The USO <3s Rodney Atkins

Tennessee native and American country superstar Rodney Atkins just recently returned from Kuwait and Afghanistan after a weeklong USO tour. This isn’t his first time supporting the troops, though. In 2011, Rodney partnered with Applebee’s to help launch a military support campaign to honor veterans and active duty military personnel worldwide. The “Thank You Movement” officially launched last October and allows folks to post thank you messages on ThankYouMovement.com, Applebees’ Facebook page, Twitter using the hashtag #ThankYouMovement, or YouTube. Veterans and servicemen and women can then go online and see those messages.

 During his most recent endeavor, Rodney visited eight bases and performed six formal USO shows in addition to several “unplugged” performances for wounded soldiers and service men and women unable to their posts. He also posed for pictures and signed autographs with over 3,400 service members at Camp Buehring, Camp Arifjan, Camp Leatherneck and Kandahar Air Field.

Rodney Atkins on his 2012 USO Tour

“I can’t say enough about how amazing my USO tour to the Middle East was,” Atkins said. “From all of the skilled and brave service men and women I met to the warm reception I received throughout my time downrange.  I learned a lot, had a great experience and, most importantly, made a lot of memories.  I can’t wait to go back out again and extend my thanks.” – Joseph P. Scannell, New Media Intern

Fighters in the Ring, Heroes on the Ground

In March 2011, a group of boxers set out to Kuwait and Iraq on their first USO tour.  Among them were Olympian and boxing legend Oscar De La Hoya and up-and-coming Golden Boy boxers Adrien Broner, Danny Jacobs and Seth Mitchell.  This band of boxers toured 8 bases and visited with thousands of troops as part of their first USO tour experience at installations like Camp Arifjan, Command Operating Base Basra, Camp Victory, Camp Liberty, Joint Security Station (JSS) Loyalty and JSS Justice.

Oscar De La Hoya speaks to U.S. troops serving in Kuwait while on his first USO tour to the Middle East March 10, 2011. De La Hoya was joined by up-and-coming boxers Adrien Broner, Seth Mitchell, and Danny Jacobs (background left to right). (USO Photo/Steve Manuel)

Along for the journey were HBO producer Scott Boggins and cinematographer Thom Stukas, who had worked together previously on the Emmy Award-winning “24/7 Penguins/Capitals: Road to the Winter Classics,” and me.  Yes, that’s right me! And like everyone else, this was my first USO tour.  My role was to serve as liaison between the HBO film crew and the military officials on the ground, and while that may not sound too exciting, it actually turned out to be the experience of a lifetime.

As part of our week in theater, we met service men and women from all over the United States.  The fighters signed autographs and hosted boxing clinics, which gave our troops the chance to pound fists with some of boxing’s greatest athletes.  And as we traveled from base to base we heard over and over how grateful troops were for the touch of home the visit brought.

But at the end of the week-long adventure it was the tour participants who walked away feeling humbled and grateful for the opportunity to spend time with troops serving on the frontlines.  When boxing legend De La Hoya returned to the states, he talked about his experience on a USO tour,

“Hearing their stories and seeing what they go through on a daily basis has changed my life.  The opportunity to see how our troops live and understand their ability to be ready for anything at a moment’s notice showed me what it means to be truly brave.”

I watched as the boxers signed autographs for countless troops, shared meals with them and just listened as they told their stories of life in the military and the families that awaited their return.  It was clear that what our troops missed most was a connection to home and by sharing their stories with us, knowing that in a few more days we’d be headed stateside, it was like they were sending their stories back with us.  It was enough to humble even the biggest of giants.

Olympic gold medalist and former 10-time world champion, Oscar De La Hoya (right), spars with Army CWO-2 Lisa Buckley of the 36th Infantry Division serving in Basra, Iraq, Friday, March 11, 2011. The boxing legend is in the region as part of his first USO tour to the Middle East. De La Hoya is joined by up-and-coming boxers Adrien Broner, Danny Jacobs, and Seth Mitchell. (USO Photo by Steve Manuel)

But it wasn’t just De La Hoya who was left with a profound sense of awe for the service men and women who put their lives on the line on a daily basis.  Heavyweight Seth Mitchell said:

“When I spoke to some of the soldiers, they told me that they work twelve to sixteen hours a day, six or seven days a week.  Hearing about their dedication and the sacrifices they make actually boosted my morale.  It’s a great honor to know that these men and women are serving to protect us.”

These boxers aren’t just showing their appreciation with words.  In fact, Broner – who is the World Boxing Organization’s current superfeather weight champion – has taken it one step further.   He recently trained, as part of the 2012 USA Boxing National Championships, alongside troops at Fort Carson, Colorado Springs, Colo., stepping in the ring with some of the fiercest competitors around.

Broner, who will be featured on this Saturday’s broadcast of HBO’s “Boxing After Dark,” will defend his title against fellow boxer Eloy Perez.  HBO will feature footage from last year’s USO tour to the Middle East as part of the broadcast. Tune in to HBO this Saturday, February 25th at 10 PM (EST) to learn more about Broner’s USO tour experience or watch the video on HBO.com. It’s a match I won’t want to miss! - Sharee Posey, USO Communications Specialist

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The USO <3s Paul Wall

Paul Wall performs during his 2009 USO Tour at the Boardwalk at Kandahar Air Base, Afghanistan.

When asked to think of USO entertainers, many people imagine Bob Hope or, more recently, country music superstars such as Toby Keith. Grammy-nominated rapper Paul Wall may be less expected, but, having recently come back from his 5th USO tour to the Middle East, is definitely one of the biggest supporters of the USO and our nation’s troops!

How did you get started touring with the USO?

There was a guy in Texas, his name is Mattress Mack and he owns a huge furniture store in Houston and he did a lot of events and stuff for the USO and he suggested I go out on a tour. And then my good friend Jamie Kennedy and I went out on a USO variety type show. He did stand-up and I performed for troops. It was a great experience and I really appreciated the opportunity to perform for troops.

What was your most memorable experience over the years?

The thing that sticks out the most is one time in Afghanistan, there was so much activity in the air terminals and we ended up getting stuck there. Our USO tour manager stayed up all night trying to arrange a way for us to get out, if he hadn’t done that we may have been stuck there for more than just a day. The whole time I was thinking about my family and getting home to them and I knew that this was nothing compared to what the troops must feel. I was only away from my family for a week but these guys are gone for months and a year at a time, I could only imagine how long an extra day might feel to them, if they were trying to get home and something like this happened. It just made me appreciate them even more for all of their hard work and sacrifice.

Hip-hop artist Paul Wall brings members from the 380th Expeditionary Wing on stage during his USO concert on Jan. 18.

How have things changed since your first USO tour?

With the drawdown in Iraq this time I had the chance to visit different areas of the Middle East. We Went to Kuwait, Djibouti and an undisclosed location in the Middle East. I almost experienced kind of a role reversal in Djibouti because many of the troops there had never been to Iraq or Afghanistan and they were asking me questions about what it was like over there. It really just made me realize how versatile our troops are and even though they may not be serving in theater they are still sacrificing time with their family, friends and loved ones and that they care about their fellow troops who are on the frontlines.

If you could say one thing to the men and women serving this country what would it be?

Thank you and I’ll see you when you get back or on my next USO tour!

Wall, whose latest album “Politics as Usual” was released last year, says, “My family is the most important thing to me and being apart from them, for any amount of time, is always hard. I can’t imagine how it must be for our troops. Most of them haven’t seen their family in months, that’s why I make it a point to go on tour with the USO whenever I can. Our troops need to know that we appreciate them.”

See images from his recent tour full of meeting the troops and five performances at USO.org.

Our Troops Say Thanks

Thank you so much. As 2011 drew to a close, you stepped up along with thousands of others just like you to support our troops. Your generous donations and support allowed the USO to bring a touch of home to troops stationed around the world.

Because of the generosity of supporters like you, we were able to lift spirits at the more than 57 forward operating bases and combat outposts near Kandahar where our brave men and women are working hard to protect our freedom. But instead of hearing all the good you provided from me, I wanted to share this special message of thanks direct from the front lines in Afghanistan.

Please take a minute to see the faces and hear the words of the brave men and women whose spirits you lifted.

Many of our troops returned from Iraq in 2011, and we are honored by their service. Our commitment to them and their families is ongoing. So is our dedication to the thousands of troops stationed around the world, making incredible sacrifices to protect our freedom.

We couldn’t do all that we are able to do for our troops were it not for you. Thank you for everything you do to support our service men and women and to remind them that they are always at home in our hearts. – Sloan Gibson, USO CEO & President

USO President Visits Afghanistan

In December, USO President Sloan Gibson and SVP of Operations Alan Reyes visited the Middle East, including a NATO hospital and Southwest Asian USO Centers such as recently recognized USO Kandahar! Check out some of the great pictures here and read more about the Christmas Convoy at USO.org!

USO Kandahar Recognized for Quick Thinking

It’s pouring rain.

There seems to be no end in sight to this storm, and you’ve got tons of electronics and furniture inside what amounts to little more than a field tent in the middle of Afghanistan.

The water starts creeping in. Everything could be ruined. What do you do?

The waters rose and rose and rose.

“Jesse Boyles and Jillian Ferron were on shift as the water came into the center,” said USO Kandahar center manager Richard McCarty, in an email response to USO President Sloan Gibson, explaining what happened after a recent storm flooded the Center.

“They took quick and important steps to ensure the safety of the customers in regards to electricity and the protection of the center’s valuable furniture and electronics by cutting breakers as needed to provide safety,” he added. “But also minimizing the inconvenience to the people stuck inside still watching TV’s and on phones.”

"We quickly moved as much as we could to the highest point in the tent, pushing most of the furniture to the middle of the tent. "

Boyles and Ferron, along with the rest of the staff and volunteers of USO Kandahar, were recently presented the President’s Award for performance above and beyond the call of duty when they experienced the unfortunate reality of operating in a field environment – in a third-world country – in a combat zone.

The President’s Award is presented to individuals whose contributions have had a significant impact on their department and the organization. Ferron’s contribution alone, by quickly rounding up a work detail to get 30 cloth La-z-Boy chairs in the theater stacked on the high end of the room, saved the USO more than $4,500.

According to Gary Bibeau, regional vice president, the entire floor of the Kandahar USO center was underwater for a period of time. The flood ran through the entire center, depositing mud on the both the floor and on the furniture.

“By the time I got there, the staff and volunteers had taken the furniture and electronics out and put it all in storage, limiting any damage,” wrote Bibeau in follow-up documentation.

The it was time to clean up!

The clean-up effort that began the following morning would take two-and-a-half days to complete, but employees Penn Walker, Blair Ciccocioppo and Randy Montesi all joined Boyles and Ferron first thing in the morning to start the arduous work of removing 8,000 square feet of ruined flooring and carpet and sweeping out the excess water and mud.

Unfortunately it wasn’t just water the team was stuck cleaning up. Several of the outdoor port-o-johns were also tipped over, adding some sewage to the soaking mess. Because of concerns about mold and toxic material in the water, Bibeau had the local Navy medical unit come in to do a health inspection after the site was cleaned up, and it has since been cleared for safe occupancy once again.

“I would like to make special recognition of Erin Mintmier, who was at the center during the flooding and took the leadership of the clean up and volunteer coordination,” said McCarty. “We faced a tremendous amount of work and … the first difficult steps were to organize … how we can direct the volunteers to help,” he added. “It was in this aspect that Erin really shined as a leader.”

Through their teamwork and excellent leadership, USO Kandahar weathered the storm, and for that, we as an organization now stand that much stronger beside them. Congratulations on your recent recognition and keep up the great work! – Joseph Andrew Lee, USO Staff Writer