USO Tour Veteran Kellie Pickler Shares Why She’s Excited to Perform at the 2014 Gala

Seven-time USO tour veteran and recording artist Kellie Pickler took a break from her pre-Gala preparations to share why she is excited to perform at the 2014 USO Gala tonight.

“I’m honored to be here tonight and be a part of honoring our service men and women. It’s going to be a great night,” Pickler said.

The award-winning country music artist, who first gained fame as an “American Idol” contestant, has entertained more than 33,000 troops and military families while touring with the USO.

USO Gala Mistress of Ceremonies Aisha Tyler Shares Why She’s Excited for Tonight’s Gala

Aisha Tyler, the 2014 USO Gala Mistress of Ceremonies, took a break from her pre-Gala preparations to share why she’s excited to host this year’s event.

“Tonight’s all about the troops. So for me, it’s just about honoring not just the men and women that have personally scarified for our country, but also acknowledging the fact that their families have made incredible sacrifices,” Tyler said.

This is the first time the actress, comedian author and podcaster, known for hosting CBS ‘Emmy winning show The Talk and CW’s Who’s Line Is It Anyway, has worked with the USO.

Texans’ J.J. Watt Helps Military Families Score The Ultimate Game Day Experience Through the USO

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Attending a Texans game isn’t cheap. From paying for tickets and parking, to making sure the whole family has enough to eat and drink, a trip to watch the Texans play costs the typical family hundreds of dollars. It’s a bill many Houston-area military families can’t foot.

That’s where Texans defensive end J.J. Watt, the Texans All Community Team (TACT) program and USO Houston come in.

Thanks to the TACT program, military families that might not have extra cash for Texans tickets have the opportunity to enjoy a game for free.

Texans players can purchase tickets for a charity of their choice via the TACT program. For the past three years, Watt, whose grandfather served in the Korean War, has chosen USO Houston as his TACT charity, helping to create memorable moments for over 100 military families.

TACT participants from USO Houston watch the Texans run through the tunnel onto the field. USO photo

TACT participants from USO Houston watch the Texans run through the tunnel onto the field. USO photo

“It’s a simple thing for me, but I realize it can have an impact,” Watt said. “It’s a way to reach out and help these people and do something nice for them while we’re in season.

“It’s all because of how appreciative I am for what they’ve done for us and what they continue to do and the sacrifices that they make.”

Troops and their families who win TACT program tickets through a USO Houston raffle enjoy an all-inclusive Texans experience, from receiving commemorative Watt TACT T-shirts to getting to watch the players run through the tunnel onto the field.

“Plus, they get a parking pass and they get a hot dog and Coke,” said USO Houston Programs Manager Anna Rzendzian.

Military families that win the USO Houston raffle are also invited to attend a special pregame tailgate where they can create signs thanking Watt for the chance to watch a game at NRG Stadium. Watt says families will sometimes send him photographs of themselves from the game holding up the signs they made.

The view from the USO Houston pre game tailgate. USO photo

The view from the USO Houston pre game tailgate. USO photo

“Just to see those photos and to see moms and dads with their kids at the games is really special and some of the signs they make are really cool,” Watt said. “One of my favorite signs is ‘The Army sent daddy to Iraq, J.J. sent us to this game.’ So, that was pretty cool.”

Beyond the TACT program, the Texans also donate a variety of tickets to be distributed to Houston-area troops and their families through the USO.

According to Rzendzian, these extra tickets, which are donated by season ticket holders through the Texans’ Cheering Children program, can range from 700-level seats to exclusive private suites. However, as Rzendian notes, the most requested tickets by military families are still the TACT seats donated by Watt.

“It’s interesting to see how many people will forgo the club seats because they want tickets that were bought by J.J. Watt. And those tickets are actually in the nosebleed section,” she said. “But they don’t care. Because J.J. Watt bought them those tickets. It’s really hilarious.”

Watt, a 2012 USO tour veteran, hopes that giving military families — especially ones with children — the chance to attend a Texans game will brighten their day.

“Kids who have a parent overseas are going through something that is difficult, you know,” Watt said. “Your parents are overseas fighting for our country, so I feel like if we can put a smile on your face for a few hours on Sunday, I bring them to a game, I think that’s a pretty cool experience.”

Deployed Guardsman Witnesses Birth, Builds Relationship with Child, Thanks to USO

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

When his Marine father deployed during Desert Storm, 3-year-old Joseph Rainbolt had no idea he would one day nearly miss moments with his own child.

“He was in Saudi Arabia for nine months when I was only 3, so I can only imagine,” said Rainbolt, now a 26-year-old sergeant in the Louisiana National Guard who might have missed the birth of his first child had it not been for the USO.

Knowing his wife Brittany would be giving birth just five months into a year-long deployment, Rainbolt told the USO and his command of his situation when he arrived in Afghanistan. When she went into labor, the USO set him up with an Internet-connected computer and Skype.

“I was able to stay [at the USO] for hours and be with my wife and see my daughter,” he said.

April Rose, now 8 months old, didn’t just get to see her father the day she was born. Rainbolt also took advantage of the USO’s Tiny Tots program and the USO/United Through Reading Military Program for the seven months that followed, allowing him to keep a presence in his daughter’s life.

“The [Tiny Tots] gift bag was fabulous,” said Brittany Rainbolt, a 26-year old high-school English teacher. “It came with some really awesome stuff. There’s some soap in there, a USO bib, a onesie and some other general baby care products. We used all of it.”

In fact, little April-Rose has even worn the bib immediately before going on stage at a “Red White and Blue” beauty pageant, where she took first place.

“It’s her lucky USO bib,” Brittany Rainbolt said. “United Through Reading was also fabulous. We got so many books for April before she was born and after she was born and I think hearing his voice helped her to make a connection with him. When she saw him the first time she went straight to him. I was like, ‘go to Daddy’ and she held out her little arms for him. It was so cute.”

“Being away was really hard,” Rainbolt said. “As National Guard, I’m usually home. Being away is not my thing. But through the USO we definitely got to have a relationship together.

“I got to talk to her every day, not just every now and then,” he added. “We’ve come a long way since the ‘80s and ‘90s. The USO was great in helping us be able to keep communicating. Even though I wasn’t there, I still got to feel like I was involved in her life, and that meant everything to me.”

Operation C.H.A.M.P.S Founders Rev up for USO Tour to South Korea

Debbie and Jen Fink. Photo via operationchamps.org

Debbie and Jen Fink

Mother-daughter duo Debbie and Jen Fink, founders of Operation C.H.A.M.P.S and co-authors of “The Little C.H.A.M.P.S — Child Heroes Attached to Military Personnel,” are in South Korea on USO tour to talk with young children from American military families.

“There is just no greater honor, really … than to be partnering and working with the USO and to be taking this [programming] to these deserving un-sung heroes all over the world,” Debbie Fink said. “The USO gets it and the USO has the personnel to really take a vision and turn it into reality.”

From today through Sept. 23, the Finks and the USO, will greet about 2,400 military children at five installations throughout South Korea.

“I’m so honored to have the privilege to go on this tour and I can’t wait,” Jen Fink said.

Empowering Little C.H.A.M.P.S

During each 45-minute program, the elementary-aged kids will have the chance to participate in specially designed programming that blends math, English-language arts, sign-language, song and dance to directly address many of the unique challenges they face as military children.

LittleCHAMPSbook“What we aim to do is to provide support, comfort and gratitude to all elementary school C.H.A.M.P.S in [South] Korea that we have the privilege of spending time with,” Debbie Fink said. “It’s a pretty upbeat program carefully crafted such that it’s joyful — it’s a feel-good. They come in feeling great, they walk out feeling great with their heads up high in song.”

In addition to reading the “The Little C.H.A.M.P.S” book and singing the C.H.A.M.P.S song — the latter written by Jen Fink— kids will engage in interactive activities to learn how to cope with emotions, deal with changes and tackle any obstacles they might face as a byproduct of having a parent in the military. From identifying the plot and setting of “The Little C.H.A.M.P.S” to calculating the average number of family moves the group has made, each part of the program is specifically tailored to help military children understand what it means to be a C.H.A.M.P in a fun-yet-educational, way.

“Everything that we do is very intentional in terms of how it [relates] to the academics [and education requirements] of the school [system],” Debbie Fink said.

Each child will also receive a free copy of “The Little C.H.A.M.P.S.”

“Together the book and program really celebrates and validates our nation’s C.H.A.M.P.S,” Jen Fink said. “It celebrates the C.H.A.M.P.S’ family service to our nation, as well as celebrates and validates [their] emotions and coping mechanisms.”

Operation C.H.A.M.P.S: A Family Affair

While this is not the first Operation C.H.A.M.P.S tour, it will be the first time that both Finks, will be going on tour overseas together. Debbie Fink has gone on multiple USO tours overseas, including a visit to Europe in 2011 and Japan last year.

“To have a multi-generation experience … with Jen and to work together as a mother and a daughter team is very striking,” Debbie Fink said. “I know that when we hear [the children] singing the song that Jen wrote there will be a lot of tears shed behind the scenes because it’s an overwhelming, overwhelming experience to give children not only a voice, but to give them their song.”

To learn more about Operation C.H.A.M.P.S and their 2013 USO tour to Japan, check out the USO.org story here.

A Major League Experience: Chicago Cubs Pitcher Edwin Jackson Hosts Military Families at Wrigley Field

Cubs’ Edwin Jackson with military families from the USO of Illinois. Photo courtesy of the Chicago Cubs.

Chicago Cubs pitcher Edwin Jackson — second row above the USO banner — sits with military families from the USO of Illinois. Photo courtesy of the Chicago Cubs.

Edwin Jackson knows what it’s like to be the new kid on the block. From growing up in a military family to playing in the big leagues, the Chicago Cubs pitcher is used to packing up and moving with very short notice.

So, to help military kids who also face frequent changes and moves, Jackson and the USO of Illinois hosted several military families at Wrigley Field as part of Edwin’s Entourage earlier this August.

“Any time you have a chance to give back to the community, especially with kids that comprehend a lifestyle you were brought up in, it’s special,” Jackson said. “It’s not like their parents giving them advice. They’re looking at someone closer to their age, and someone they can relate to a little bit more.”

Cubs pitchers Edwin Jackson and Wesley Wright signed autographs and posed for photos with the USO group. Photo courtesy of the Chicago Cubs

Cubs pitchers Edwin Jackson and Wesley Wright signed autographs and posed for photos with the USO group. Photo courtesy of the Chicago Cubs

The military families watched the Cubs batting practice Aug. 11 and met with Jackson, 30, as he spoke about his appreciation for the military and the importance of pursuing dreams.

“The messages are pretty firm and to the point, but it’s delivered in a fun way, a way in which they can understand how important it is to focus on their dreams and not give up,” Jackson said. “Anytime I have a chance to bring those kids out here and let them know that I went through the same lifestyle — the moving, the traveling, the picking up and bouncing around from city to city and being the new guy — it’s just a little bit of encouragement [and] a little bit of motivation to remind them they can still do whatever they want to do.”

Jackson also held a Q&A session with the families, a trivia contest with prizes, signed autographs and took photos with the participants before the game.