USO/TAPS Programs for Survivors Demonstrate the Power of Listening

Sometimes, the best thing you can do for someone is listen.

A USO/TAPS camp in Boston earlier this year ended with a balloon release. The balloons are released in remembrance of loved ones who died. USO photo by Michael A. Clifton

A USO/TAPS camp in Boston earlier this year ended with a balloon release. The balloons are released in remembrance of loved ones who died. USO photo by Michael A. Clifton

The inherent risk faced by America’s troops means their families are no strangers to tragedy. And just as the USO is there during the good times, the organization also makes sure it’s there when families lose a loved one.

The USO partners with TAPS—the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors—to host Survivor Seminars and Good Grief Camps that help military family members cope with a death and the overwhelming emotions that come with it.

USO Fort Hood hosted nearly 500 attendees and volunteers at the USO/TAPS Survivor Seminar and Good Grief Camp in July at the Spirit of Fort Hood Warrior and Family Chapel Campus. USO Fort Hood Director Robin Crouse estimates that her center cultivated between $15,000 and $20,000 in in-kind donations for the event, allowing them to provide expansive breakfast and lunch offerings to the attendees and the Fort Hood-based troops who worked as peer mentors during the two-day program. USO Warrior and Family Care also provided nearly $30,000 in funds for the event.

But their largest contribution may have been lending an ear.

The USO and TAPS will hold multiple Survivor Seminars and Good Grief Camps across the country in 2013. USO photo by Michael A. Clifton

The USO and TAPS will hold multiple Survivor Seminars and Good Grief Camps across the country in 2013. USO photo by Michael A. Clifton

“We made ourselves very available on a personal level to them, being able to listen,” Crouse said. “It’s just about being a very good listener and being able to give a hug to people when they need it. And it’s about being able to remember who that person is year after year so they feel like they’re coming back home.”

The Survivor Seminars provide an opportunity for adult survivors (spouses and parents) to learn about their grief and find positive ways to deal with it. Meanwhile, children from these families participate in Good Grief Camps at the same locations. Their days are filled with fun, educational activities under the guidance of peer mentors, who are servicemen and women who volunteer to help surviving children through the emotions of the camp.

Crouse said the USO’s standing within the military community adds a sense of comfort to the attendees, many of whom have been to multiple camps since Fort Hood started hosting the events in 2010. This comfort can lead to more open lines of communication and even life-changing experiences.

Crouse was especially moved by an attendee she connected with in 2011 who sought her out again upon arriving at Fort Hood this summer. The woman, who’d lost a loved one, brought a letter she’d sent to Crouse that was returned by the post office because of a bad address. When Crouse opened the letter, it contained a photo of the two of them from the 2011 camp. The exchange brought Crouse to tears.

“[These camps are] one of the most meaningful things I’ve done in my career at the USO,” she said.

—Story by Eric Brandner, USO Director of Story Development

Will You Join Them?

On Monday, we launched an effort to bring critical year-end support to our troops, especially those who have been wounded, ill or injured. The response has been truly amazing and inspiring.

Thousands of people are coming together to take care of these brave men and women who are just starting their road to recovery. I hope you will join with other USO supporters and make your special year-end donation today.

Please, make your year-end USO donation today to support our troops on the frontlines and all the brave wounded, ill and injured troops recovering here at home.

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This campaign isn’t just about bringing support to the wounded, ill and injured. It’s also about honoring a special request from our troops on the frontlines and in forward operating bases all around the world.

When we ask them what we can do to help, their first answer is always: Take care of my friends who have been wounded.

So, when you give today, you’re honoring the service and sacrifice of our active troops and helping support those who are wounded, ill and injured.

Donate today to help the USO’s effort to bring support to our wounded troops and provide ongoing care for our troops on the frontlines.

I’ve been so encouraged by the way USO supporters like you have stepped up to be there for our troops at this time of year. And I thank you for lending your personal support to this campaign today. - Sloan Gibson, President and CEO, USO

USO Warrior and Family Center at Fort Belvoir Nearing Completion


A stone facade fireplace and a second-story footbridge stand as the interoir centerpieces of the Great Room at the USO Warrior and Family Center at Fort Belvoir, Va. Construction should wrap up by year’s end. USO photo by Eric Brandner

Nail by nail, the USO Warrior and Family Center at Fort Belvoir, Va., is getting closer to welcoming troops and families

USO staffers visited the construction site last week for a walkthrough and saw dozens of contractors buzzing throughout the building, which is still on track to be complete by the end of 2012 and open to guests in early 2013.

The Warrior and Family Center at Belvoir will serve wounded, ill and injured troops and their families and caregivers. Many of these troops are stationed at Belvoir while they recover from invisible wounds of war like traumatic brain injury and post traumatic stress.

Here are a few photos from the walkthrough:

The USO’s Operation Enduring Care is raising funds for the construction of both the USO Warrior and Family Center at Belvoir and the USO Warrior and Family Center at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md, along with USO Warrior and Family Programs worldwide.

—Eric Brandner, USO Director of Story Development

Jobs for Our Wounded Troops

Let me put it plainly: We need to pull out all the stops to give our wounded, ill and injured troops returning home the resources and training they need to transition back into the workplace.

That’s why we’ve made tripling our investment in job training for our returning troops a priority in 2013, and one of the key initiatives to our effort is a special drive to raise $150,000 by Veterans Day.

In the months ahead, we’ll be organizing more than 60 USO/Hire Heroes USA Transition Workshops — workshops that are the starting place for reintegration of our brave, wounded troops into the workforce.

Donate now to support this and other critical USO initiatives for our troops — including helping our wounded heroes gain the skills and training they need to find a job and lead a life filled with hope and confidence.

At these workshops, we’ll focus on resume writing and mock interviews guided by human resources professionals from military-friendly companies. At the end of each workshop, our troops will have written an improved resume, practiced effective job interview skills and learned about additional resources and opportunities available for career development.

This hands-on training is just one of the critical types of programs for our troops that you can support by participating in our Veterans Day campaign. You can honor America’s veterans and support our troops by helping provide the resources to help servicemen and women reintegrate into their communities.

Help the USO support our troops and give our wounded heroes the chance to attend a career transition workshop and gain the training they need for their new life ahead.

You’ve been there for our wounded, ill and injured troops before. And I know you’ll support our decision to make meeting their needs for reintegration a major priority among the many programs and services we provide for our troops. I hope I can count on you to step up once again.

For the troops!

- Sloan Gibson, President and CEO, USO

P.S. Our military leaders, who understand the needs of wounded troops firsthand, have directly asked the USO to focus more attention on helping wounded troops find a path to new and rewarding careers after their military service. Help us start answering that need by raising the funds needed to provide these critically important workshops and other USO programs by Veterans Day.

Ride 2 Recovery, Project HERO Hold Training Workshop

Thirty-three representatives from Warrior Transition Units, Wounded Warrior Battalions and Veteran Affairs (VA) medical clinics came to Bethesda, Md., recently to participate in a three-day training camp to build and improve their respective Ride 2 Recovery cycling rehabilitation programs.

Project HERO (Healing Exercise Rehabilitation Opportunities) is designed as a train-the-trainer camp, where vital cycling skills such as organizing and leading rides, bike mechanics, maintenance, adaptations and safety and even bike building and fitting are taught to hospital and military representatives.

Project HERO National Director Barbara Springer said the camp aimed to empower local cycling representatives so they can promote a fuller, quicker rehabilitation for injured servicemen and women.

“These reps will go back to their locations and each will be qualified to start up a Project HERO program at their own hospital or unit,” Springer said. “Each will possess the knowledge and skills required not only to lead a ride, but also to help their unit’s healing heroes reach their highest level of function by using cycling as part of physical and psychological rehabilitation.”

Army veteran Marina Libro is developing a Project HERO cycling program with the McGuire Veterans Hospital in Richmond, Va. For her, learning how to fit riders for a bike and seeing how a maintenance shop was set up was the most useful elements of the training.

“I’ve got the people at the VA behind me now supporting a cycling program, but I didn’t have the technical knowledge or mechanical skills to make it all happen,” she said. “Now I know what I need to set up a bike room and I have the confidence to make it successful.” - Joseph Andrew Lee, USO Staff Writer

Wyakin Warrior Foundation Guides Wounded Veterans through College, Life Transitions

The road ahead can be difficult to navigate for veterans who have suffered battlefield injuries.

While the Department of Veterans Affairs has stepped up G.I. Bill benefits, the logistics of getting into school can stifle even the most determined wounded veteran.

Most veterans struggle with unanswered questions like “What do I want to do now?” Or, more often, “What can I do now?”

They wonder how they’ll sit in a classroom while dealing with post traumatic stress, anxious about the movements of people sitting behind them. Or how they’ll pass midterms after staying up all night dealing with nightmares that linger years after war.

James Donaldson (bottom right) poses for a photo with five fellow inductees at the 2012 Wyakin Warrior Foundation Induction Ceremony held at the Idaho State Capitol Building June 21, 2012.

In Idaho, 10 wounded veterans have been inducted into a new fraternity that intends to assist them during this transition and then to walk with them for life. The Wyakin Warrior Foundation—a proud USO partner—is providing scholarships, mentoring, professional development, networking and career training for severely wounded, injured troops and post-9/11 veterans who are accepted into its program.

According to Native American legend, a wyakin is a spiritual guide that advises and protects a person throughout life. As a rite of passage, young Native Americans were taken to an isolated location where they would fast alone until the wyakin—often an animal like an eagle or a wolf—appeared in a vision or dream. This wyakin guide gave them insight into their next steps in life.

Retired Navy officer Jeff Bacon and his wife, Rebecca, started the Wyakin Warrior Foundation in Boise, Idaho, with the hopes of giving direction to a generation of wounded veterans returning from combat. Inductees receive a full, four-year scholarship—including room, board and tuition—along with job training, mentoring, and a lifetime membership to the fraternity.

“This is just the beginning,” Jeff Bacon said, “and we are so proud to have the support of the USO for this journey.”

The USO provides program support to the Wyakin Warrior Foundation through funding and outreach to eligible candidates at locations near USO centers in the Washington D.C., Metro area and San Antonio. The USO has distributed scholarship applications to the program to generate awareness of this unique and high impact program.

Bacon—who acts as the foundation’s executive director—says the government doesn’t always provide the help veterans need during college. Many returning troops have physical and emotional scars and find it difficult to function outside structured military life. The organization’s on-campus support network is designed to be like a military chain of command that puts veterans in their comfort zone to ease their transition.

The first group of five veterans was inducted into the program in August 2011. Five more—including 27-year-old double-amputee Sgt. James Donaldson, U.S. Army (Ret.), a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom—were inducted in June.

Donaldson lost both his legs in an improvised explosive device blast. Today, he studies information security and digital forensics at the College of Western Idaho. He plans to transfer to Boise State to finish his bachelor’s degree.

“My whole mission is to go to school and to get a degree,” Donaldson said. “Everything else, the Wyakin Warrior Foundation is there to help take care of, and that’s awesome.”

After spending months in a military hospital, Donaldson didn’t know where to begin. He knew he needed to find a job and he wanted to go to school—but that was about the extent of it.

“I didn’t really have my mind set on a career, and that’s where the foundation really helped,” Donaldson said. “[The Wyakin Warrior Foundation] not only helped me prepare for a specific career, but they also helped out with other aspects of life, like issues with the VA, social stigmas, and stuff previous wounded guys have experienced.”

The Wyakin Warrior Foundation even worked with JoS. A. Bank to get Donaldson and the other wounded warriors free suits so they could be prepared for their first job interview.

“It’s also nice to meet regularly with other wounded guys who know what you’re going through,” Donaldson said. “The program has a really personal touch that goes beyond what I expected. I was even connected with a mentor who was a personal friend of Jeff and Rebecca’s, so it felt really comfortable—like I was part of the family.”

Jeff Bacon has unique knowledge of motivation of wounded troops from his 26 years of experience as a naval officer and cartoonist for the Navy Times.

“These first 10 warriors will lead the way for hundreds and even thousands who will follow in the path they have forged,” Bacon said.

—Joseph Andrew Lee, USO Staff Writer