Why I Signed: The Stories Behind the USO’s Guinness World Record-Breaking Flag

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When people get fired up about supporting America’s troops, they usually do it in a big way.

Today, the USO announced it shattered the Guinness World Record for most signatures on a flag, collecting 115,405 signatures earlier this year. Part of the Every Moment Counts campaign, the certified record breaks the previous mark by more than 82,000 signatures. The flag will be unveiled to the public on a three-city tour that starts Thursday at the Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati.

While 115,405 is a huge number, it’s also one with a lot of meaning. The USO asked those who signed the flag online to explain why they did it.

“My family’s military history goes back over 10 consecutive generations,” said online signer Beth Hish. “I did this for them and the thousands of others who serve and who have served our great nation.”

Hish said she directly benefitted from USO services as a teen when her family was stationed at Clark Air Base in the Philippines in the early 1990s. Those included a Billy Joel visit and performance at her high school.

“The concerts, school visits and activities brought a little piece of stateside comfort to a kid who was struggling to fit in to a new school [and] community. It was something familiar that I could connect with. USO programming [and] support is such a special gift to military members and their families. The least we can do is show our support in return. … That’s why I signed the flag.”

Others had similar stories:

“I signed the flag because I fully understand the importance of feeling support from all the non-military people in our great nation. I served eight years in the Army Signal Corps. … Every where I went the USO was there in some form or fashion … whether it was a recreation tent or a phone center and even on occasion seeing big-name musicians, actors and public figures all out showing their support for the U.S. military. I have not — nor will I ever — forget what our flag stands for and what it means to me. … Thank you USO for being there for all us.” –Former Sgt. Craig D. Matthews

“I signed the flag because I love America and I am proud to serve in the [Air Force] Reserve! The USO has provided me a place to rest and recuperate between flights on multiple deployments. I always feel welcome and safe.” –Carolyn Newhouse

“I signed the flag because all three of my sons have served or currently serve in the military. … [I am] very proud of my boys. The USO has been their for them when they transition from place to place. Thank you for all that you do for our military.” –Rosalee Morris

“My father is a Marine. My parents met at the USO. I was born and bred in the Marine Corps and work for the Air Force. I see every day what the men and women of our armed forces sacrifice for our country and am proud to support them in their endeavors. Thank you USO for your support … I might not be here if it wasn’t for your wonderful organization.” –Kim Chastain

(Editors note: Submissions lightly edited for style)

USO Sends Off Team USA Invictus Games Participants in Style

2012 U.S. Olympic swimmer Kate Ziegler poses with athletes at a USO-hosted pep rally Team USA Invictus Games particpants on Friday in Herndon, Virginia. USO photo by Mike Theiler

American Olympic swimmer Kate Ziegler poses with athletes at a USO-hosted pep rally Team USA Invictus Games participants on Friday in Herndon, Virginia. USO photo by Mike Theiler

The USO, Vice President Joe Biden and Dr. Jill Biden, the Washington Redskins and other star athletes banded together to give a warm farewell to Team USA’s Invictus Games participants over the weekend.

It all started with this tweet from Dr. Biden, who hosted a reception Thursday evening with her husband at the Vice Presidential residence for the wounded warrior athletes who’ll represent America in the London athletic competition that starts this week. USO President Dr. J.D. Crouch also attended.

https://twitter.com/DrBiden/status/507903458461384704

According to the Invictus Games’ website, the competition — which is being promoted by Prince Harry — will “shine a spotlight on Armed Forces personnel and veterans who have put their lives on the line for their country demonstrating how they and their families are valued, respected and supported. For competitors, it will offer a memorable, inspiring and [energizing] experience in their journey of recovery.”

The USO held a pep rally Friday night in Herndon, Virginia, featuring American Olympic swimmer Kate Ziegler and video messages from NBA Hall-of-Famer and Navy grad David Robinson and U.S. Olympic swimming gold medalist Natalie Coughlin.

Then on Saturday, the USO helped send off the athletes in style from Dulles International Airport, with the help of the Washington Redskins.

https://twitter.com/Redskins/status/508264406560423936

National Suicide Prevention Month: Help is Just a Phone Call or Click Away

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September is National Suicide Prevention Month, an important time to shine the light on current and former troops who are struggling with depression and other invisible wounds.

Suicide in the military has become a huge issue over the last decade, with the rate of self-inflicted deaths by both active-duty troops and veterans reaching alarming levels.

But if you need help – or know someone who needs help – here is a list of places you can go:

  • Military Crisis Hotline: Short of dialing 911 in a life-or-death situation, the military crisis hotline can be your first stop if you or someone you know is feeling severely depressed – even if they just need to talk about what they’re feeling. The phone number is 1-800-273-8255 and you can also chat with them online at militarycrisisline.net.
  • PTSD Coach: The Department of Veterans Affairs has a website and app called PTSD Coach that aims to help troops and veterans manage issues like anger, sleep and trauma triggers.
  • MilitaryMentalHealth.org: If you’re curious, Military Pathways offers free, anonymous online self-assessments.
  • The VA: The Department of Veteran Affairs’ Mental Health page is filled with resources to address a variety of mental health concerns.
  • Family readiness officers, family support groups and family support centers: Every branch of the military has family support services. These officers and groups are huge information resources. Contact your command to find out what groups are available for your family.
  • Saving Lives Online Event: Military.com is hosting a Google Hangout on Sept. 18 where questions about suicide, PTSD and depression will be answered. You can submit questions in advance here.

The USO — through our programming partners — also offers a variety of resources to deal with post-traumatic stress and depression. Two such programs include:

  • USO Caregivers Conferences: Held on or near different military installations around the United States, these USO conferences discuss caregivers’ issues like resiliency, communication, compassion fatigue and how to talk to children after a parent has been injured.

  • USO/Stronger Families Oxygen Seminars: This Bothell, Wash.-based nonprofit helps couples – especially military couples affected by injuries or long separations – open the lines of communication. Their Oxygen Seminars have become a key partner program of USO Warrior and Family Care.

 

Football is Back: A Look at How the NFL Supports the USO

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The return of the NFL season marks 48 years since the league started supporting America’s troops through the USO.

Starting with the first USO/NFL tour to Vietnam in 1966 — which featured Pro Football Hall-of-Famers Johnny Unitas, Willie Davis, Sam Huff and Frank Gifford — to March’s USO/NFL tour featuring Jimmy Graham, Pierre Garcon and Brandon Fields, the league has found ways to consistently show it’s appreciation to America’s troops.

“We are proud of our relationship with the USO that dates back more than 45 years and includes dozens of overseas visits to troops and trips to military hospitals nationwide,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell wrote in an email interview with the USO earlier this year. “The USO is an important partner for the NFL because our collaboration enables the NFL to give something back to the men and women in uniform that have given so much to all of us.”

Goodell became the first NFL commissioner to go on a USO tour when he traveled overseas in 2008.

“That USO tour was a privilege and had a profound impact on me,” he wrote. “The NFL’s support for the military had always been a priority, but it was really striking to see firsthand how much NFL football means to our service members overseas. Some of our players were traveling with me and we all came back with a renewed and strengthened commitment to our troops.”

Here are five ways the NFL has supported troops over the past few years:

  • NFL_321NFL Sports Lounge: The NFL pledged $2 million to build the NFL Sports Lounge inside the USO Warrior and Family Center on Naval Support Activity Bethesda, Home of Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. The center serves as a home away from home for severely wounded, ill and injured troops recovering on the hospital campus.
  • Discounted tickets for troops: If you’re a service member who happens to be a fan of the Browns, Jaguars, Dolphins, Jets, Raiders, Chargers, Buccaneers or Redskins, you have the opportunity to buy discount tickets and/or stadium parking passes this season.
  • Salute to Service: The USO is one of three military nonprofits the NFL supports through it’s November Salute to Service games. A donation is made to each nonprofit for every point scored in these games, and special camouflage gear worn by the players in Salute to Service games is also auctioned off to benefit the organizations.

Tell Us What You Think (and Qualify to Win a $500 Gift Card) by Taking the Tell USO Sound Off Survey

Tell USO Share GraphicWe want your feedback!

From today through Oct. 1, the USO is inviting all troops and family members who currently use our services to participate in the 2014 Tell USO Sound Off Survey.

So why is this important? It’s pretty simple, really. The USO takes the feedback from the surveys and uses it to improve our operations and fill gaps in service. The responses are also used to judge which of our centers are standing out above the rest, and we honor those centers at the annual Tell USO Awards.

As a bonus, all participants who complete a survey will be entered into a sweepstakes where they can win a $500 Visa gift card for their time.

You can get started on the survey here.

Your USO at Work: August 2014 — USO Center Helps Wounded Troops and Families Relax and Recharge

USO Warrior and Family Center at Bethesda is a Place Wounded Warriors Can Call Home

Sometimes, the mental grind of a recovery can be as tough as the physical obstacles.

That’s why the USO opened the second of two Warrior and Family Centers at Naval Support Activity Bethesda, Maryland, the home of Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, in April.

The USO Warrior and Family Center at Naval Support Activity Bethesda, Maryland, the home of Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, opened in April.

The USO Warrior and Family Center at Naval Support Activity Bethesda, Maryland, the home of Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, opened in April. USO photo by Joseph Andrew Lee

“You can come here and cook food if you want to. You can come here and barbecue if you want to. You can come here and watch movies, play video games, learn music, use the Internet … all that is here,” said medically retired Army Sgt. Kevin Gatson, a recent patient at Bethesda. “I think this will give someone a place to kind of sit back, reflect, relax, work on themselves just on a personal level — a worry-free zone in a sense.”

Like its sister center on the Fort Belvoir Community Hospital campus in Virginia, the USO Warrior and Family Center at Bethesda provides a place where families can come together for everything from meals and game nights to post-military career counseling and classes.

“I go to my room, because a lot of times I just don’t feel like talking to anybody,” said Marine Cpl. Rebecca Fletcher, who lost her leg in a motorcycle accident and is recovering from her injuries at Bethesda. “But coming down here (to the center), you end up running into someone that you know and you end up in a conversation. The next thing you know, you’re forgetting about the pain [and] you’re forgetting about the mental things that get to you throughout the day.”

“When you have had a full day of appointments … you’re exhausted both mentally and physically,” said Navy Capt. David Bitonti, Naval Support Activity Bethesda commander. He said that the new facility, which opened in April, is an additional place of respite for wounded troops and provides a place where they can relax and recover.

“[This center] allows you to go and recharge the battery so that when you have to do whatever it is that you need to do the next day, you’re the best person that you can be.”

Wounded Troops and Their Families Hit the Beach at Warrior Week

More than 550 wounded warriors and their families headed to Virginia Beach, Virginia, in May to enjoy surf, sand and sun as part of the USO’s inaugural Warrior Week.

“The city of Virginia Beach approached me and asked if the USO could expand the programs and services that we’re doing for the wounded, ill and injured here in Virginia Beach,” said Jeff Hill, USO regional vice president, U.S. “We did the research … and found out that outdoor activities [were] one of the favorite things that our wounded, ill and injured like to do.”

With the help of the USO and local adaptive outdoor recreational organizations, participants enjoyed activities like kayaking, surfing, waterskiing and deep-sea fishing. Wounded warriors and their families were also invited to attend free outdoor concerts and shows by local performers and the USO Show Troupe.

“We wanted outdoor recreational activities that could include the families,” Hill said.

At the end of each day’s activities, Warrior Week participants were invited to attend the Patriot Festival to enjoy food and free performances by top recording artists including The Band Perry, Jake Owen and Little Big Town.

“I can tell you the vast majority [of the wounded warriors] had an absolute blast,” Hill said.

Dr. J.D. Crouch II Becomes President and CEO of the USO

Former Assistant Secretary of Defense and Deputy National Security Advisor Dr. J.D. Crouch II was named the 23rd president and CEO of the USO on June 23.

Dr. J.D. Crouch II started his new role at the USO on July 28. USO photo

Dr. J.D. Crouch II started his new role at the USO on July 28. USO photo

“I know I am fortunate to be able to join a remarkable USO family that encompasses colleagues, volunteers, supporters and their families,” Crouch said. “I am proud to join and lead this team and eager to begin our work together.”

Most recently, Dr. Crouch served as CEO of QinetiQ North America, a position he left in May. From 2001 to 2003, he served as former President George W. Bush’s assistant secretary of defense for international security policy, focusing on missile defense, nuclear forces and technology security. He later served 10 months as the U.S. ambassador to Romania before returning to Washington in March of 2005 to assume the role of deputy national security advisor.

“I know that J.D. Crouch is the right leader at the right time for the USO,” said retired Air Force General Richard B. Myers, chairman of the USO Board of Governors. “He comes to the USO with a record of government service, leadership and innovation, but most important of all, he has a deep and abiding passion for our men and women who serve this country.”

Crouch started his new role with the USO on July 28.

Marines smile with a birthday cake at a USO Center on Okinawa, Japan. USO photo

Marines smile with a birthday cake at a USO Center on Okinawa, Japan. USO photo

Despite Logistics, USO Pacific Centers Help Troops Celebrate Birthdays Far From Home

Birthdays aren’t supposed to be stressful. But when you’re separated by the world’s largest ocean and a dozen time zones, nothing is easy.

Luckily, families with loved ones serving in the Pacific don’t have to figure out the closest bakery to base, or if that bakery can translate their message or even deliver the cake. All they have to do is contact USO Pacific and ask about Operation Birthday Cake.

“USO Pacific’s Operation Birthday Cake is an amazing signature program that connects loved ones around the world,” said Carly Harris, USO Pacific regional vice president. So far, the program has delivered over 1,000 surprise birthday cakes to troops serving in the Pacific.

For many stateside families, an OBC surprise is the easiest way they can send warm wishes and celebrate their deployed loved one’s special day.

“[The service member’s family is] just happy that we could reach out and do something special for their loved one on a day when sometimes they can’t even call because of the time difference, technology, or whatever the issue may be,” said USO Camp Casey Manager Katie Kerr.

Celebs and BET Experience Attendees Sends Messages of Thanks to Troops

The son of a deployed service member sends a message to his dad at the Mobile USO at the BET Experience at the Los Angeles Convention Center in late June. USO photo by Eric Brandner

The son of a deployed service member sends a message to his dad at the Mobile USO at the BET Experience at the Los Angeles Convention Center in late June. USO photo by Eric Brandner

Some did it for their family members. Others did it for fun. And some just thought it was the right thing to do.

The USO parked one of its custom USO Mobile vehicles in the Los Angeles Convention Center on June 28 at the BET Experience and asked attendees and celebrities to send personal messages of thanks to America’s troops.

“So many of us want to say thank you and often times we don’t know how,” said Sonya Lockett, BET vice president of corporate social responsibility. “And this is just such a great way to be able to say thank you to our military all over the world.”

Lockheed Martin Volunteers, PGA Tour Fans Build Deployment Kits for Military Kids

When children are faced with a parent’s deployment — or worse, a parent who doesn’t return from deployment — they encounter emotions which may be difficult to express.

Marine Staff Sgt. Tyler Barnes, right, stationed at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va., assembles a deployment kit for military kids. USO photo

Marine Staff Sgt. Tyler Barnes, right, stationed at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va., assembles a deployment kit for military kids. USO photo

Understanding this, volunteers from Lockheed Martin helped Quicken Loans National golf tournament spectators at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Maryland, assemble hundreds of With You all The Way Deployment Kits for military children in June.

The USO, in partnership with the Trevor Romain Company and the Comfort Crew for Military Kids, uses the With You All the Way program to support children ages 6 to 18. The unique kit helps children deal with deployment challenges and even establishes valuable knowledge for the reintegration process.

The deployment kit is centered around the “With You All the Way! Dealing With Deployment” DVD, which was created as a collaboration between The Comfort Crew and the USO. The Comfort Crew was founded by humorist Trevor Romain, who frequently tours with the USO, sharing life lessons with military children such as how to deal with bullies, facing fears, coping with separation and understanding grief.

The kits are designed to help kids tackle difficult issues unique to growing up in a military family.

“I am a full-on supporter of the USO and what they do for military families,” said Marine Staff Sgt. Tyler Barnes, a military caddy who helped construct deployment kits. “I’ve seen all of the support here at home and downrange. It’s just a great organization and they do a lot of great stuff for the military.”

Air Force Vet Now Serves Troops at USO Shindand

In his words, Frank Stinson joined up with the USO in 2009 because he “just wanted to give something back to our active-duty military.”

USO Shindand Center Manager Frank Stinson

USO Shindand Center Manager Frank Stinson

Today, the 21-year Air Force veteran is serving again—as the center manager of the USO Center on Forward Operating Base Shindand in Afghanistan.

USO Shindand, situated on a dusty airfield on the western plains of Afghanistan, offers forward-deployed troops a respite away from the everyday rigors of combat. Stinson, an Arkansas native, said that the troops who visit his center come to recharge and reconnect with loved ones.

“They want a relaxed place to come [to] and they want computer access and phones to be able to call home,” Stinson wrote in an email.

In addition to valuable connectivity, USO Shindand also offers troops two TV lounges and a movie theater boasting a 72-inch plasma TV. The three-tent facility was built by troops and civilian contractors in 2012 and 2013 and has a welcoming, small-town feel.

Stinson said that meeting troops, learning about their varied backgrounds and giving them much-needed support are the best parts of his job.

“With what we provide to the troops, this is the most gratifying job I have had.”