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.”

House2

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.”

Your USO at Work: February 2015 — Jay Leno Auctions Off Prized Car For USO


Jay Leno Auctions Off Rare Muscle Car to Benefit the USO

Auction houses selling rare and expensive collector cars are usually teeming with excitement, but at Gooding & Company’s Scottsdale, Arizona, auction in January, there was an extra layer of celebrity buzz when late night legend Jay Leno rolled out his prized 2008 Dodge Challenger SRT8 — with all proceeds benefiting the USO.

The highlight of the auction was Leno’s Challenger. The crowd roared as bidders competed in the one of the most exciting bidding displays Gooding & Company has ever seen.

The bidding started at $50,000, but when the auctioneer finally dropped the gavel at $360,000, the entire auction house stood for applause. However, the giving wasn’t done.

“After the car sold, one of the men who lost the bid for Leno’s car stood up and offered an on-the-spot cash donation for the USO — he would match anyone’s donation up to $100,000,” said USO CEO and President J.D. Crouch II, who attended the event.

Paddles began flying and within moments, another man committed to match the full $100,000. Additional donations totaled $5,625, which means that thanks to Jay Leno and other generous supporters, the USO will receive a total of $565,625.

“We’re overwhelmed by the response that we got from those who attended the auction,” Crouch said. “The funds raised here will go far to advance our goals of expanding our services to men and women in uniform.”

USO Mission Continues in Afghanistan Despite Formal End of Combat

On Fridays, troops at USO Kandahar can kick back for a few moments and enjoy some special treats after a long week of hard work. USO photo

Troops at USO Kandahar can kick back for a few moments and enjoy some special treats on Fridays — and every other day of the week. USO photo

The American combat mission in Afghanistan is officially over. But the USO is still on the ground serving more than 10,000 U.S. troops stationed there.

“The mission has not changed for us,” said USO Senior Vice President of Operations, Alan Reyes. “Troops serving in harm’s way will always be one of our top priorities, so we will continue to serve those troops in Afghanistan and throughout the region.”

If U.S. troops need support, the USO will be there for them. Wherever that may be.

Operation Enduring Freedom officially ended Dec. 28. However, according to the Defense Department, more than 10,800 American troops will remain in Afghanistan through 2015 as part of Operation Freedom’s Sentinel.

USO centers in the Middle East will stay open as long as there’s a need at the bases they support. There were four fully operational USO centers in Afghanistan at the beginning of February and the USO also has standing operations in Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, and has supported the mission of U.S. troops sent to other areas around the region as needed.

Visit USO.org/donate today to pledge your support for America’s troops.

USO Supporting Quarantined Troops Returning From Ebola Mission

Thousands of U.S. troops are stationed far from home every day, but a few hundred of those brave men and women are serving an unconventional mission, isolated as a precautionary measure after duty in West Africa to fight the Ebola outbreak.

Army Pfc. Michael Matale, left, signs out a video game from Sgt. Brandon Banks at the grand opening of the USO at Barclay Training Center in Monrovia, Liberia. Army photo by Spc. Rashene Mincy

Army Pfc. Michael Matale, left, signs out a video game from Sgt. Brandon Banks at the opening of the USO at Barclay Training Center in Monrovia, Liberia, in December. Army photo by Spc. Rashene Mincy

And the USO is by their side.

Troops rotating home after deployments to West Africa are being isolated for 21 days in what the military calls controlled monitoring areas (CMAs) at installations in the United States, Germany and Italy. Thousands of troops have deployed and returned from the region with no issues to date.

In Liberia, where about 300 military personnel continue to support the mission to build and support hospitals, the USO is on the ground providing the comforts of home. These items include dedicated satellite service for Internet connectivity, phone cards, health and comfort items and even leisure and recreational equipment.

In the U.S., troops are being monitored at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Fort Hood and Fort Bliss, Texas and Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia.

In most cases, groups of 20 to 30 soldiers are isolated at the same time. Subsequent groups cannot have items used by a previous group because of health precautions, so providing multiple sets of supplies has made the operation more challenging.

“If somebody can find a problem, the USO can find a solution,” said Glenn Gibbs, manager of USO Vicenza, who is supporting the CMA site at nearby American-Italian installation Caserma Del Din. “It’s just what the USO does.”

USO/Hire Heroes USA Helps Transitioning Troops in Three Phases

Starting a new career is about the details.

How you describe what you bring to an employer. How an interviewer feels you fit their corporate culture. How you present yourself in person – and even online.

Army Capt. Amelia Campbell is one of many transitioning troops who have benefitted from a USO/Hire Heroes Workshop. Courtesy photo

Army Capt. Amelia Campbell is one of many transitioning troops who have benefitted from a USO/Hire Heroes USA workshop. USO photo

The last of those was a detail Capt. Amelia Campbell picked up during a two-day USO/Hire Heroes USA Workshop in Tacoma, Washington, in November.

“Something that’s really resonated with me … [is] how important it is to actually represent myself in social media,” the 22-year Army veteran said.

Statistically, getting an interview is the hard part. With plenty of job-seeking Americans and college grads looking for work, there’s lots of competition out there, so USO/Hire Heroes USA workshops take time to fine-tune transitioning service members’ resumes to give them the best shot to beat the odds.

Getting through stacks of resumes is difficult because companies are used to having many qualified applicants in today’s economy. So if there are only a few openings, having the strongest resume alone won’t get you an offer. You need to nail the interview, and that means you need to practice.

USO/Hire Heroes USA Workshops and Career Opportunity Days prepare attendees by holding mock interviews with Hire Heroes USA staff or local hiring managers who’ve volunteered their time. The interviewers question the service members about what makes them the right fit for a position. When it’s over, the interviewers provide feedback on how the service member did, and any other applicable tips.

Multiple employers who’ve participated in the mock interview sessions have extended follow-up interview requests and some of those second interviews have led to job offers.

“We definitely want them to have that renewed confidence as they take on the job market,” said Elda Auxiliaire, who manages the program for the USO. “We want them to have that confidence as they sit down with an employer and say ‘I can do this just as well as anyone else.’”

You can help transitioning troops and military spouses start new careers by visiting  USO.org/donate today.

 GEICO Becomes USO Worldwide Strategic Partner

The USO and GEICO announced a new worldwide strategic partnership Feb. 12 that will expand GEICO’s support of our mission to lift the spirits of America’s troops and their families.

Geico LogoGEICO will support 14 USO centers and USO programs like Ride 2 Recovery, which provides wounded troops with bikes to help them build hope and confidence through cycling, and Mobile USOs, which serve as centers on wheels.

In addition to funding USO programs, the partnership will also provide opportunities for GEICO to build relationships with USO centers throughout the country and volunteer at USO events that support our military heroes.

“The USO’s commitment to improving the lives of our men and women in uniform and their families is unparalleled,” said Tony Nicely, chairman and CEO of GEICO. “GEICO has been a proud supporter of the USO for years, so we’re very pleased to take our partnership to the next level as a Worldwide Strategic Partner.”

After a Tough Transition, Military Spouse Found a New Home at the USO 

There was no smooth transition to military life for Cary Fulladosa, a programs coordinator in the USO’s Japan area office. She’s a new military wife and her first duty station is half a world away from her hometown of Miami.

Cary Fulladosa

Cary Fulladosa

In addition to being separated from her close-knit family— five siblings included— Fulladosa left behind a job she loved to make the move. Upon arriving, she said she immediately understood why an overseas military community sometimes needs a boost.

“Instantly, I saw the need for a support net for this kind of lifestyle and I knew I wanted to be part of a greater cause to give sustenance to the community I am now a part of,” she said.

After seeing the job posting for the USO, she researched the organization and realized that the USO’s mission to lift the spirits of America’s troops and their families fell in line with her personal pursuits. Fulladosa, who is working towards a degree in psychology, enjoys helping people reach their potential. She felt the USO would be a great fit, so she applied for the opening, got the job and started her new career in June.

Fulladosa says her coworkers are her favorite part of her first nine months on the job.

“They are so positive, empowering and passionate,” she said. “[They] make work feel like I am not getting up every morning for a job, for a paycheck. I am walking into this office to serve a higher purpose with a crew of spirit-lifting warriors. The passion my co-workers express is inspiring.”

‘He Came to Us’: USO Staffer in Germany Takes Action to Save the Life of Despondent Soldier

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How do you know if someone’s contemplating suicide?

For Shannon Huffman, it’s instinct. Huffman, a USO employee in Landstuhl, Germany, received extensive suicide prevention education during her 20 years in the Air Force. Late last year, that training may have saved someone’s life.

One evening, Huffman was at Landstuhl’s USO Warrior Center in Germany teaching a volunteer how to make chili. A service member approached her, looking distressed, and asked if she would help mail some belongings for him. Even though Huffman could sense something was wrong, it wasn’t until the he gave her his mother’s mailing address that she realized he was in a fragile, possibly suicidal, state and needed immediate help.

Huffman, an information specialist at the center, asked a volunteer to watch the service member while she alerted the hospital’s medical staff. Within minutes, Huffman subtly asked the service member to step outside the center and speak with medical personnel, who later escorted him to the hospital for treatment.

“She didn’t just help an individual – she helped all of his family and friends who may have had to suffer an irreplaceable loss,” said Laura Ponzo, the USO Warrior Center Manager and Huffman’s supervisor.

“The reason our center exists is to provide a home away from home for the wounded, ill and injured service members and give them someplace where they can feel comfortable and relax. That service member probably wouldn’t have felt comfortable going up to someone in uniform and asking for help, so he came to us.”

Because of her actions, Huffman was honored with the USO President’s Award, which recognizes USO employees for outstanding contributions to or on behalf of the organization.

“To be in a position where I get to help our veterans in need on a daily basis makes going to work a passion, not just a job,” Huffman said. “I was on the [receiving] end of the USO for 20 years and am honored to be able to return the kindness.”

Huffman says it’s the simple actions — like listening to someone vent or giving them a hug — that most benefit recovering troops who visit the USO Warrior Center.

“Often when a person comes in our center they are shook up and distraught,” she said. “Helping them make a cup of coffee and dial the phone back home to let family know they are OK is the most important thing in the world to them at that moment.

“It feels good to make that kind of difference for somebody, but that’s what we do right? Make every moment count.”

Your USO at Work: November 2014 — USO, Sesame Street Celebrate 500,000 Smiles

The Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families celebrated a major milestone with families at Fort Benning, Georgia, on October 3 when the tour entertained its 500,000th military family member. USO photo by Dave Gatley

The Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families celebrated a major milestone with families at Fort Benning, Georgia, on October 3 when the tour entertained its 500,000th military family member. USO photo by Dave Gatley

Sesame Street/USO Experience Reaches 500K Milestone

It’s always a sunny day on Sesame Street, but Elmo, Cookie Monster and the Muppets had an extra special reason to sing and dance with all their friends last month. The Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families entertained its 500,000th military family member.

“The fact that we hit that particular number is a giant milestone for us,” said Nicole McClendon, tour manager for the USO/Sesame Street Experience for Military Families.

The Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families has toured since July 2008 and has taken its message of facing fears and embracing change to more than 500,000 troops and military families. With help from Katie, a military child who is moving to a new place, and all of her friends, the tour has performed more than 893 shows on 147 military installations in 33 states and 11 countries.

“Five hundred thousand represents the number of smiles Elmo and Katie have brought to military kids and their families … as the tour has traveled around the world,” USO President and CEO Dr. J.D. Crouch II said in a release. “We thank our friends at Sesame Street for helping to make this possible and we look forward to seeing many more smiling faces as the tour continues its journey.”

USO’s Every Moment Counts Flag Breaks World Record

The USO's Every Moment Counts flag is displayed at The Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati on Sept. 11. USO photo by Mike Theiler

The USO’s Every Moment Counts flag is displayed at The Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati on Sept. 11. USO photo by Mike Theiler

With signatures gathered from all 50 states and seven countries, USO announced in September that it broke the Guinness World Records title for most signatures on a flag with 115,405 gathered digitally and in-person around the world. The USO shattered the current record set in 2012 by more than 82,132 signatures.

As part of its Every Moment Counts campaign, the USO rallied Americans to show support for troops and their families through the simple act of saying thank you with their signature.

“Every signature on the Every Moment Counts flag is a symbol of a grateful nation’s appreciation for all that our men and women in uniform and their families do for us on a daily basis,” said J.D. Crouch II, USO President and CEO.

Go to USOmoments.org to show your appreciation for our troops and their families.

Al Roker Sets Weather Forecast Record in Support of the USO

With six minutes to go in #Rokerthon, the expression momentarily drained from Al Roker’s face as his co-anchors piled into his small New York City studio.

NBC's Al Roker headlined the "Today"/USO Comedy Tour in Afghanistan in October. USO photo by Fred Greaves

NBC’s Al Roker headlined the “Today”/USO Comedy Tour in Afghanistan in October. USO photo by Fred Greaves

“I don’t think there are enough people in here,” Roker deadpanned. More than 33 hours  — and despite several jokes suggesting the contrary — he was still lucid.

And then he delivered more temperatures.

Roker, a USO tour veteran, set a Guinness World Record on Nov. 14 for the longest continuous televised weather forecast at 34 hours. He did it to raise awareness for the USO, asking a national audience, a litany of NBC affiliates and livestream viewers to visit his still-active Crowdrise page, where he raised more than $75,000 for the organization by the time he went off the air.

He had a lot of help while he was on the air, too. #Rokerthon was often the No. 1 trending topic on Twitter, with thousands of viewers (including USO centers around the world) tweeting in questions about the weather to keep Roker’s forecasting streak alive.

USO, Renovating Hope and Gary Sinise Foundation Repair Home of Wounded Vet

After returning from Afghanistan with PTSD and a traumatic brain injury, medically retired Army Nurse Corps officer Jim Gardon came home to a surprise.

Unfortunately it wasn’t the good kind.

“When Jim was deployed to Afghanistan, I hired a contractor to remodel the back two rooms of the house,” said his wife Cece Gardon. “He came in, pulled out the electricity, did a haphazard job of sheet rocking and left and never came back.”

Stuck with a huge bill for incomplete work, they didn’t have the money to invest in the project a second time. The USO introduced the Gardons to Paul Hoffecker, the CEO of Renovating Hope, after Cece attended a USO Caregivers Conference. Renovating Hope secured grants from the USO and the Gary Sinise Foundation to make sure the job could be completed once and for all.

“The USO has been better than the 15 different medications the VA has tried to improve my attitude,” Jim Gardon said. “This is something that actually physically, emotionally and socially helps the soldier.”

Visit USO.org/donate to learn how you can support our healing heroes and their families.

USO Supports Fort Drum Spouse Through Deployment – and Homecoming

Ashley Sandgren

Ashley Sandgren

Ashley Sandgren’s smiles said as much as her words. Sometimes anxious. Other times confident.

Either way, she knew her wait was almost over.

Just 24 hours away from reuniting with her husband, Army Sgt. Jeremy Sandgren, after his nine-month deployment to Afghanistan, the Virginia native talked through the emotions of what it was like to wait out the couple’s first overseas deployment.

“I think putting it out of your mind is helpful in some sense, but you shouldn’t live your life in denial that they’re in danger, because they are,” she said.

Not that she didn’t have plenty to do. A trained cosmetologist, Sandgren balanced her work with coordinating a family readiness group at Fort Drum, N.Y., and volunteering with the USO, where many Fort Drum spouses have found a home away from home while their significant others were deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade.

“I think this USO has such a huge heart,” Sandgren said. “I think it’s extremely important to have the community and the different groups to lean on when your soldier’s deployed. It helps in the sense that you realize that you’re not alone.”

BNSF Helps the USO Support Transitioning Veterans with a Landmark Donation

Job searches are never easy. The task can be even more daunting for veterans looking to land their first civilian position.

That’s where the USO and supporters like the BNSF Railway Foundation step in.

On July 24, the BNSF Railway Foundation announced a $3 million pledge to support USO Warrior and Family Care employment programs for active-duty troops transitioning out of the military. The first-of-its-kind, three-year pledge will fund USO programs designed to assist transitioning troops – including those who are wounded, ill or injured – entering the civilian workforce.

Former Army Officer Makes a Difference for USO, Troops

USO Houston Center Director Liz Vallette

USO Houston Center Director Liz Vallette

USO Houston Center Director Liz Vallette understands what it’s like to be far from home.

With a tour in South Korea and a deployment to Iraq, the former Army officer and West Point graduate also knows that the USO is able to deliver a piece of home to deployed troops around the world.

“I was eager to join an organization that I had directly benefited from during my service, from relaxing in airport USO centers … to enjoying a touch of home from entertainers,” said Vallette, who started with the organization in 2011.

She arrived at USO Houston after serving six years in the Army and another two working with an economic development group in Afghanistan. Having daily opportunities to positively impact the lives of troops and their families was a driving factor in her decision and working with outstanding, motivated colleagues is an added benefit, she said.

Under Vallette’s leadership, USO Houston is piloting innovative programs that connect transitioning troops and their families with high-profile companies in the city’s booming industries. Oil and Gas 101 – a free, two-day orientation to the oil and gas industry – helped troops network directly with Houston-area hiring managers. Vallette and her team are planning another session for 2015 and hope to help more troops prepare for life after the military.

Go to USO.org/donate to support our nation’s transitioning troops and their families.

Texans’ J.J. Watt Helps Military Families Score The Ultimate Game Day Experience Through the USO

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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.”