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

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Last month in Manhattan, a special reunion took place on Meredith Vieira’s new talk show between an Army Reserve officer and the family he hadn’t seen in nearly a year.

First Lt. Beau McNeff and his wife Ceci had missed their last two wedding anniversaries due to deployments and work-ups. While Ceci was in on the reunion, their four kids – including their newborn daughter Lexi – got the surprise of their young lives on live television.

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 the surprise reunion and also arranged three days of fun for the family in Manhattan as a thank you for his contributions to the military and the organization.

“Before deploying, the only thing I knew about the USO was that they did care packages and they were in the airports,” McNeff said. “But then I go to Afghanistan and they’re in every airport that I went through. Fellow veterans, families, people who want to help and support our veterans and our military [were volunteering at each location], and these people loved us. They treated me like family at every stop. Then I get to Afghanistan and there’s a USO on my [forward operating base].”

McNeff visited that USO almost daily, and used the USO/United Through Reading Military Program room as often as possible to communicate with his four children back home in Beaverton, Oregon. After he became one of the first fathers to participate in the USO’s Tiny Tots program (a reverse care package program where a dad requests a personalized USO newborn kit be sent to the mom back home), he became a committed USO volunteer for the rest of his deployment.

“The McNeffs are a wonderful example of how a family is able to stay connected through so many of our wonderful programs and services,” USO President and CEO Dr. J.D. Crouch II said during the show’s taping. “This truly shows how we are always by their side … from the moment they join, through their deployments and as they transition back to their communities.”

On set, Vieira concealed the show’s surprise by demonstrating how the USO keeps families together via Skype. But McNeff, who could be seen on camera in uniform, was not actually in Afghanistan. He was backstage, waiting to surprise his family.

“It was surreal,” McNeff said. “I got to go behind the scenes and see how the show was put together. I’m sitting in this green room looking down on the set of “Saturday Night Live” as they set up for the weekend’s show. They pretended like the camera feed dropped out and I came out on stage. Our two oldest came running to me and started crying. Our 2-year-old stayed crying the whole time she was out there, holding her daddy doll … and that’s when I got to meet [Lexi] for the first time.

“It was one of those moments in life when everything felt right. I’d seen pictures of her, but I finally got to hold her and she smiled at me for the first time and you can’t beat that.

“And the USO set that up for me. It was more than anything I could have asked for.”

After the show, the USO had more surprises in store for the McNeff family. Volunteers from USO of Metropolitan New York spent three days with the McNeff family, leading them on a guided tour of the Museum of Natural History, the USS Intrepid and the Statue of Liberty.

McNeff’s two little girls, 6-year-old Elena and 2-year-old Sarah, were taken to the American Girl store where they were able to design their own custom dolls, and his 4-year-old son Daniel was taken to FAO Schwarz, where he picked out “the coolest Transformer in the whole world.”

“It’s just amazing the experience the USO can bring to a soldier,” McNeff said. “Both while you’re gone, and redeployment and now coming home.”

Milestone: Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families Entertains its 500,000th Military Family Member

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FORT BENNING, Georgia—It’s always a sunny day on Sesame Street. But Friday, Elmo, Cookie Monster and the Muppets had an extra special reason to sing and dance with all their friends: The Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families entertained its 500,000th military family member.

“The fact that we hit that particular number is a giant milestone for us,” said Nicole McClendon, tour manager for the USO/Sesame Street Experience for Military Families. “It was just so amazing to be able to work so closely with everyone here at Fort Benning to make this moment so special.”

To commemorate the milestone, Elmo and his Muppet friends posed with the audience for a commemorative photograph after their performance. Audience members also received a special cookie to take home with them in addition to other Sesame Street/USO tour goodies.

“I might have told them that they came from Cookie Monster, but [assured the kids] he didn’t eat them [all] before the show,” McClendon said.

Since 2008, this longest-running annual USO tour has delivered memorable moments to hundreds of thousands of military children and their parents through more than 735 shows at more than 140 military bases in 11 countries.

“Five hundred thousand represents the number of smiles Elmo and Katie have brought to military kids and their families … as the tour has traveled around the world,” USO President and CEO Dr. J.D. Crouch II said in a release. “We thank our friends at Sesame Street for helping to make this possible and we look forward to seeing many more smiling faces as the tour continues its journey.”

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

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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.”

Roker, Leno and Team of Celebrities Bring Laughs to Troops in Afghanistan on NBC’s “Today”

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Editor’s note: Tune in to Wednesday’s edition of NBC’s “Today” to see the highlights of the “Today”/USO Comedy Tour stage show put on exclusively for troops at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan.

Even in a war zone, Jay Leno can get a laugh.

“Afghanistan looks like Van Nuys but with less gunfire,” the former host of “The Tonight Show” cracked during one of several “Today” live shots from Afghanistan on Wednesday.

Al Roker — a co-host of NBC’s long-running morning show — brought Leno, comedians Craig Robinson and Iliza Shlesinger and musician Kevin Eubanks to Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, for the “Today”/USO Comedy Tour to entertain American troops. The tour is part of the Shine A Light series on “Today.”

Roker is also raising money for the USO through Crowdrise as part of the Shine A Light effort.

“The USO brings entertainment and a bit of levity to a very stressful situation,” Shlesinger said during a “Today” segment. “[J]ust to get a chance to share this with [troops] for just a couple minutes, it’s such an honor.”

While the entertainers did a series of live segments on Wednesday’s broadcast, the highlights of their comedy/variety show for the troops at Bagram will be rebroadcast on NBC on Oct. 7.

“It’s been overwhelming just to be able to look the soldiers in the eye and say thank you to them,” Robinson said. “And they’ve been so grateful that we’re here. It’s really crazy.”

3 Drops of Knowledge: Numbers About the USO on National Coffee Day

Eight ounces of water flows through a K-Cup in Kandahar. A bag of Boca Java gets ripped open near the Pentagon. A sip of Starbucks hits a weary traveler’s lips in a stateside airport.

For 73 years, the USO has been by the side of America’s troops and their families. And that often results in offering them a cup of coffee. On National Coffee Day, here are three numbers to know involving the USO’s coffee distribution.

4,936

That’s how many pounds of coffee Starbucks donates to USO locations in the Mideast so far this year. When you add in the 4,600 K-Cups and 400 VIA instant coffee packets, that’s 11,850 cups of just donated Starbucks coffee for troops downrange to date this year, not including the other in-kind donations those locations receive.

1,440

That’s the number of coffee makers the USO2GO program has shipped troops at remote locations across the globe over the eight year’s of the program’s existence. These USO-in-a-box-style shipments also include 100 pounds of coffee upon request. They may not have many comforts of home, but thanks to the modern marvel of shipping (and airdrops), they have the ability to make a cup of joe.

4

The number of continents where the USO currently serves coffee: North America, Asia, Europe and Africa. It’ll be five, soon (we’re looking at you, Australia).

The Words Behind the Record: What People Said About Signing the USO Every Moment Counts Flag

A word cloud based on the responses of nearly 500 people who signed the USO's Every Moment Counts flag.

A word cloud based on the responses of nearly 500 people who signed the USO’s Every Moment Counts flag.

Country. Served. Proud.

These are just some of the words that appeared most in an unscientific analysis of nearly 500 Every Moment Counts flag signers who shared their reasoning with us. The USO campaign earlier this year broke the Guinness World Record for most signatures on a flag with 115,405.

The flag will have a prominent place this weekend at Dover International Speedway during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series AAA 400. It was officially unveiled at the Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati on Sept. 11, and again Sept. 13 at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts.

Here are a few of the hundreds of responses the we we received when we asked online signers to tell us why they put their names on the flag:

  • “[We signed] to be a part of history. To honor our military, both present and past.” -Mike and Sharai Coffey
  • “[I signed] for my dad, who can’t. He died in 2005, was the last WWII vet in our small town.” -Nikki Jennings
  • “As a veteran, I can’t begin to count the times the USO was there when I needed them. This was one small way to show current and future veterans that we once served and always serve! God bless the U.S. Armed Forces!” -Donald Cota

(Editors note: Submissions lightly edited for style)