After Father’s Sudden Death, Soldier Turns to the USO for A Crucial Assist

Photo courtesy Army Spc. Austin Hunsinger

Army Spc. Austin Hunsinger at work. Photo courtesy Army Spc. Austin Hunsinger

Losing a parent can be devastating.

But losing a parent while on military duty adds a new set of obstacles that can overwhelm the most prepared soldier. Army Spc. Austin Hunsinger knows this all too well.

In December 2012, after learning his father suddenly passed way, Hunsinger — who was stationed in Fort Bragg, North Carolina — had to juggle an emergency leave request, funeral arrangements and booking last-minute flights all in a matter of hours.

When he finally arrived at the airport to go back to Rochester, New York, he was exhausted. He’d been up all night speaking with his family. So he sat down in the airport, fell asleep and missed his flight.

When Hunsinger woke up and realized what had happened, he knew he needed help fast. He headed straight to the Charlotte-Douglas International Airport USO. A little shaken up and worried he wouldn’t be able to get another flight in time for the funeral, Hunsinger explained what happened to the USO staff.

The grave of Charles Hunsinger, Army Spc. Austin Hunsinger's father. Photo courtesy Army Spc. Austin Hunsinger

The grave of Charles Hunsinger, Army Spc. Austin Hunsinger’s father. Photo courtesy Army Spc. Austin Hunsinger

“The USO is always there and they’re always the first people I go to when I’m traveling,” Hunsinger said.

Within a matter of minutes, a USO volunteer helped Hunsinger re-book his flight to Rochester, getting him home just in time for his father’s services the next day.

“That was a really hectic time for me and [the USO] just relieved the stress at the right point,” Hunsinger said.

“[The USO had] perfect timing, for them to be there and for them to help me get a flight and to provide me with a place to rest my head [was great].”

USO Fort Drum‘s Allen Jones contributed to this story.

12 Things You May Not Know About Women in the Military

Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester stands at attention before receiving the Silver Star on June 16, 2005, at Camp Liberty, Iraq. DOD photo

Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester stands at attention before receiving the Silver Star on June 16, 2005, at Camp Liberty, Iraq. DOD photo

In honor of Women’s History Month, we gathered 12 pieces of trivia about the legacy of women in the U.S. military. See if you know them:

1. Although they weren’t officially enlisted at first, women have served in the U.S. Army since 1775. In the 18th century, American women tended to the wounded, washed and mended clothing and cooked for male troops.

Mary_Edwards_Walker

Mary E. Walker

2. In 1779, Margaret Corbin became the first woman to receive a military pension. During the Revolutionary War, Corbin manned her husband’s canon after he was shot and killed in battle. Corbin was subsequently injured in the same battle and never fully recovered from her wounds.

3. After the Civil War, Dr. Mary E. Walker was awarded the Medal of Honor for her work as a contract surgeon in the Union Army. She’s the only woman to receive this award. In 1917, Walker was stripped of her medal due to changes in regulations. After many appeals, her medal was reinstated in 1977.

4. In 1866, Cathay Williams was the first African American woman to enlist in the Army, doing so under the pseudonym William Cathay. She was assigned to the 38th U.S. Infantry. Despite being hospitalized for illness several times, she managed to hide her gender for almost two years before a post surgeon discovered she was a female, leading to her discharge.

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Twin sisters Genevieve and Lucille Baker

Twins Genevieve and Lucille Baker. DOD photo

5. Women were officially allowed to join the U.S. military during last two years of World War I, and 33,000 of them signed up to work as nurses and in other support roles. More than 400 nurses died serving America during the Great War.

6. In 1918, twins Genevieve and Lucille Baker became two of the first women to serve in the Coast Guard.

7. Navy Rear Adm. Grace Hopper was one of the first — and most influential — computer programmers. Hopper played an important role in the development of the COBOL programming language and helped shape how programmers code today. Also, she’s often credited with popularizing the term “debugging.”

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Navy Adm. Grace Hopper at work. DOD photo

8. During World War II, 88 American women were captured and held as prisoners of war.

9. Brig. Gen. Hazel W. Johnson-Brown was the first African American woman to become an Army general. Brown enlisted in 1955 and later became the chief of the Army Nurse Corps.

10. Females weren’t allowed to attend the four service academies until 1976. The USO’s magazine On Patrol profiled some of these women in its Spring 2012 issue.

Col. Linda McTague

Col. Linda McTague.

11. In 2004, Col. Linda McTague became the first woman commander of an Air National Guard wing and also the first woman to command an Air Force fighter squadron.

12. In 2005, Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester (pictured at the beginning of this story) became the first woman since World War II to receive the Silver Star for combat actions.

The Stories Behind Military Challenge Coins

CoinRack_blog

They’re one good deed and an open palm away. And they can be kinda heavy.

Challenge coins permeate the military. Almost everyone with a significant rank doles them out. Even the commander-in-chief has one.

If you’ve been in the military for a while, you probably have a case or a rack (or a vintage sea chest) to display your coins. Last week, the coins reared their heads (or tails) in mainstream culture when the popular design podcast 99% Invisible did an episode on their existence, purpose and history. The podcast even highlighted an oft-repeated awkward civilian moment: the first time a service member shakes their hand and simultaneously plants a coin in their palm.

At the USO, we know a handful of people who have a few (hundred) coins from their years both serving in the military and serving troops. And behind every coin is a pretty cool story. Here are five of them:

Rachel Tischler

Three of the scores of coins Rachel Tischler has received during her tenure as USO Vice President of Entertainment.

Three of the coins Rachel Tischler has received during her tenure with the USO. USO photos by Eric Brandner

Rachel Tischler has taken more flights into the Middle East than a lot of service members. The USO’s Vice President of Entertainment has traveled the world supporting USO tours, including 15 trips to Iraq. She’s collected a lot of coins along the way, too. Here are the stories behind the three pictured above:

Dempsey and Tischler. DOD photo

Tischler with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin E. Dempsey. DOD photo

  • Top of the World: “That’s from Greenland, from the Vice Chairman [of the Joint Chief’s of Staff] tour,” Tishler said. “You can only land there a couple times of year because the runway is frozen ice. And it’s 200 people in the middle of nowhere. I can’t even imagine [a full] deployment.”
  • Gen. Ray Odierno’s coin: “Gen. Odierno was a permanent institution. I saw him every time we went over there,” Tischler said. “I think about it as [a symbol of] all the good work the USO did in Iraq and specifically his support of the USO and entertainment.”
  • The South Park coin: “I don’t know if it’s even appropriate to have this one [on display for this story] but I do love it,” Tischler said laughing. She received the coin with a take on the signature “South Park” line on it from a unit during a USO entertainment tour to Iraq. “I just loved it because I love ‘South Park.’ … You have to admit that is a good sense of humor for [being deployed].”

Glenn Welling

USO Vice President of Operations Glenn Welling holds his personal coin, which he's carried since he deployed to Iraq in 2008. USO photo

The personal coin of USO Vice President of Operations Glenn Welling who is also a command master chief petty officer in the Navy Reserve. Welling has kept the coin in his pocket every day since he deployed to Iraq in 2008.

Glenn Welling always has a challenge coin on hand. It’s his own.

Glenn Welling

Glenn Welling

“For the first 20 years of my Navy career, I had no concept what [challenge coins were about],” said Welling, the USO’s Vice President of Operations and a command master chief petty officer in the Navy Reserve. “When I was selected to be a command master chief in the Navy, I decided it would be a good idea to have my own coin minted so I could recognize sailors that were part of my organization for exceptional service.”

Welling had 100 personal coins minted before deploying to Iraq in 2008.

“This particular coin has been in my pocket every single day since June of 2008, which is when I left for Iraq,” he said.

Welling's sea chest, where he keeps his coin collection.

Welling’s vintage sea chest, which he bought to display his coin collection.

Welling said the coin, along with a prayer stone his neighbor gave him that he also still carries each day, “provided me comfort and security while I was deployed.”

He’s scheduled to retire in October after 37 years in the Navy. But he won’t be taking his coin out of his pocket.

“I may not be in uniform anymore, but I’ll always be a sailor,” he said, smiling. “Til the day I die, I’ll carry my coin with me.”

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Dr. JD Crouch II

USO CEO and President Dr. J.D. Crouch II holds his recently minted personal coin.

USO CEO and President Dr. J.D. Crouch II holds his recently minted personal coin.

USO CEO and President J.D. Crouch II had a clear direction in mind for his first personal coin.

USO President and CEO Dr. J.D. Crouch II shakes volunteers' hands. USO photo by Gretchen Ertl

Crouch greets USO volunteers last fall. USO photo by Gretchen Ertl

“[The USO is] a strong support center for that military family – for spouses, for children as well as the people who sort of orbit around that military family,” Crouch said. “So I thought having that at the center of my coin reflects everything we do: The service members themselves and the family members that also serve in their own way.

“I wanted this to be something that was both reflective of the values [of the USO] and also reflective of the emphasis that I want to place on things while I’m here.”

Valerie Donegan and Jonathan Matthews

USO Director of Information Technology Val Donegan, left, and USO Director of Logistics and Facilities Jonathan Matthews hold up a coin they both received in 2012 for their work building the USO Warrior and Family Center on Fort Belvoir, Virginia.

USO Director of Information Technology Valerie Donegan, left, and USO Director of Logistics and Facilities Jonathan Matthews display a coin they both received in 2012 for their on the USO Warrior and Family Center on Fort Belvoir, Virginia.

Valerie Donegan and Jonathan Matthews are critical to planning the USO’s computer and facilities infrastructures around the globe, which puts them in some interesting places.

In the photo above, Donegan is holding the coin then-Joint Force Headquarters-National Capital Region commander Maj. Gen. Michael T. Linnington gave them to commemorate their roles in building the USO Warrior and Family Center at Fort Belvoir, Virginia.

Donegan holds a coin she received in Iraq in 2009.

Donegan holds a coin she received in Iraq in 2009.

Donegan and Matthews were installing the USO’s downrange satellite communication system in 2009 when they received the coin in the inset photo at then-Balad Air Base in Iraq. It was a trip they’ll never forget for sobering reasons, including their leg in Afghanistan.

“[That trip was] also where I saw my first dignified transfer,” Donegan said. “We hadn’t been at the [USO Pat Tillman Center] for two hours …”

“And everybody stopped,” Matthews interjected.

“Everybody stopped and you lined up,” Donegan said. “That was my first time ever to see a [dignified transfer] out to a flight line.

“There’s nothing as powerful as standing on that flight line watching those coffins go by. … I think that’s really the first time I understood the role [the USO] plays.”


Joseph Andrew Lee

Joseph Andrew Lee holds up the coin President Barack Obama gave him in 2011.

Joseph Andrew Lee holds up the coin President Barack Obama gave him in 2011.

Joseph Andrew Lee has a knack for being in the right place at the right time. It’s a great skill to have if you’re a multimedia journalist like Lee, a gregarious former public affairs Marine who chronicles USO stories.

Joseph Andrew Lee

On Aug. 9, 2011, Lee was working at Dover Air Force Base in the wake of the greatest single-event loss of life U.S. Special Operations has experienced. Three days earlier, a Chinook helicopter carrying 38 coalition troops — including 31 Americans — was shot down in Afghanistan, killing everyone on board. That included 25 special operators. Lee traveled with several fellow employees from the USO’s Arlington, Virginia, offices to do whatever he could to support the mass dignified transfer through USO Delaware. He took a role refilling a cooler of drinks for families, service members and senior officials.

“Our task was to get these grieving families anything they needed,” Lee said.

Three hours in and soaked with sweat after unloading another palate, someone tapped Lee on the shoulder and asked “Hey, you mind if I grab one of those?”

“I looked up and it was the President of the United States,” Lee said.

President Barack Obama took the drink Lee handed him, recognized the USO logo on Lee’s shirt, and struck up a conversation.

“The first words out of his mouth were ‘Thank you for what you do. The USO’s a great organization,'” Lee said.

Lee told Obama that his USO experiences during his 10 years in the Marine Corps were the reason he decided to work for the nonprofit.

Obama then looked over at an aide who handed him something, turned back, and shook Lee’s hand, placing his presidential challenge coin in Lee’s palm in the process.

“He said ‘Thank you for your service and thank you even more for what you do for the USO today,'” Lee said. “And I thought that was pretty special.

“Obviously that day was nothing to celebrate. … Like a lot of medals that Marines receive, it was kind of a reminder of one of the saddest days I’ve served.”

Want to share your own challenge coin story? Send it to us at usomoments.org/stories.

2013 USO Marine of the Year Andrew Seif was One of 11 Killed in Florida Helicopter Accident

Staff Sgt. Andrew Seif

Staff Sgt. Andrew Seif at the 2013 USO Gala.

Andrew Seif was a hero with a chest full of ribbons and medals to prove it. He wasn’t much for talking about it, though.

Unfailingly polite with a sheepish smile, the Marine was reticent to recite his accomplishments when approached time after time by the press pool attending the 2013 USO Gala, where he was honored as the USO’s Marine of the Year.

He wasn’t naïve about what he’d done. Bragging just didn’t seem to be his thing.

The Department of Defense confirmed Friday that Seif was one of 11 service members killed Tuesday night when their helicopter crashed during a training mission near Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. The 27-year-old staff sergeant was awarded a Silver Star just four days before the accident, an honor he received for his actions in Afghanistan in 2012.

“Staff Sgt. Seif was one of the Marines … who really showed tremendous heroism and valor,” said Maj. Gen. Joseph L. Osterman, commander of the Marines Special Operations Command [MARSOC]. Osterman, who confirmed the seven Marine deaths Friday, is also the officer who presented the Silver Star to Seif just a week ago. “He and his family … really epitomize the silent warrior and quiet professional that really is the hallmark here at MARSOC.”

The other six Marines who died in Tuesday’s accident are Capt. Stanford Henry Shaw III of Basking Ridge, New Jersey, Master Sgt. Thomas Saunders of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, Staff Sgt. Liam Flynn of Queens, New York, Staff Sgt. Trevor P. Blaylock of Lake Orion, Michigan, Staff Sgt. Kerry Michael Kemp of Port Washington, Wisconsin and Staff Sgt. Marcus Bawol from Warren, Michigan. All seven men were stationed at Camp LeJeune and were members of MARSOC’s 2nd Special Operations Battalion.

Four National Guard soldiers were also killed in the accident, though they have not been officially identified.

“Staff Sgt. Andrew Seif was an American hero and a deserving recipient of the USO’s 2013 Marine of the Year Award,” said Dr. J.D. Crouch II, CEO and President of the USO. “Our hearts go out to his wife Dawn, their extended families, and the families of all 11 service members who died in Tuesday’s tragedy.”

Described by his commanding officer as a Marine with “tenacity, vigor and common sense that he applies to every task or endeavor he undertakes,” Seif was attempting to detain a high-value target on July 24, 2012, along with his teammate, Sgt. Justin Hansen. Hansen was shot several times as the duo approached a compound. Electing not to wait for reinforcements, Seif entered the compound alone and eliminated the threat. After clearing the compound, Seif returned to treat his teammate’s wounds while exposing himself to constant enemy fire. Despite Seif’s efforts, however, his teammate died later that day.

“There are definitely some individuals out there who deserve [the Silver Star] just as well,” Seif said at last week’s ceremony, according to the New Holland Sentinel. “But it’s an honor to accept it on the behalf of the unit and on behalf of the rest of the men.”

Seif, a New Holland, Michigan, native, leaves behind his wife of four-plus years, Dawn. The couple celebrated their third wedding anniversary in 2013 with fellow USO honorees.

Girl Scouts from Kansas, Missouri Bringing Sweet Treats to Troops at USO Fort Riley

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Whether they’re stateside or abroad, troops love Girl Scout cookies. The colorful boxes, iconic cookie names and familiar flavors provide service members around the world with a taste of home.

So when the Girl Scouts of Northeast Kansas and Northwest Missouri wanted to support troops in their communities via their donation-based Cookie Share Program, they partnered with the local USO at Fort Riley, Kansas.

“This is a really great partner for us — the USO,” said Gina Garvin, Girl Scouts of Northeast Kansas and Northwest Missouri’s vice president of brand and marketing.

Sharing is Caring

As the troops’ 2015 Cookie Share partner, USO Fort Riley will receive boxes of cookies sold door-to-door, online and at booths through March 15.

The girls give their customers the option to buy a box of cookies to donate directly to the USO, even if they don’t want to purchase a box to for themselves.

Once the cookies are delivered, USO Fort Riley will distribute the boxes to troops on local bases in the surrounding area.

“I hope that that box of Girl Scout cookies, whether they’re coming home or they’re here working at home, it gives [troops] a sense of … ‘Welcome home,’” Garvin said.

Although this is the first time USO Fort Riley will be the official Cookie Share partner, the troops have donated cookies USO Fort Riley before. In 2014, the local Girl Scout troops raised enough cookies for USO Fort Riley to use at programming events throughout the entire year.

Cookies Close to Home

Garvin said the large local military population was the main reason the troops chose to partner with USO Fort Riley.

In fact, a number of troops supporting this year’s Cookie Share Program, like Fort Riley’s Brownie Troop 5682 and Junior Troop 5683, are entirely composed of military children.

“We know these Girl Scouts. We want to support them,” Garvin said. “We want to put our arms around them and so this is just a really great way to do that.”

Troop 5682 and 5683 co-leaders Crystal Buotte Lary and Christina Glassford said their troops were immediately on-board with the USO connection, especially since they’d just prepared and sent boxes to troops overseas for the holidays.

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“What the USO does for families and especially deployed spouses, soldiers, single soldiers, we wanted our troops to be a part of that, to give back,” Glassford said.

From including the USO in their door-to-door sales pitch to decorating their cookie booths red, white and blue, the girls of Troops 5682 and 5683 took the 2015 Cookie Share cause to heart.

“We’re seeing them all get behind the USO and I think it’s because they can now see the military in their communities,” Garvin said.

Coining a Legend: Richard Roundtree Talks About ‘Being Mary Jane,’ ‘Shaft’ and his USO Tour

"Being Mary Jane" cast members B.J. Britt, Richard Roundtree and Aaron Spears joined the USO during a visit to Naval Base San Diego on Tuesday.

“Being Mary Jane” cast members B.J. Britt, Richard Roundtree, center, and Aaron Spears joined the USO during a visit to Naval Base San Diego on Tuesday.

When Richard Roundtree says you’re cool, is there anything left to accomplish?

Roundtree – the actor who played the title character in the “Shaft” franchise of the 1970s – had the all-too-civilian experience of being unexpectedly coined for the first time when he visited Naval Base San Diego on a USO tour Feb. 17.

He appreciated the base commanding officer’s style.

“He shook my hand and in the palm of his hand – I have it right here in front of me – he had this [coin],” the jovial actor said of his interaction with Capt. Curt Jones. “The way he gave it to me was just too cool.”

Roundtree knows cool. He’s spent five decades exuding it on screen, including his recent run on BET’s hit drama “Being Mary Jane.” Roundtree and co-stars B.J. Britt and Aaron Spears toured the base together last month.

“I was blown away seeing up close and personal what the Navy was about,” Roundtree said. “From a civilian’s point of view, I got to see a lot and it was wonderful.

“The icing on the cake was how appreciative the enlisted [troops] were toward us. It was just great. I loved it.”

The trio of actors mingled with troops and military family members, stopping to pose for photos and talk about their show and, of course, a little nostalgia.

“[Troops] were relating primarily to ‘Shaft’ understandably,’” said Roundtree, who had two paternal uncles who served in World War II. “I tried to push [“Being Mary Jane,” and they would say] ‘Oh yeah, yeah, we know all about that, but “Shaft” …’

“Even watching the Academy Awards the other night, there was the ‘Shaft’ theme in there at one point,” he said, chuckling.

Roundtree has transformed from an action hero to the man who polices the action in “Being Mary Jane.” He plays Paul Patterson Sr., the father of series star Gabriel Union’s Mary Jane Paul. The series has received positive reviews and was recently picked up for a third season.

“The beauty of it is the universality of the story lines are just great to be a part of,” he said. “Gabriele Union – the trials and tribulations she goes through with the extended family and I have to run kind of roughshod over this whole family – very exciting work. And challenging. I’m having a great time.”