World War II Heroes Join in D.C. for Day of Honor

Screen Shot 2012-12-07 at 11.05.27 AMWorld War II veterans will be honored on Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day— Dec. 7—with a daylong celebration of their service, beginning with a trip down the National Mall to their memorial and culminating in a screening of the documentary film “Honor Flight” at DAR Constitution Hall. The event is sponsored by Blue Star Families and the USO.

Several veterans featured in the documentary will be in attendance, including Joe Demler of Wisconsin, a Battle of the Bulge infantryman and prisoner of war in Germany. America remembers Demler as the “Human Skeleton” in a 1945 Life magazine photo taken the day he was freed from a prisoner-of-war camp. Also attending is retired Navy Cmdr. Verner Utke-Ramsing of Washington, D.C., who was aboard the USS Drum in May of 1942 when it sunk a Japanese seaplane carrier off the island of Hushu with one torpedo hit. Without the sinking, there may have been an additional 10 Japanese submarines at Midway. As these heroes look into the twilight of their lives, now is the time to honor them.

“The number of WWII veterans is quickly dwindling, with 800 to 1,000 dying every day,” said Honor Flight Founder Earl Morse. “Honor Flight’s mission is to give these remarkable veterans the recognition they deserve: a plane flight to visit the memorials dedicated in their honor and a hero’s welcome when they return to their communities. For many, it is the trip of a lifetime.”

Washington, D.C.-area veterans who do not qualify for an Honor Flight trip due to their proximity to the memorial will be the focus of the Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day event. After attending a wreath- laying ceremony at the WWII Memorial, veterans will be honored guests at a screening of “Honor Flight” at DAR. The powerful, feature-length documentary follows a devoted team of Midwest volunteers from the Stars and Stripes Honor Flight Wisconsin chapter as they strive to send every local WWII veteran to Washington to see the memorial erected in their honor.

In addition to Demler, the film depicts veterans such as 86-year-old grocery bagger Harvey Kurtz, who witnessed the iconic raising of the American flag at Iwo Jima. Many veterans kept the atrocities of war to themselves after returning home, never revealing their experiences to spouses, children, friends or even fellow veterans. The film documents their emotional reflections of war as they visit the memorial, surrounded by their brothers and sisters in arms.

“‘Honor Flight’ is a remarkable film. Grandparents, parents and children can all appreciate the stories told in this powerful and moving tribute to WWII veterans and this country,” said U.S. Sen. Bob Dole.

The documentary has been garnering attention around the country, including a showing attended by 28,000 people at Miller Park Stadium in Wisconsin.

For tickets to the Dec. 7 Washington, D.C., screening go to:

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 Volunteers Walk 50 Blocks to Open Times Square Center after Superstorm Sandy

Joan Ashner always goes above and beyond

Columnist Erma Bombeck once wrote that “volunteers are the only human beings on the face of the Earth who reflect this nation’s compassion, unselfish caring, patience, and just plain love for one another.”

At the USO, we are lucky enough to have the commitment of 25,000 reflections of America running our centers every day of the year. Even on days like Monday—when a major storm was plowing through New York City—volunteers like Joan Ashner are willing to walk 50 blocks through the wind and rain to make sure the USO center is operational to serve rescue personnel.

“It’s really amazing, our volunteers’ commitment to duty,” said Ray Kennedy, Vice President of Programs and Services for USO of Metropolitan New York. “On a day when most paid employees are keeping shelter from the danger of the storm, she is out there on the city streets risking her own safety to get to work.”

For Ashner, this sort of thing is par for the course. She was named a 2011 USO Regional Volunteer of the Year for her similar actions when a blizzard crippled the city. She single-handedly opened and operated the Times Square center for five days to help more than 800 stranded service members and their families.

“It was a little hairy,” Ashner said of her walk to open the center Monday. “But we were told there would be service members on duty there with [Joint Task Force] Empire Shield, so if there are troops on duty, the USO must also be on duty.”

As it turned out, the Empire Shield troops were diverted elsewhere and the Port Authority forced the closure of the USO until this morning. Still, Ashner and other New York City USO volunteers returned Wednesday—again walking 50 blocks—to open the centers at 7 a.m.

“All our centers are open. God bless our volunteers,” Kennedy said. “They, themselves are living in neighborhoods that are flooded and are without power, but instead of dealing with their own situations they are putting the welfare of our troops first. We couldn’t do this without them.” – Joseph Andrew Lee, USO Staff Writer

Grant a Wish for Our Heroes

Grant a Wish for Our Heroes is our observance of Veterans Day and serves as a way for Americans to show appreciation for the exemplary service given by our nation’s servicemen and women.

The USO lifts the spirits of troops and their families by providing morale boosts in many ways. Whether it is keeping deployed servicemen and women connected to their families or making a troop’s time in theater a little more comfortable or supporting returning wounded, ill and injured troops as they work to recover, the USO remains steadfast in delivering goodness to our nation’s military and its families.

Learn more about our programs and services and how you can help at

USO Delaware Director Receives National Guard Honor

USO of Delaware Director Joan Cote receives the National Guard Association of the United States’ Patrick Henry Award in Reno, Nevada, earlier this month. Courtesy of the National Guard Association of the United States

USO Delaware Director Joan Cote received a career-defining honor this month when she accepted the Patrick Henry Award from the National Guard Association of the United States (NGAUS) for her years of work with troops.

“What a thrill receiving this award was for me and USO Delaware,” Cote said. “As you can tell [from the photo above] my eyes were filled with tears. … [It was] the proudest moment of my USO career!”

Established in 1989, the Patrick Henry Award is the civilian equivalent to the NGAUS Distinguished Service Medal. According to the association’s website, the award “is designed to provide recognition to local officials and civic leaders, who in a position of great responsibility distinguished themselves with outstanding and exceptional service to the Armed Forces of the United States, the National Guard or NGAUS.”

Cote has been the director of USO Delaware for since it opened in March of 1991. Her duties include overseeing two centers at Dover Air Force Base, home to Air Force Mortuary Affairs and site of dignified transfers. USO Delaware has supported every dignified transfer at Dover since it opened its doors.

Click here to see the full list of the 2012 NGAUS recipients. - Eric Brandner, USO Director of Story Development

That Others May Live: Crash Survivor Returns to Flight Status

Master Sgt. Christopher Aguilera, right, assists the only other survivor of the crash, his co-pilot, Capt. Anthony Simone, during the torch relay ceremony at the start of the 2012 Warrior Games in Colorado Springs, May 1.

Two years of pain, frustration and hard work has finally paid off for Air Force Master Sgt. Christopher Aguilera.

Known as “Aggie” by his personal trainer and close friends because of his affinity for Texas A&M, he was one of only two survivors of a deadly helicopter crash during a combat rescue mission in Afghanistan in June 2010.

On Friday, he received some good news:

“Due to MSgt Aguilera’s tremendous efforts in recovery and rehabilitation, he has received waivers to return to unconditional flying status.” – Air Force Capt. H. Leo Tanaka, M.D.

Just two summers ago the 35-year-old, El Paso, Texas native was a gunner aboard an HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter scrambled to evacuate a critically wounded British Royal Marine outside Forward Operating Base Jackson in southern Afghanistan.

It was the third combat rescue within 24 hours for his crew of the 563rd Rescue Group, and since the sun had come up it would be their first of the day without the cover of darkness.

“It smelled of a really bad situation,” Aggie said. “But when you are doing combat rescues you have to go in no matter what your gut says. Someone is dying and it’s our job to save them. These things I do, that others may live—that is our motto.”

The two airships raced into the heart of one of the most hostile territories of Helmand Province—Sangin—where the British had already lost nearly 100 Marines that summer.

As the two rescue choppers (known as Pedros) convened above FOB Jackson, the “two-ship” began its descent while Aggie’s bird circled to provide combat support. Everything was going according to plan until he heard the gut-wrenching ting ting ting of machine gun fire impacting the tail rotor of his helicopter.

The pilots and crew reacted quickly to maneuver the aircraft away from the base and the other bird before they lost what little lift they had and plummeted to the earth at nearly 140 mph. The helicopter burst into flames.

Flight Engineer David Smith, Combat Rescue Officer Capt. Joel Gents, Pararescueman Tech. Sgt. Michael Flores and Senior Airman Benjamin White all perished.

Six-foot-two, 225-pound Aggie found himself in a heap of shredded metal, fire and blood.

The violent crash broke his ankle in two places and his back in five. It fractured his femur, hip and tailbone. It broke four ribs, his jaw, sternum and collar bone, and it punctured his lung. His seat tore through his upper-left hamstring all the way up to his hip. On top of all that, he was on fire.

“I was sitting there basically waiting to die,” he said. “I could hear the enemy closing in, but I wasn’t scared. It was time to join my brothers.”

The British newspaper, The Telegraph, reported that a company of 90 Commandos immediately “crashed out” of their base in a desperate race against the insurgents to get to the wreckage first.

“When we got to it, the whole of the [helicopter] was in flames,” said Royal Marine Sgt. Rick Angove, one of the first on-scene.

After setting up a perimeter, the Marines—assisted by the crew of the second bird—pulled the two unconscious pilots from the burning aircraft just as armor-piercing ammunition began exploding. Five more Marines fought the fires in the fuselage and worked to free the severely wounded and badly burned Aguilera.

The pilot, Capt. David Wisniewski, died 23 days later with his family and his fiancé by his side. Co-Pilot Capt. Anthony (Tony) Simone eventually woke from his coma and is steadily recovering from severe traumatic brain injuries that have paralyzed the left side of his body.

“At first I was in denial,” said Aguilera upon hearing details of the crash. “I didn’t want to accept that I’d lost so many friends that day. About a week later I was watching TV in my hospital bed and it all hit me. They were talking about another round of amputations and it finally started to sink in that everything in my life had changed. I had lost my friends forever and I didn’t know what would become of me. I was crippled—both in body and mind.”

He endured more than 25 surgeries to repair his shattered body. A large portion of his left calf was amputated due to severe burns and he was finally released back to duty in a wheelchair five months after the crash. Life in a chair, however, was unacceptable for him.

“The military got me to the point where I could effectively transition from my wheelchair to a toilet,” he said. “But that wasn’t enough. I didn’t want to get kicked out of the military. I wanted to get back to my job—to get back to combat.”

After his final surgery in June 2011, he met with Mel Batterman, a civilian personal trainer at his local gym outside Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas.

“He was just out of his wheelchair—using a cane—and he barely had any balance,” said Batterman, a 15-year veteran of the fitness industry. She knew she had the ability to help him recover so she offered her assistance pro-bono.

“He’s a true hero—a personal and professional inspiration to me,” Batterman said. “He says he does it so others may live—and I can get on board with that.

“There’s no question his goals were ambitious considering where he started,” she added, “but Aggie has a tremendous amount of inner drive and a huge heart. More-so than I’ve ever seen. The guys who didn’t make it through that accident—he carries them with him every day.”

At the start of their training just one year ago, Aggie weighed in at a meager 180 pounds. The lack of muscle tissue and nerve endings in his calf meant re-training the body to tell what little muscle he had left to take over and function as if it were all there.

“Many people in his situation would give up or let their wounds define them,” Batterman said. “He never did that. He said to me, ‘This is my life, and this is my job—get me there.’ So I did.”

“If it wasn’t for her, there’s no doubt in my mind that I’d still be in a wheelchair today,” Aguilera said. “She took me from wheelchair to running. She saved my life. She changed my life. She did it so I could live.”

The first major milestone of his recovery came this summer, when he participated in the 2012 Warrior Games, a military Paralympics competition sponsored by the USO. He competed in the 100-meter sprint, 200-meter sprint, shot put, discus, seated volleyball and wheelchair basketball, helping to bring home four bronze medals for the Air Force.

Now, just two years after the accident, Master Sgt. Aguilera is officially “back.” His balance is no different than anybody else’s, and he even scored a 92 on his recent physical fitness test—considered “excellent” by Air Force standards.

He hopes to return to Afghanistan by spring of 2013, and this time he intends to finish his deployment and return to the States on his own terms.

“Returning to flying status will show a lot of the guys in the rescue community that no matter what happens—even if the worst happens—you can still come back,” he said. “It will give them confidence to know that there’s life after this. You can survive and you can go on and you can come back.”

- Joseph Andrew Lee, USO Staff Writer