local officials and military leaders as it welcomed guests into its new center at SeaTac Airport in February.

From a full-service kitchen to enhanced entertainment amenities, the 7,500 square-foot center will provide a touch of home for service members and their families as they travel through the airport and beyond. With major Army, Navy and Air Force installations nearby, the region is home to one of the largest concentrations of military personnel in the United States.

“This is the pointed edge of the spear of the USO,” said J.D. Crouch II, CEO and President of the USO. “This is where we meet the men and women and their families who we are dedicated to supporting. It’s places like this all around the world … which allow us to always be by their side.”

With support from USO Northwest staff and volunteers, the new center will be open to visitors 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

USO and TAPS Come Through for Army Family After Son’s Suicide

Corey Smith was a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom who committed suicide in 2012

Corey Smith, a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, committed suicide Dec. 29, 2012. Courtesy of the Smith family

Like every Saturday morning, Kathy Smith expected a phone call from her Army veteran son.

But on this Saturday, it was a call from someone else.

“Corey Jon Smith, what did you do? Oh my God kid! What did you do?” she recalls shouting aloud from her bathroom before gathering the family at her oldest son Travis’ house to share the tragic news.

Their beloved Corey, her youngest child who had struggled with post-traumatic stress for years after serving in Iraq and who was close to graduating with a psychology degree with the intention of helping others going through similar problems, had committed suicide at his home in Anchorage, Alaska.

“You know what, God,” she recalled saying, “I absolutely do not agree with this plan. I don’t like this plan and I don’t agree with it.

“But I believe in you and I trust you, and I’m trusting that you’re going to take care of us now, because we have to get to Anchorage.”

Corey Smith on deployment in Iraq, 2006. Courtesy photo

Corey Smith during a 2006 Iraq deployment.

Kathy said the family had recently spent the last of its savings on her nursing school tuition and were trying to figure out how to get gas and food for the week. There were no funds to get to Anchorage.

“When TAPS stepped into the picture with the USO, they covered all of those areas,” she said. “When I told you they were the answer to a prayer, I wasn’t kidding. They answered our prayers to a ‘T.’ There’s not a day that goes by that we don’t think of the people at TAPS and the USO.”

On Dec. 29, 2012, TAPS (Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors) received a call from a friend who lived near the Smith family in Big Lake, Minnesota, explaining the Smiths’ need to get to Anchorage quickly to comfort their 26-year-old now-widowed daughter-in-law and 3-year-old granddaughter.

TAPS moved quickly to make that happen. The only available flight plan included an overnight layover in Seattle, which meant asking the USO to act as a concierge for the family. Within days, the Smiths were on their way to Alaska, arriving at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport just as the ball was dropping to start 2013 in New York City.

“We were so exhausted,” Tim Smith said. “In a situation like that, you wouldn’t know what you want if you wanted it, your brain is so scrambled and confused — kind of just hanging in limbo.”

USO SeaTac Director Bill Baker greeted them and guided them to the USO, where they stayed until their 6 a.m. flight.

“It was a heartbreaking week to say the least,” Baker said. “My volunteers did an amazing job taking care of them and made them feel so comfortable and welcome when they asked if they could stay in the USO instead of a hotel so they could be closer to military troops.”

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With an early flight and Kathy nursing a broken foot from dropping her laptop bag on it that day, they decided staying at the USO was the most convenient decision.

“I remember we went to bed at about 1:30 or 2 a.m. but the gentleman on duty at the USO said he had an alarm set for us, and that he and another woman would be up all night to look over us” Kathy Smith said. “I know for a fact that they were because I saw them come in and check on us. I couldn’t sleep, so I watched her pull the covers up over my daughter.”

The Smiths made it to Anchorage for the funeral proceedings and back to their home outside Minneapolis without further incident, all the while being watched over by TAPS and USO volunteers.

“Throughout the whole time we would get calls from TAPS asking us if we needed anything or if we forgot anything,” Kathy Smith said. “They called to make sure we got to the USO safely and we got calls shortly after we arrived. Every step of the way they made sure that we weren’t stranded anywhere at any point in time.

“In that moment and in so many others, USO volunteers made a grieving family feel more comfortable and gave them such care during a very difficult time,” said Bonnie Carroll, President and Founder of TAPS. “It’s the perfect example of why and how our organizations rely on each other to care for military families during their most difficult moments.”

His sister Autum set up a peer support foundation called Coreysadventuresfoundation.org, to memorialize Corey by connecting veterans with each other and by connecting the families dealing with the aftermath of PTSD-related suicides. Corey believed in “Faith, Family, Friends, and Freedom,” but at his heart he was an adventure-seeker who believed in the brotherhood of one soldier to another. The Smiths believe the key is to facilitate outdoor adventures and activities where veterans and families can meet and connect.

“I miss him very much,” Kathy Smith said. “But there are still Saturdays when I wake up thinking Corey’s going to call today.”