Priceless Gift for a New Father

Army Spc. Corbin Wright watches the birth of his baby girl via Skype from the USO center at Camp Marmal, Afghanistan.

Though he’s only 23 years old, Army Specialist Corbin Wright has always wanted to be a father.

He never imagined he would miss the birth of his first child.

But while his fiancée was in the delivery room at a Texas Hospital this spring, Wright was thousands of miles away serving at Camp Marmal in northern Afghanistan.

It was a bitter disappointment for a new father who had tracked every moment of the pregnancy and talked about nothing else for months.

“I wanted to see everything!” he says.

Wright, a logistics specialist, believed he would make it home before his daughter arrived, but fate seemed to conspire against him.

“I was trying to be financially stable for my child so I [re-enlisted] for another four years,” he says.

That decision pushed back his departure date from Afghanistan. Meantime doctors at home recommended an emergency C-section, moving up the baby’s delivery date by several weeks.

Wright volunteers at the Marmal USO, and when center director Michael Eyassu heard what was happening, he sprang into action, arranging a Skype connection in a private room to allow father, mother and baby to spend their first moments together as a new family.

The whole setup took some planning—Skype is not an everyday convenience in a combat zone.

Most troops cannot access Skype on the secure computers at their work stations. They can purchase internet service from a commercial provider but it’s unreliable and expensive—upwards of $100 per month. Even if you pay for a connection, soldiers at Marmal live in group tents and have nowhere to go for a private conversation.

The USO offers free phone and internet to troops, but Eyassu says “Skype is blocked [at the Marmal center] because we don’t have enough bandwidth to support it. So when we have special events, we have to contact our internet service provider to unblock it.”

That extra effort was a priceless gift for Wright.  Just after his baby arrived by C-section on April 23rd, he watched as the doctor placed little Korlea Santrice in his fiancée’s arms.

“Whew! That’s my baby!” he thought.

“Skyping meant everything to me, because it felt like I was in the room right there with her.”

Korlea weighed just over five pounds and everyone thinks she looks just like her daddy.

Wright is grateful for those precious moments—watching his newborn take her first breaths, hearing her first cries and seeing for himself that she was safe and healthy. But he longs for so much more.

“To give her a big kiss, hold her. I want to feed her,” he says. “She loves when she’s getting fed, and I could talk to her while I’m feeding her. And she could recognize me, hopefully recognize my voice and my touch and my smell.”

One bright spot for Wright is that he’s scheduled to be home in time to celebrate Father’s Day with his baby girl. Many other deployed fathers have to wait months before they can see and hold their babies.

“There’s a lot of people like that in my unit, that weren’t able to get home for the birth of their child,” says Wright, “Because they’re out here serving our country.”  - Malini Wilkes, USO Director of Story Development

The USO arranges Skype connections at bases around the world to bring deployed fathers into the delivery room. This Father’s Day, give the gift of a Skype connection to a military dad, or choose another gift for your own father from the USO Father’s Day Wishbook

Activision Sends Battleship Gaming Goodness

A video game based on a movie loosely based on a board game… sounds complicated! But to troops stationed at the US Naval Forces Central Command Headquarters in Afghanistan it was simple: a little bit of time to relax and have some fun!

The men and women from the US Naval Forces Central Command Headquarters Afghanistan played the Battleship game on the side of a rocket attack bunker.

Activision Publishing, Inc. donated copies of the new Battleship video game to fourteen USO Centers, USO2GOs and MEGS in Southwest Asia. The game combines first person action and naval strategy for hours of fun and a little touch of home for our troops.

“It was a breath of fresh air in a combat zone to see the USO take the time out of their busy schedules to come and set this up for us.  The game was a blast, graphics were awesome, and it provided a nice change of pace…  The USO has certainly outdone themselves with the care they have shown towards the troops.” said YN2(SCW) Matthew Nolan.

Time to kick some alien butt!

Thanks Activision for helping the USO deliver a little gaming goodness to our troops overseas! – Vyque Elessar, USO Director of New Media

The USO Family

Air Force Major Phil Ambard and his wife, Linda. Courtesy photo.

Air Force Major Phil Ambard was a family man.

“From the time he was a young Airman Basic through his commission as an officer 16 years later, he has been warmly greeted and taken care of at each USO,” said his wife of 23 years, Linda Ambard. “When we flew to Germany for the first time, we had five children under the age of ten, but we were made to feel like the USO was ours—that we were family.”

“This USO family has never meant more to me than when my Phil was killed in action on 27 April 2011.”

Her Phil was among eight Air Force officers shot and killed at Kabul International Airport by a 50-year-old Afghan Air Corps pilot.

Linda was left devastated and in a fog.

Their five children, including three Air Force Academy graduates and one who was attending West Point, flew to Dover Air Force Base from all around the world to meet their mother and repatriate the remains of their father.

The pain was so fresh; Linda couldn’t coordinate any of her own travel. She had trouble remembering the gates and felt dizzy navigating the crowds.

“At every single airport where there was a USO, we were each met by USO staff who walked us to our gate, brought us drinks, and who stayed with us the entire time,” she said. “They didn’t know us, yet they stood with each and every one of us.”

In Texas, while buying a magazine, she learned that all of her bank accounts had been frozen due to Phil’s death. The USO representative was quick to offer her some money, pay for her purchase and even spoke to the bank on her behalf.

“When we arrived at Dover, the USO came out with many volunteers,” said Linda. “Once again they had representatives for each of us. They allowed us to talk, make jokes—our family’s way of dealing with the stress—and they sat with me as I broke down yet again.”

Afterward, the family returned to Colorado Springs for the funeral.

“The USO ensured we were all seated together and near the front of the airplane,” she said. “This was no easy feat to get seven of us together, yet they did it for us.”

Eight months later, Linda knew that she couldn’t celebrate Christmas at home, so the family flew to Hawaii.  On the return trip, she and her cadet son spent 10 hours in the USO where their story eventually got out.

“The USO staff once again bent over backwards to make sure that we knew that people were walking with us and that we were still important to the USO family,” said Linda, “and I just want you to know that the USO was important to him and since his passing, the USO has meant so much to the Ambard and Short families.”

“He started as an immigrant boy,” she said, “but died as a man willing to stand up for the freedoms of all. He truly was an American hero.” — By Joseph Andrew Lee, USO Staff Writer

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Phil Ambard, 44, was born in Caracas, Venezuela. He didn’t speak a word of English when he moved to the United States at the age of 12. After graduating from high school, he enlisted in the United States Air Force as an Airman Basic. He rose to the rank of Senior Master Sergeant (select) before he was commissioned as an officer and then rose to the rank of Major before he made the ultimate sacrifice for his country.  He had recently graduated from Denver University with a Ph.D and his second master’s degree.

He is survived by his children Patrick, Emily, Alex, Tim and Josh, his daughter-in-law Karla and his wife Linda.

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.