Yandel and Leslie Grace Celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month with USO Concert at Fort Bliss

Yandel, left, and Leslie Grace played a USO show for troops and families on Sept. 26 at Fort Bliss, Texas. USO photos by Dave Gatley

Yandel, left, and Leslie Grace played a USO on Sept. 25 at Fort Bliss, Texas. USO photos by Dave Gatley

In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, Sony Music Latin Artists Yandel and Leslie Grace teamed with the USO over the weekend to play a free concert for more than 1,700 service members and their families at Fort Bliss, Texas. It was the first USO show for both 2015 Latin Grammy nominees.

“If we can make as many troops feel at home through music, in this case, Latin-american troops through Latin music … I don’t think there’s any reason why we shouldn’t,” Grace said.

Grace, also known as the “Princess of Bachata,” performed a 30-minute set followed by a high-energy arrangement by Yandel, complete with professional dancers, multi-color lights and snippets from his HBO special “Yandel: Legacy, De Líder a Leyenda Tour.”

“Thank you to all the soldiers who support me that are here at this event … I hope that they enjoy [my performance],” Yandel said from the stage.

In addition to performing, Yandel and Grace spent the afternoon at Fort Bliss meeting, thanking and taking photos with military families. Grace even took a tour of the base and visited service members at the USO El Paso’s East Fort Bliss center.

“It’s very close to home to be able to bring that sort of comfort that I know music can bring and that you guys at [the] USO focus so much on bringing to these troops,” Grace said.

Prior to performing in their first USO show, both Yandel and Grace appeared in the USO’s first bilingual PSA in support of the Every Moment Counts campaign titled “¡Gracias!” Sony Music Latin stars Arthur Hanlon, Carlos Vives, Diego Boneta, Luis Coronel, J Rythm and others also appeared in the PSA.

“I have a few friends … who serve. And I am very close to these people,” Grace said. “So, it was something that I thought was a great opportunity just to say thank you to all our troops and take that moment and let them know that they’re appreciated.”

Oname Thompson, Hee Suk Ko and Mari Villalobos contributed to this story.

Keeping Them Cool: USO Centers In Southwest Asia Host Water Events

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It started as a way to beat the heat. But like any other group of trained professionals, it got competitive fast.

While summertime temperatures in Southwest Asia can soar above 110 degrees, USO center-hosted water-centered events incentivize troops to get outside on even the most broiling days.

“Many times you see troops utilizing some of their combat training [when they play water games],” USO Camp Arifjan Center Manager Shea Carson wrote in an email. “Except this time, they have smiles on their faces.”

While USO centers in Southwest Asia provide a number of indoor activities, too, the outdoor water contests have become a creative way to help troops blow off steam.

“Water balloon fights, tosses and races give the troops the ability to cool down in a way that isn’t going to get them in too much trouble,” USO Bagram Duty Manager Kelly Audet wrote in an email. “Who doesn’t enjoy the anticipation of being able to bean the heck out of someone with a water balloon?”

In addition to simple, impromptu water games, some Southwest Asia USO centers have created special evening-long water events for troops to enjoy. USO Camp Buehring, Kuwait, hosts a Water Wars event every year that features several games and an appearance by the base fire department.

“Out Water Wars event is as unique as all the events we host at Buehring,” USO Camp Buehring Center Manager Tiffany Banks wrote in an email. “It is not common to see a large fire truck (sirens on) engaging in a water fight with soldiers! It is a sight to see!”

8 Ways the USO Connects Troops To Home

A service member uses the internet at the USO.

From the moment they step into boot camp to the time when they transition to civilian life, troops rely on the USO to help them stay connected to their to friends and family. Here’s eight of the ways the USO does it.

1. Getting troops online: Free Internet access is one of the most popular services at USO centers today. While some USO centers offer computers for troops to use, nearly all of them offer free WiFi for people who bring their own devices. Even our Mobile USO units, like the ones we sent to Brooklyn to comfort troops cleaning up after Superstorm Sandy, are WiFi-enabled so troops serving in remote locations can get online.

2. Skyping into the delivery room: Did you know that the USO helps expecting military dads Skype into the delivery room for their baby’s birth, even if they’re abroad? Marine Capt. Nick Whitefield experienced this USO service first-hand when he watched his wife Laura deliver the couples’ second child, Ethan Whitefield, via a USO-provided Skype connection at Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan.

“The fact that I could be there, electronically, over Skype was huge,” Nick said. “It was great. It was a phenomenal experience.”

A troop makes a call from the USO in Bagram, Afghanistan. USO photo by Dave Gatley

3. Free phone calls home: In 2003, the USO launched Operation Phone Home to provide troops with free phone cards so they can call their loved ones at no cost — even when they’re in remote locations. Some USO centers abroad also offer troops access to a private phone network so they can call home on a safe, secure and reliable line inside the center.

One of these free phone calls even helped a new dad hear his baby girl’s first cries in 2006.

“The USO made that call possible for me,” said former Marine Alexander Carpenter. “And to this day I have never said thank you. … Thank you USO.”

4. Keeping story time alive: Thanks to the USO partnership with United Through Reading, deployed troops can record themselves reading a storybook at a USO center and send the DVD recording back home for their children to watch and digitally connect with them in their absence.

Navy Lt. Matthew Stroup records himself reading a book to his children during a United Through Reading event in Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of Matthew Stroup

Navy Lt. Matthew Stroup records himself reading a book to his children. Photo courtesy of Matthew Stroup

While preparing for a deployment form Japan to the Middle East in 2012, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Victor Glover told his squad about the United Through Reading program and received an overwhelming number of requests to participate. He even recorded stories for his own children.

“It was important. They really got a kick out of being able to see me,” Glover said. “At the end of the recordings, I said a message to them. I used each of their names and I said something to the effect of ‘I love you, be good, be supportive to your mom and goodnight’ because I imagined they’d do the books right before bedtime.”

5. Giving the gift of gaming: Video games are one of our younger service members’ favorite ways to unwind. That’s why most USO centers have gaming stations featuring popular video games like “Call of Duty” and “Halo.” At some centers, service members can even play the games against friends and family around the globe online in real time.

But troops aren’t always stationed near brick-and-mortar USO centers. With that in mind, the USO developed the Mobile Entertainment Gaming System (MEGS) so service members can enjoy video games no matter their location.

6. Serving up comfort foods from home: Sometimes, all it takes to make service members feel connected to home is taste of their favorite foods. That’s why USO patrons can always find a variety of snack, drink and meal options at centers around the world. Some centers, like USO Great Lakes, provide a free, home-cooked meals for troops, while others, like many Southwest Asia centers, always seem to be churning out comforting sweet treats, like homemade ice cream.

A Halloween/Thanksgiving USO Holiday Box from 2011.

A Halloween/Thanksgiving USO Holiday Box from 2011.

7. Bringing the holidays to troops abroad: Being deployed during a special holiday can make troops feel even further from home. That’s why many USO centers host a number special parties and events around those red calendar days.

Troops in remote areas far from a USO center can even get in on the fun, too, thanks to the USO Holiday Boxes program. These special seasonal boxes, filled with games, decorations and other festive supplies are designed to help service members celebrate the year’s special days in any location. There are four seasonal boxes units can request throughout the year, including a Halloween/Thanksgiving box that helped a handful of service members have a spooky Halloween back in 2011.

8. Welcoming troops home: Even though a homecoming is already a joyful occasion for military families, the USO has a history of stepping in to make the day even more memorable. From helping arriving troops freshen up before reuniting with their loved ones to coordinating surprise homecomings like this, this, and this, the USO there to celebrate military families finally reconnecting after a long deployment apart.

Worldwide USO Teamwork Helps Bring Marine Home for Grandfather’s Funeral

A old photo of J.D. Scott during his military service. Photo courtesy Bryant Scott

A old photo of J.D. Scott during his military service. Photo courtesy Marine Lance Cpl. Bryant Scott

Bryant Scott knew he was in for a long trip, a lot of waiting and some personal grief.

But he didn’t expect the two people holding the sign.

The Marine lance corporal was stationed on Okinawa, Japan, in April when his grandfather — Korean War veteran J.D. Scott — suffered a stroke and unexpectedly passed away.

Bryant put in a request for emergency leave so he could travel to Granbury, Texas, to attend the funeral. Once his command approved the request, Bryant waited three days at Kadena Air Base before securing a seat on a military flight to Travis Air Force Base, California.

“I had no real logistical plan besides return stateside and improvise as much as possible,” Bryant wrote in an email.

During a layover in Hawaii, Bryant called a cab company and arranged for it pick him up at Travis and drive him to the Sacramento International Airport — the closest commercial airport to the base — where he’d try to find a flight home. That’s when the USO stepped in.

Lance Cpl. Bryant Scott. Photo courtesy Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Bryant Scott

Lance Cpl. Bryant Scott. Photo courtesy Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Bryant Scott

While Bryant was flying over the ocean, his family readiness officer told the USO Pacific office about the situation. USO staff there reached out to the USO Regional Office back in the United States to see if anyone at USO Bay Area could drive Bryant to Sacramento so he wouldn’t have to pay for a long, expensive cab ride late at night. Chris and Mary Ann Mezzapelle, who were volunteering at USO Travis at the time, heard about the Marine’s situation and offered to pick him up and drive him wherever he needed to go.

Bryant landed at Travis around 10:30 p.m. and — much to his surprise — saw the Mezzapelles, who were waiting for him with a “Lance Cpl. Bryant Scott” sign and a USO gift basket.

“I was still somewhat shocked,” Bryant wrote. “I think I asked for their identification to make sure they were legitimate [USO volunteers], or something along those lines.”

After a series of explanations, introductions and assuring Bryant that he wouldn’t have to pay for any cab rides that night, the Mezzapelles helped the Marine book a more convenient flight home out of San Francisco International Airport for the next morning and drove him to that airport. At some point during the drive, the Mezzapelles stopped at Denny’s and treat Bryant to a meal.

“They didn’t ask for anything in return, no matter the amount of times I offered to pay them for gas, food and their time,” Bryant wrote. “I still am just so overwhelmed by their kindness.”

The Mezzapelles pose in front of the USO logo. Photo courtesy Chris Mezzapelle

The Mezzapelles pose in front of the USO logo. Photo courtesy Chris Mezzapelle

Once they arrived at San Francisco International, where the Mezzapelles also volunteer, Mary Ann escorted Bryant to the 24-hour USO center so he could get some rest before his early flight the next morning.

“It sounds kind of selfish, but it makes us feel great,” Chris said. “We really enjoy doing [volunteer work at the USO]. I used the USO when I was in the service back in the early seventies.”

The next morning, rested and refueled with USO refreshments, Bryant took off for Texas, making it home in time to pay his respects to his grandfather.


“After all the horrible events that had happened to my family, along with the animosity and adversity I encountered while trying to make it home, I was overcome with heartfelt joy and gratitude,” Bryant wrote. “I didn’t know what to say to show my appreciation, hopefully my face and constant ‘thank you’s (which probably became annoying after a while) was enough to show how truly appreciative I am/was.”

Bryant even wrote a poem in honor of the Mezzapelles:

A miracle does not always have to be a mighty act of God
Or some great deed
Or overcoming the impossible
Or walking barefoot on the sea
Miracles come unexpectedly
As an answer to a prayer
To how an act of love
And that someone truly cares
It can be lending a hand to a neighbor
It can be helping a friend in need
It can be doing someone a favor
Without asking for anything
With any act of kindness
Mighty, great, or small
Miracles can happen all the time
When you reach out and lift other from despair
I know because there was a time when I was in need
and you were the ones who were truly there

Caregivers of Wounded, Ill and Injured Troops Get Lessons in Resiliency at USO Seminar

Brooks, left, chats with another caregiver attendee.

Angela Brooks, left, chats with another caregiver attendee.

FORT LEONARD WOOD, Missouri—Angela Brooks can’t remember the last time she put herself first.

Between working, taking care of her children and caring for her disabled Air Force veteran husband of 20 years —who struggles with PTSD — there’s little time left at to address her personal needs.

“I literally have the world on my shoulders,” Brooks said. “[Caregivers like me] do a lot and it’s not so much physical anguish, it’s mental anguish, and that’s hard, hard.”

So when Brooks heard Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, was hosting a USO Caregivers Seminar — a day of interactive programming designed to address the immediate needs of those who care for wounded, ill and injured service members — she knew she had to attend.

Brooks, second from the right, plays a icebreaker game between sessions

Brooks, second from the right, plays a icebreaker game between sessions.

“I came because I wanted it to be about me [and my needs for a change],” Brooks said.

After participating in the two morning sessions, which featured gameon Nation Vice President Blair Bloomston and Stronger Families Executive Director Noel Meador, respectively, Brooks — who’d never attended any type of caregiver-centric programming before — was already glad she came.

“I felt very isolated up until today,” Brooks said. “[But today at the USO Caregivers Seminar] I feel comfortable. I feel safe and I feel like I’m not going to be judged.”

Brooks, far right, takes a selfie as part of an icebreaker activity.

Brooks, far right, takes a selfie as part of an icebreaker activity.

Brooks even felt comfortable enough to share details about her daily challenges with the entire room during a communications skill development activity. Brooks admits she relished in the rare opportunity to talk about the sometimes-difficult task of being a caretaker with other people who are experiencing similar situations.

“I just want to learn more and be open and this environment is very opening and freeing,” Brooks said. “What I was talking about earlier, [my personal story], there was no way I would have said that in certain [other] settings.”

“I just really really appreciate people thinking of us,” Brooks said.

Bloomston, second from left, plays a game with a caregiver

Bloomston, second from left, plays a game with a caregiver.

According to Bloomston, even the simplest, quietest games can have a profound and lasting impact.

Take the game of Coins for example. To play, Bloomston asked attendees to think of a list of things that made them smile, shine and feel valuable. There was one catch: none of the participants’ ideas — which are called Coins in this game — can include things that were related to their role as a caregiver. For example, a standard list of acceptable Coins might include favorite foods, favorite places or simply the role of being a sibling, friend or family member.

Attendees play the game of 'Zip Zap Za' at the game on Nation session.

Attendees play the game of ‘Zip Zap Za’ at the game on Nation session.

Once attendees had their list, Bloomston asked them to pause and focus on their Coins for a moment. Many caregivers in the room started to smile. Then, after the time was up, Bloomston asked participants write down or remember their Coins so they could always carry them, metaphorically, in their pocket for empowerment the next time they face a difficulty as a caregiver.

Although it might not seem like much, Bloomston says the game, along with other gameon Nation games, can lead to huge improvements in how caregivers approach their challenges.

“You can tell somebody a statement like ‘Be confident’ or, you can put them through and experience and feel what it’s like to be confident and the spirit of play and the science of game dynamics makes that moving experience happen in a very quick way,” Bloomston said. “Caregivers can use these skills … to do their job with excellence and stay revitalized and give oxygen back to themselves.”

In fact, Bloomston’s already seen the positive impact on previous USO Caregivers Seminar attendees who have participated in gameon Nation sessions.

“The best part of the feedback is when I return to a base or when I return to a post years later and people come up to me and say ‘I still have my coins in my pocket,'” Bloomston said.

Safe From the Madness: USO of Illinois Gives Stranded Military Spouse a Place To Stay During Crazy Weekend

Siobhan Brennan-Sharer and her husband,

Siobhan Brennan-Sharer and her husband, Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Joshua Sharer. Photo courtesy Siobhan Brennan-Sharer

When Siobhan Brennan-Sharer visited her husband in Chicago for Valentine’s Day weekend this year, nothing seemed to go as planned.

From the delay of her initial flight to Chicago from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, to getting tangled in a 40-car pileup in freezing weather, Brennan-Sharer’s reunion with her husband — who she hadn’t seen in a month and half — was anything but magical.

“It was an all-around crummy weekend,” Brennan-Sharer wrote in an email. “Not how I wanted to spend the weekend with my husband.”

Improbably, things got even worse.

At the end of the weekend, Brennan-Sharer said her goodbyes and headed back to Chicago O’Hare International Airport for her flight home. When she arrived, Brennan-Sharer discovered her flight was cancelled and she wouldn’t be able to fly out until the next day.

Her husband, Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Joshua Sharer, was on duty and couldn’t come pick her up. She called her mother, a retired Marine, for advice on what to do next. Her mom said to find the USO.

Brennan-Sharer headed to the USO of Illinois O’Hare Center, where she was greeted by volunteers who told her she could spend the night at the 24-hour center while waiting her flight. One volunteer even spent time chatting with Brennan-Sharer when she noticed she was crying.

“After all that had happened that weekend, it was awesome to walk in, see friendly faces that helped me and made me feel safe,” Brennan-Sharer wrote.


“I was there for about 18 hours all together,” she wrote, “and it was great to be somewhere away from home and feel safe and not having to worry about how much extra this canceled flight was going to cost me.”

During her stay, Brennan-Sharer met a number of USO volunteers, including police officer Tim Walsh and his 7-year-old son, Rylan Walsh, who had skipped his Boy Scout pizza party to volunteer with his dad.

Brennan-Sharer — whose father is also a police officer — was particularly touched by the father-son duo, and gave Tim Walsh a challenge coin from her father’s sheriff’s department.

“[I] said he could keep it or give it to his little boy,” she wrote. “He [also] wanted to send me a patch and a challenge coin as [well], so I gave him my information and he just sent [the items] to me a few weeks ago.”

Even though her weekend didn’t go exactly as she had hoped — the airline even lost her luggage on her flight home — Brennan-Sharer still thinks fondly about her time at the USO of Illinois O’Hare Center.

“It was definitely a great place to just catch my breath from the crazy weekend,” she wrote.