‘He Came to Us’: USO Staffer in Germany Takes Action to Save the Life of Despondent Soldier

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How do you know if someone’s contemplating suicide?

For Shannon Huffman, it’s instinct. Huffman, a USO employee in Landstuhl, Germany, received extensive suicide prevention education during her 20 years in the Air Force. Late last year, that training may have saved someone’s life.

One evening, Huffman was at Landstuhl’s USO Warrior Center in Germany teaching a volunteer how to make chili. A service member approached her, looking distressed, and asked if she would help mail some belongings for him. Even though Huffman could sense something was wrong, it wasn’t until the he gave her his mother’s mailing address that she realized he was in a fragile, possibly suicidal, state and needed immediate help.

Huffman, an information specialist at the center, asked a volunteer to watch the service member while she alerted the hospital’s medical staff. Within minutes, Huffman subtly asked the service member to step outside the center and speak with medical personnel, who later escorted him to the hospital for treatment.

“She didn’t just help an individual – she helped all of his family and friends who may have had to suffer an irreplaceable loss,” said Laura Ponzo, the USO Warrior Center Manager and Huffman’s supervisor.

“The reason our center exists is to provide a home away from home for the wounded, ill and injured service members and give them someplace where they can feel comfortable and relax. That service member probably wouldn’t have felt comfortable going up to someone in uniform and asking for help, so he came to us.”

Because of her actions, Huffman was honored with the USO President’s Award, which recognizes USO employees for outstanding contributions to or on behalf of the organization.

“To be in a position where I get to help our veterans in need on a daily basis makes going to work a passion, not just a job,” Huffman said. “I was on the [receiving] end of the USO for 20 years and am honored to be able to return the kindness.”

Huffman says it’s the simple actions — like listening to someone vent or giving them a hug — that most benefit recovering troops who visit the USO Warrior Center.

“Often when a person comes in our center they are shook up and distraught,” she said. “Helping them make a cup of coffee and dial the phone back home to let family know they are OK is the most important thing in the world to them at that moment.

“It feels good to make that kind of difference for somebody, but that’s what we do right? Make every moment count.”

Celebrate Valentine’s Day With These Five Huggable USO Moments

In the spirit of Valentine’s Day and making memories for military families, here’s a look at five of the most huggable USO moments from the past year.

1. Americans Around the World Send USO Love Notes to Troops

In the past two years during the weeks leading up to Valentine’s Day, the USO has asked people at home and overseas to send love notes to troops and their families. People all around the globe embraced the challenge and sent in 3,713 notes of love and affection to troops between January and March of last year.

2. USO and NASCAR Help a Soldier Surprise His Family on Father’s Day

Sgt. Sean Brady, center, is reunited with wife Lauren, right, son Sean and daughter Sarah prior to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan International Speedway.  (Photos by Sean Gardner/NASCAR via Getty Images)

Sgt. Sean Brady, center, is reunited with wife Lauren, right, son Sean and daughter Sarah prior to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan International Speedway. Photo by Sean Gardner/NASCAR via Getty Images

Not even a made-for-TV movie writer could dream up a military homecoming this special.

Last June, the USO and NASCAR teamed up to pull off the ultimate homecoming for Sgt. Sean Brady and his family, reuniting them on the pit road on Father’s Day before the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan International Speedway.

But that’s not all.

In the spirit of making moments count, the USO turned the tables on Brady and gave him a Father’s Day surprise, too. Check out the video to see what happened:

 

 

3. A Happy Ending: USO Steps in to Make a Wedding Happen for a Young Military Couple

The unpredictable military lifestyle can making planning big life moments, like weddings, a little difficult.

This was the case for Pvt. Chase Howard and his then-fiancee, Brittany, who had been trying to find a date to tie the knot for months. So when a Chase received a four-day pass over Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend last year, the couple finally had the perfect opportunity to say ‘I do.’

The only problems were that the couple only had a week to plan the ceremony and had no nearby family to help make the arrangements. That’s when Howard called his mother, who got in touch with the USO.

With some quick planning and a few good Skype connections — one with Chase’s father in Afghanistan and another with Brittany’s parents at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington — the Howards had a day to remember at the USO Warrior and Family Center in Fort Belvoir, Virginia.

4. USO Sets Up Surprise Homecoming for a Soldier’s Family on “The Meredith Vieira Show”

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Every service member deserves a special homecoming.

But for Lt. Beau McNeff and his wife Ceci, who had missed their last two wedding anniversaries due to deployments and work-ups, something a bit more extravagant seemed to be in order.

The USO, which benefitted from more than 250 hours of McNeff’s volunteer service while he was stationed at Forward Operating Base Fenty in Afghanistan, selected the McNeff family for a surprise reunion on “The Meredith Vieira Show” and also arranged three days of fun for the family in Manhattan. Read more about the homecoming here.

5. A Perfect Proposal: USO San Antonio Helps an Army Private Pop the Question (Again)

Volunteers hold up signs during the surprise proposal at USO San Antonio. USO photo

Volunteers hold up signs during the surprise proposal at USO San Antonio. USO photo

When most girls dream about their perfect proposal, they imagine their future husband down on one knee — not a long-distance call from a boyfriend hundreds of miles away.

Unfortunately for Pvt. Zoe Tunchez and Pvt. Emmanuel Aleman, who were stationed at different Army bases, a happy phone conversation seemed like the closest to a fairy-tale proposal they would get.

That is, until Aleman, his mother, Marita Maldonado, and the team at USO San Antonio joined up to give Tunchez the surprise proper’ proposal of a lifetime just hours before the wedding ceremony. Read more about the couple’s magical USO moment here.

USO Tour Veterans and Supporters Have a Big Night at the Grammys

The Grammys recognize the best and brightest singers, songwriters and music producers, many of whom are also USO entertainment veterans.

This year, 18 USO supporters or entertainment veterans were nominated for Grammys, including one who was up for the coveted Album of Year award. Here’s a look:

Beyoncé

Troops smile after watching On the Run. USO photo

Troops smile during a special screening of “On the Run Tour: Beyoncé and Jay Z” downrange. USO photo

Best R&B performance (“Beyoncé”); Nominated and won
Best R&B song (with Jay Z, “Drunk in Love”); Nominated and won
Best surround sound album (“Beyoncé”); Nominated and won
Album of the year (“Beyoncé”); Nominated
Best urban contemporary album (“Beyoncé”); Nominated
Best music film (with Jay Z, “On the Run Tour: Beyoncé and Jay Z”); Nominated

Beyoncé and Jay Z treated approximately 2,000 troops stationed in Kuwait and Afghanistan to USO screenings of HBO’s “On the Run Tour: Beyoncé and Jay Z” on New Year’s Eve. The screenings each kicked off with a pre-taped message from Beyoncé who thanked troops for their service and sacrifice and wished them and their families back home a happy new year.

Paramore

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Best rock song (“Ain’t it Fun”); Nominated and won

Paramore went on USO tour to the Persian Gulf in 2010 to entertain troops. The group also recorded a special segment for the USO’s 2010 “VH1 Divas Salute the Troops” show at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, while traveling overseas.

Anthony Hamilton

Anthony Hamilton performs in Fort Bragg, NC. USO photo

Anthony Hamilton performs in Fort Bragg, NC. USO photo

Best traditional R&B performance (“As”); Nominated

In December, Anthony Hamilton performed in his first USO show at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Hamilton sand an assortment of original songs and holiday classics off his latest studio album “Home For The Holidays.”

Jack Black (of Tenacious D)

Best metal performance (“The Last in Line”); Nominated and won

Black, who also starred in Tropic Thunder, visited Camp Pendleton, CA in 2008 for a special USO screening of the film with co-stars Ben Stiller and Robert Downey Jr.

Babyface

Superstar recording artist/music producer Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds delivered musical delight to soldiers and their families stationed at Fort Benning on September 23, 2011. USO photo by Mike Clifton

Best R&B album (with Toni Braxton, “Love, Marriage & Divorce”); Nominated and won

In 2011, Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds performed for troops in Fort Benning, Georgia, as part of the “BRAC to the Future” celebrating the arrival of the Maneuver Center of Excellence, an armor school that moved from Fort Knox, Kentucky, to Fort Benning.

“It’s a different feeling, playing for the troops,” Edmonds said in a 2011 USO story. “You feel like you’re giving something back to [those who] have done so much for us. At this particular point … it means more to me. I appreciate what the service men and women and their families do for all our lives.”

Nicki Minaj

Best pop duo/group performance (with Jessie J, Ariana Grande, “Bang Bang”); Nominated
Best rap song; Nominated

Minaj performed for troops alongside other female music stars in the 2010 “VH1 Divas Salute the Troops” show presented by the USO.

Katy Perry

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Best pop vocal album (“Prism”); Nominated
Best pop duo/group performance (with Juicy J, “Dark Horse”); Nominated

Perry, who recently performed during the Super Bowl halftime show alongside Lenny Kravitz, also performed for service members during the USO’s 2010 “VH1 Divas Salute the Troops” show.

Hunter Hayes

Best country solo performance (“Invisible”); Nominated

Hayes helped create scores of USO moments throughout his Tattoo (Your Name) Tour in this fall, making exclusive USO show stops for troops in Norfolk, Virginia, and at Royal Air Force Mildenhall, England. The 2012 CMA New Artist of the Year also created a unique USO moment for one military family this fall, surprising them onstage with complementary tickets to the 2015 CMA Awards during an a USO concert in Nashville.

“Every Moment Counts – I love those three words,” Hayes said in a 2014 USO blog post. “I love that that’s what our current focus is. And the message is the fact that they give so much for us, that every moment with them, we never want to take it for granted.”

Carrie Underwood

Country music singer Carrie Underwood greets service members during a USO stop at Camp Anaconda on December 16, 2006. USO photo by Mike Theiler

Country music singer Carrie Underwood greets service members during a USO stop at Camp Anaconda on December 16, 2006. USO photo by Mike Theiler

Best country solo performance (with Miranda Lambert ,”Somethin’ Bad”); Nominated and won
Best country duo/group performance (“Something in the Water”); Nominated

Underwood visited troops during a 2006 holiday tour to the Persian Gulf.

The Band Perry

Best country duo/group performance (“Gentle on my Mind”); Nominated and won

In 2014, The Band Perry performed at their first USO show at Royal Air Force Lakenheath in the United Kingdom, entertaining over 1,000 military family members.

“They were such a responsive audience, and that’s what we love most about playing shows, is whenever the crowds are crazy and are singing along,” Neil Perry said in a 2014 USO story. “It was just fun having all the families there.”

MercyMe

Best contemporary christian music performance/song (“Shake”); Nominated and won
Best contemporary christian music album (“Welcome to the New”); Nominated

In 2011, MercyMe entertained troops during an eight-day USO tour of Southwest Asia.

“We’ve always appreciated our armed forces and anytime we can give them an escape at one of our shows, we’ll do it,” said the band in a 2011 USO story. “Several guys in the band had fathers and other loved ones serve in the military, so yes all of this hit pretty close to home.”

Louis C.K.

Best comedy album (“Oh My God”); Nominated

Louis C.K. has gone on two USO tours — including a 13-base trip to Afghanistan in 2008 — and even worked the USO into an episode of his hit FX show.

Little Big Town

Members of Little Big Town perform for fans at the second annual Academy of Country Music/USO concert event at Nellis Air Force Base April 2, 2011. USO Photo by Fred Greaves

Members of Little Big Town perform for fans at the second annual Academy of Country Music/USO concert event at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, on April 2, 2011. USO Photo by Fred Greaves

Best country duo/group performance (“Day Drinking”) ; Nominated

In 2014, Little Big Town performed for troops and the Virginia Beach, Virginia, community as part of the city’s Patriotic Festival, which coincided with the USO’s inaugural Warrior Week. The also group performed for troops and their families at a free concert in 2011 hosted by The Academy of Country Music and the USO for military members and their families at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada.

Great Big World

Best pop duo/group performance (with Christina Aguilera, “Say Something”); Nominated and won

The group signed the USO’s “Every Moment Counts” flag to help break the Guinness World Record this year.

Dierks Bentley

Country music artist Dierks Bentley performs during the USO/ACM Lifting Lives concert at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas, NV, April 17, 2010. USO Photo by Fred Greaves

Country music artist Dierks Bentley performs during the USO/ACM Lifting Lives concert at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas, NV, April 17, 2010. USO Photo by Fred Greaves

Best country album (“Riser”); Nominated

Bently performed for military families at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas, NV in 2010 as part of the first USO/ACM Lifting lives concert.

Lee Ann Womack

Best country album (“The Way I’m Livin'”); Nominated

In 2010, Womack entertained troops as part of the first USO/ACM Lifting lives concert at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada.

Songwriters of “Let it Go,” performed by USO entertainment veteran Idina Menzel

Best song written for visual media (“Let it Go”); Nominated and won

Menzel, who recently sang the national anthem at the Superbowl, participated in a 2014 USO satellite media tour promoting USO Wishbook, an alternative giving catalog that supports troops and their families. Menzel also met with three New York City-area military families before performing at Bloomingdale’s Holiday Concert and Window Unveiling show in November.

Songwriters of “Moon Song,” sung by USO supporter Scarlett Johannson and Joaquin Phoenix

Best song written for visual media (“Moon Song”); Nominated

In 2008, Johansson visited troops during a USO tour to the Persian Gulf.

“This USO tour to the Gulf region truly means a lot,” Johansson said in a press release. “I’ve wanted to go over and visit for some time, and now my moment has  arrived. It’s one thing to reply to a letter or extend your thanks to  service members in a speech, but it’s another thing to visit them and spend time with those that do so much for us back home.”

Photos Through the Decades: Celebrating the USO’s 74th Birthday

In honor of the USO’s 74th birthday, we’re taking a trip through time to revisit some of the iconic images we’ve captured. Here are a few snapshots that show how the USO has supported troops and their families over the decades.

1940s

USO_Founders

Leaders from the six founding organizations of the USO shake hands in 1941. USO photo

The USO, which stands for United Service Organizations (don’t forget the “s” in “Organizations”) traces its roots back to six other organizations. The Salvation Army, Young Men’s Christian Association, Young Women’s Christian Association, National Catholic Community Services, National Travelers Aid Association and the National Jewish Welfare Board pooled resources to start the USO on Feb. 4, 1941, at the request of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

1950s

Marylin_Monroe

Marylin Monroe at a USO show in Korea in 1954. USO photo

This snapshot shows Hollywood star Marilyn Monroe entertaining troops in Korea in 1954. Monroe entertained more than 100,000 troops while on tour for the USO. The USO still produces and hosts dozens of international celebrity tours each year.

USOmemories

1960s

Hope_Banner

Troops hold up a “Hi Bob” banner during one of Bob Hope’s USO shows. USO photo

Bob Hope was a USO tour staple for 50 years, making his last overseas trip to entertain troops during the Gulf War. In honor of his service and commitment to the military community, the USO center at Los Angeles International Airport bears his name today. In fact, the USO worked with Congress to designate Hope as first honorary veteran of the United States military.

1970s

Sammy_Davis

Sammy Davis Jr. performs in Long Binh, Vietnam, in 1972. USO photo

Sammy Davis Jr., a veteran himself, entertained 15,000 troops in his first USO performance alone. According to the USO’s On Patrol Magazine, Davis relished his tour and encouraged fellow entertainers to continue the tradition. “My recent tour in Vietnam was one of the most exciting and satisfying experiences of my career,” Davis said after the 1972 circuit. “I can only urge all entertainers to support this much needed USO program.”

1980s

Naples_USO

The USO Naples fleet center after it was bombed in 1988. USO photo

It was a somber scene outside the USO Naples fleet center on April 14, 1988, after a deadly car bomb exploded just outside the entrance, killing five people – including Navy RM2 Angela Santos – and injuring 15. In 2013, USO Naples hosted Santos’ sister, Jennifer Cruz, and held a special service in Santos’ memory.

1990s

Jay_Leno

Jay Leno entertains troops during the Gulf War. USO photo

Jay Leno has been making troops laugh for decades. He recently returned from a USO tour with Al Roker. Leno auctioned off a pair of cars in the last few years to raise nearly $1 million for military nonprofits. He also helped raise thousands for the USO serving as the grand marshal of 2012’s Love Ride through Southern California. “I have a couple of West Pointers in my family,” Leno recently told the USO. “And there’s a little sense [that] you’ve got to give something back. I didn’t get shot in the ass, I should do something else [for the troops].”

2000s

Comedian Robin Williams greets troops during a 2007 USO Chairman's Holiday Tour stop at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, on Dec. 17, 2007. Photo by Chad J. McNeeley/Courtesy of the Department of Defense

Comedian Robin Williams greets troops during a USO Chairman’s Holiday Tour stop at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, on Dec. 17, 2007. Photo by Chad J. McNeeley/Courtesy of the Department of Defense

Robin Williams was committed to making service members smile. The comic legend, who passed away in 2014, went on six USO tours from 2002 to 2013, including five overseas. Through his work with the USO, Williams visited troops in 12 countries, making three stops to both Iraq and Afghanistan. “There’s nothing I enjoy more than traveling with the USO and giving back to our troops in whatever way I can,” Williams said during a 2007 USO tour led by then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen. “They work hard, sacrifice a lot and deserve to be treated like the heroes they are. The very least I can do is bring a smile to their faces.”

2010s

ss_2012

Kids watch the 2012 Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families at Scott Air Force Base, Illinois. USO photo by Fred Greaves

The Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families tour entertained its 500,000th audience member in 2014. It’s the USO’s longest-running tour and is specially designed to help military children tackle the unique issues they face growing up with parents who serve.

USO Tour Veterans Katy Perry and Idina Menzel Set To Take the Stage at Super Bowl XLIX

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As troops around the world head to USO centers to watch the big game, veteran USO performers Katy Perry and Idina Menzel will take the stage during the halftime and pre-game shows, respectively, to entertain the estimated 100 million Americans expected to watch.

Perry, who will be performing with special guest Lenny Kravitz, participated in the 2010 “VH1 Divas Salute the Troops” show presented by the USO, singing classic numbers with other performer like “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” in addition to performing her own hit songs.

Menzel, who will sing the national anthem, recently participated in a USO satellite media tour promoting USO Wishbook, an alternative giving catalog that supports troops and their families.

Menzel also met with three New York City-area military families before performing at Bloomingdale’s Holiday Concert and Window Unveiling show in November.

In addition to meeting Menzel, the families enjoyed a day full of food and fun in New York City, including a pizza lunch and a trip to Dylan’s Candy Bar.

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“Each family had the most adorable children,” Menzel said. “I got to get to know them a little bit and tell them how much I appreciate the sacrifices they make.

“I also recognize how difficult the holidays can be when they’re apart, so any kind of laughter or joy I could bring to the situation was nice.”

USO Veterans Rake in the Awards Nominations and Wins

For some people, January is just another long, cold winter month that follows the excitement of the holidays.

But for a handful of USO tour veterans, January and the first few weeks of February means the chance to win big at one of the three big award ceremonies: the Golden Globes, the Screen Actor Guild Awards and the Academy Awards.

Here’s a look at this year’s award nominees and winners who have also volunteered their time and talents to entertain troops and their families on USO tours around the world.

“How to Train Your Dragon 2”

Golden Globes
Best animated feature film; Nominated & won

Academy Awards
Best animated feature film; Nominated

In June 2014, actors Jay Baruchel and America Ferrera and writer/director Dean DeBlois treated more than 450 troops and military families to an advance screening of DreamWorks Animation’s “How to Train Your Dragon 2” at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey. The event also included a question-and-answer session with the trio.

Watch the highlights from the event here:

“Louie”

Golden Globes
Best actor in a TV series, musical or comedy (Louis C.K.); Nominated

Screen Actor Guild Awards
Outstanding performance by a male actor in a comedy series (Louis C.K.); Nominated

Louis C.K. has gone on two USO tours — including a 13-base trip to Afghanistan in 2008 — and even worked the USO into an episode of his hit FX show.

“The Big Bang Theory”

Screen Actor Guild Awards
Outstanding performance by an ensemble in a comedy series; Nominated

Actor Johnny Galecki and executive producer Steve Molaro from the CBS hit comedy went on a USO tour to meet troops in the Pacific in 2012.

“I am so very honored and personally thrilled to be traveling to the Pacific with the USO,” Galecki said in a 2012 USO.org story. “It’s been a dream for many years to have the opportunity to show my deepest gratitude face-to-face to the men and women who serve.”

“Sons of Anarchy”

Screen Actor Guild Awards
Outstanding action performance by a stunt ensemble in a comedy or drama series; Nominated

Actors Kim Coates, Mark Boone Junior and Dayton Callie headed on USO tour to the Pacific in 2013 but the show has always been very supportive of the troops and the USO, participating in USO tours in 2010 (Kuwait and Iraq) and 2012 (Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, California).

“I’d do this every year if I could; there is no feeling like visiting our troops where they serve and having the chance to tell them ‘thank you’ face-to-face,” Callie said in a 2013 USO.org story. “One of the things that surprised me most, from our first USO tour, was how big of a hit the show is with the military. As a veteran myself, it was a proud moment for me.”

"Sons of Anarchy" stars Dayton Callie (front row center), Mark Boone Junior (second row l-r) and Kim Coates pose for a group photo with Marines in Japan, March 14, 2013. USO Photo by Michael Clifton

“Sons of Anarchy” stars Dayton Callie (front row center), Mark Boone Junior (second row l-r) and Kim Coates pose for a group photo with Marines in Japan, March 14, 2013. USO Photo by Michael Clifton

See more pictures from the cast’s tour to the Pacific here.

“Unbroken”

Screen Actor Guild Awards
Outstanding action performance by a stunt ensemble in a motion picture; Nominated & won

Academy Awards
Best cinematography; Nominated
Best sound editing; Nominated
Best sound mixing; Nominated

In December 2014, as part of its partnership with Universal Pictures, the USO brought a quintet of service members and their guests to the premiere of “Unbroken” at the Dolby Theater in Los Angeles. While Jolie was home sick with chicken pox, her husband, Brad Pitt, stood in for her at the premiere, stopping by to shake the hands of the USO guests including Army Staff Sgt. Blake Sistrunk.

Watch highlights from the “Unbroken” premiere here:

In 2010, Jolie also traveled to Germany to visited wounded troops and the service members taking care of them.

Watch a moment from Jolie’s visit here:

“American Sniper”

Academy Awards
Best actor in a leading role (Bradley Cooper); Nominated
Best picture; Nominated
Best film editing; Nominated
Best sound editing; Nominated
Best sound mixing; Nominated
Best adapted screenplay; Nominated

Bradley Cooper is a USO tour staple, having now traveled to Cuba, Kuwait, Afghanistan, and a seven-day, three-country tour with then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen in 2010.

Actor Bradley Cooper takes a moment to pose with service members stationed in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, during a week-long USO tour in 2008.  Cooper was in the region on his first tour to show support to U.S. troops and bring them a touch of home.

Actor Bradley Cooper takes a moment to pose with service members stationed in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, during a week-long USO tour in 2008. Cooper was in the region on his first tour to show support to U.S. troops and bring them a touch of home.