Caregivers of Wounded, Ill and Injured Troops Get Lessons in Resiliency at USO Seminar

Brooks, left, chats with another caregiver attendee.

Angela Brooks, left, chats with another caregiver attendee.

FORT LEONARD WOOD, Missouri—Angela Brooks can’t remember the last time she put herself first.

Between working, taking care of her children and caring for her disabled Air Force veteran husband of 20 years —who struggles with PTSD — there’s little time left at to address her personal needs.

“I literally have the world on my shoulders,” Brooks said. “[Caregivers like me] do a lot and it’s not so much physical anguish, it’s mental anguish, and that’s hard, hard.”

So when Brooks heard Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, was hosting a USO Caregivers Seminar — a day of interactive programming designed to address the immediate needs of those who care for wounded, ill and injured service members — she knew she had to attend.

Brooks, second from the right, plays a icebreaker game between sessions

Brooks, second from the right, plays a icebreaker game between sessions.

“I came because I wanted it to be about me [and my needs for a change],” Brooks said.

After participating in the two morning sessions, which featured gameon Nation Vice President Blair Bloomston and Stronger Families Executive Director Noel Meador, respectively, Brooks — who’d never attended any type of caregiver-centric programming before — was already glad she came.

“I felt very isolated up until today,” Brooks said. “[But today at the USO Caregivers Seminar] I feel comfortable. I feel safe and I feel like I’m not going to be judged.”

Brooks, far right, takes a selfie as part of an icebreaker activity.

Brooks, far right, takes a selfie as part of an icebreaker activity.

Brooks even felt comfortable enough to share details about her daily challenges with the entire room during a communications skill development activity. Brooks admits she relished in the rare opportunity to talk about the sometimes-difficult task of being a caretaker with other people who are experiencing similar situations.

“I just want to learn more and be open and this environment is very opening and freeing,” Brooks said. “What I was talking about earlier, [my personal story], there was no way I would have said that in certain [other] settings.”

“I just really really appreciate people thinking of us,” Brooks said.

Bloomston, second from left, plays a game with a caregiver

Bloomston, second from left, plays a game with a caregiver.

According to Bloomston, even the simplest, quietest games can have a profound and lasting impact.

Take the game of Coins for example. To play, Bloomston asked attendees to think of a list of things that made them smile, shine and feel valuable. There was one catch: none of the participants’ ideas — which are called Coins in this game — can include things that were related to their role as a caregiver. For example, a standard list of acceptable Coins might include favorite foods, favorite places or simply the role of being a sibling, friend or family member.

Attendees play the game of 'Zip Zap Za' at the game on Nation session.

Attendees play the game of ‘Zip Zap Za’ at the game on Nation session.

Once attendees had their list, Bloomston asked them to pause and focus on their Coins for a moment. Many caregivers in the room started to smile. Then, after the time was up, Bloomston asked participants write down or remember their Coins so they could always carry them, metaphorically, in their pocket for empowerment the next time they face a difficulty as a caregiver.

Although it might not seem like much, Bloomston says the game, along with other gameon Nation games, can lead to huge improvements in how caregivers approach their challenges.

“You can tell somebody a statement like ‘Be confident’ or, you can put them through and experience and feel what it’s like to be confident and the spirit of play and the science of game dynamics makes that moving experience happen in a very quick way,” Bloomston said. “Caregivers can use these skills … to do their job with excellence and stay revitalized and give oxygen back to themselves.”

In fact, Bloomston’s already seen the positive impact on previous USO Caregivers Seminar attendees who have participated in gameon Nation sessions.

“The best part of the feedback is when I return to a base or when I return to a post years later and people come up to me and say ‘I still have my coins in my pocket,'” Bloomston said.

Love Connection: USO of New York Volunteers Marry After Meeting at the Port Authority Center

Prentice-Faller and Faller pose at the Douglas MacArthur Center USO. Photo courtesy Joy Prentice-Faller

Joy Prentice-Faller and Maj. Joe Faller pose at the Douglas MacArthur Center USO. Photo courtesy Joy Prentice-Faller

Joy Prentice-Faller wasn’t looking for love when she started volunteering at the USO in 2011.

Instead, it found her.

It started one Saturday morning in 2012 at the USO of Metropolitan New York’s Douglas MacArthur Center inside the Port Authority Bus Terminal, when Prentice-Faller showed up early to teach Marine Reserve Maj. Joe Faller how to open the center.

Unbeknownst to Prentice-Faller and Pat Walsh — the USO of Metropolitan New York’s manager of programs and services who coordinated the shift — Faller had already been trained.

“We realized that it wasn’t his first time [opening the center] and that we had just kind of gotten put on the schedule together,” Prentice-Faller said. “But that started more of the first conversation [between us].”

After that shift, the duo started to see each other outside of the USO and eventually began dating.

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“I think volunteering together gave us something in common, or just kinda showed us that we had similar values because we could kinda work together as a team, or work together and be on the same page,” Faller said.

No one at the center knew about their relationship until about six months later, when the couple was walking side-by-side in New York City’s Veterans Day parade.

“[Walsh] kind of figured it out when [she saw that] we were holding hands walking up Fifth Avenue with the USO float,” Prentice-Faller said.

Pat Walsh gives a toast at Prentice-Faller and Faller's wedding. Photo courtesy Joy Prentice-Faller

USO of Metropolitan New York’s Pat Walsh gives a toast at Prentice-Faller wedding. Photo courtesy Joy Prentice-Faller

The two got engaged in 2013 and were married last year. They even asked Walsh to give a toast at the reception and talk about how they met.

“So when nobody was really telling that story [of how they met at the USO], I thought, I have to tell it,’” Walsh said.

“When you put people on the same shift, you don’t know that [they’re] going to get married, of course.”
The couple still volunteers at the USO’s Port Authority location.

Safe From the Madness: USO of Illinois Gives Stranded Military Spouse a Place To Stay During Crazy Weekend

Siobhan Brennan-Sharer and her husband,

Siobhan Brennan-Sharer and her husband, Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Joshua Sharer. Photo courtesy Siobhan Brennan-Sharer

When Siobhan Brennan-Sharer visited her husband in Chicago for Valentine’s Day weekend this year, nothing seemed to go as planned.

From the delay of her initial flight to Chicago from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, to getting tangled in a 40-car pileup in freezing weather, Brennan-Sharer’s reunion with her husband — who she hadn’t seen in a month and half — was anything but magical.

“It was an all-around crummy weekend,” Brennan-Sharer wrote in an email. “Not how I wanted to spend the weekend with my husband.”

Improbably, things got even worse.

At the end of the weekend, Brennan-Sharer said her goodbyes and headed back to Chicago O’Hare International Airport for her flight home. When she arrived, Brennan-Sharer discovered her flight was cancelled and she wouldn’t be able to fly out until the next day.

Her husband, Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Joshua Sharer, was on duty and couldn’t come pick her up. She called her mother, a retired Marine, for advice on what to do next. Her mom said to find the USO.

Brennan-Sharer headed to the USO of Illinois O’Hare Center, where she was greeted by volunteers who told her she could spend the night at the 24-hour center while waiting her flight. One volunteer even spent time chatting with Brennan-Sharer when she noticed she was crying.

“After all that had happened that weekend, it was awesome to walk in, see friendly faces that helped me and made me feel safe,” Brennan-Sharer wrote.

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“I was there for about 18 hours all together,” she wrote, “and it was great to be somewhere away from home and feel safe and not having to worry about how much extra this canceled flight was going to cost me.”

During her stay, Brennan-Sharer met a number of USO volunteers, including police officer Tim Walsh and his 7-year-old son, Rylan Walsh, who had skipped his Boy Scout pizza party to volunteer with his dad.

Brennan-Sharer — whose father is also a police officer — was particularly touched by the father-son duo, and gave Tim Walsh a challenge coin from her father’s sheriff’s department.

“[I] said he could keep it or give it to his little boy,” she wrote. “He [also] wanted to send me a patch and a challenge coin as [well], so I gave him my information and he just sent [the items] to me a few weeks ago.”

Even though her weekend didn’t go exactly as she had hoped — the airline even lost her luggage on her flight home — Brennan-Sharer still thinks fondly about her time at the USO of Illinois O’Hare Center.

“It was definitely a great place to just catch my breath from the crazy weekend,” she wrote.

USO Steps in to Help Stranded Military Teen and Give Worried Mom Piece Of Mind

Marlene Kenney and her family. Photo courtesy Marlene Kenney

Marlene Chapman and her family. Photo courtesy Marlene Chapman

Marlene Chapman never thought her kids would need the USO.

But after her 19-year-old daughter, Mareena Brown, found herself alone, upset and stranded overnight in the Denver airport, Chapman, who’s married to Air Force 1st Lt. Joseph Chapman, was relieved the USO was there to lend a hand.

“I can’t explain it, except to say, I am crying (again) thinking how relieved I was knowing she felt safe. Knowing she was safe,” Chapman wrote in an email. “I always thought it was for the ones serving, not their families.”

Chapman and Brown’s USO story began long before any plane tickets were booked.

A few years back, Chapman and her children lived in Colorado. That’s where Brown met her friend Cali Lurvey, whose father was in the Army. But military families rarely stay in one place for long. Eventually, Brown moved to Salt Lake City with her mother, and Cali relocated to Minot, South Dakota, with her family. The girls remained close and continued to grow their friendship, particularly when Brown struggled with health issues and Graves’ disease during high school.

Brown eventually graduated high school and started to regain her health. She resumed everyday activities, too, including getting a job at a local call center. After earning her first paycheck, Brown decided to spend the money to visit Cali. So she booked a flight to Minot, packed her bag and had Chapman drop her off at the airport.

“She was very nervous about traveling alone,” Chapman wrote. “I was even more nervous.”

When Brown landed in Denver, she received a series of flight delay texts, and later, a notification that her connecting flight to Minot was cancelled. Alone, and facing a night in the airport without her luggage, Brown called her mother, who suggested she head to Denver International Airport’s USO center.

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After signing in with a volunteer, calming herself down and fueling up on a sandwich and juice, Brown called her mother to let her know that everything was going to be alright.

“She told me to thank Joe (my husband) for being awesome and in the Air Force,” Chapman wrote. “She said the USO felt safe.”

Even though the center closed 10 p.m., Brown said the USO volunteers gave her plenty of snacks and books to keep her happy in the main terminal until the center re-opened at 6 a.m. The next day, Brown went back to the USO and spent her morning relaxing at the center before catching her flight to Minot.

After her experience with the USO, Brown told her mother that she’d like to look into volunteering at her local USO.

“I told her that we will all look into it as a family,” Chapman wrote. “I am grateful to the USO for helping me find peace of mind while she was traveling. We definitely want to be part of the USO community, family, organization.”

USO Centers Around the World Host Eggstravagant Easter and Spring Celebrations

As flowers begin to bloom and birds begin to sing, USO centers are busy planning and hosting special Easter- and spring-themed events for troops and their families.

Here’s a look at what USO centers are doing around the world.

Europe

USO Grafenwoehr, Germany
On Easter Sunday, USO Grafenwoehr will host the Hippity Hoppity Easter Festival featuring crafts, Easter basket drawings, an Easter egg hunt and photos with the Easter Bunny. Military families attending the event can also enjoy a barbecue festival.

USO Kaiserslautern, Germany
On March 28, USO Kaiserslautern supported the 10th AAMDC Easter Egg Hunt on Rhine Ordinance Barracks with its mobile canteen. The USO provided attendees plenty of food to enjoy between hunting for eggs and taking photos with the Easter Bunny. USO Kaiserslautern served a menu of hot dogs, popcorn and cotton candy made in its brand new cotton candy machine.

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USO Stuttgart, Germany
USO Stuttgart hosted an Easter egg hunt Thursday for military children ages 5 and under. The Easter Bunny even made a special visit by the center to help the little hunters search for Easter treats.

USO Naples, Italy
USO Naples hosted a children’s activity event March 28 at the local MWR’s Easter Eggstravaganza. Over 1,000 people stopped by the USO tent, which featured face painting, pin the tail on the Easter Bunny, a can toss, bean bag games, a bunny hop relay and more.

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USO Rome, Italy
On March 28, USO Rome participated in the annual Easter Egg Hunt event at the U.S. ambassador’s residence. More than 100 children and their families attended the event and enjoyed the games, prizes, balloons and face painting.

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Pacific

USO Yokosuka, Japan
USO Yokosuka hosted a special egg-dying event Thursday. All of the painted eggs were donated to be part of an egg hunt at an orphanage near Camp Fuji.

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USO Kadena, Japan
Military families looking to ring in the spring season can stop by the Four Diamonds Softball Complex on Saturday for USO Kadena’s annual Eggsplosion event. Visitors can enjoy a giant Easter egg hunt, inflatables, pictures with the Easter Bunny and more from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. local time.

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Southwest Asia

USO Camp Buehring, Kuwait
On Easter Sunday, troops can stop by USO Camp Buehring at 6 p.m. local time for a special Easter Eggstravaganza celebration.

USO Kandahar, Afghanistan
To celebrate Easter and the start of spring, USO Kandahar will host a special spring pancake event Sunday at noon local time. Troops can enjoy a home-cooked meal of flapjacks and maple syrup while relaxing at the USO.

Stateside

USO Colorado Springs, Colorado
On Saturday , USO Colorado Spring will host a special Easter egg hunt for military children ages 1 to 10 from 1 to 3 p.m. local time. In addition to searching for Easter treats, kids can take pictures with the Easter Bunny and Ernie the Eagle, enjoy entertainment by the Shriner clowns and Cartoon Bill, and enjoy crafts, pizza and other snacks.

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USO Fort Hood, Texas
USO Fort Hood was on the ground at the Fort Hood Warrior Transition Unit’s Spring Fest last weekend, where more than 200 military members celebrated the arrival of spring. As part of the festivities, attendees enjoyed Easter egg hunts, face painting and visiting with the Easter Bunny.

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USO of Wisconsin
The USO of Wisconsin will kick of spring with a bang at its annual USO Easter Eggstravaganza at Cudahy High School on April 11 from 11:45 a.m. to 2 p.m. local time. This family event, which is open to the public, will feature games, crafts, egg hunts, pictures with the Easter Bunny and more. All proceeds raised from the day’s festivities will go towards supporting military families through the USO of Wisconsin’s various programs. You can register for the event here.

USO San Diego
The Easter Bunny stopped by USO San Diego’s Downtown Center on March 29 to meet with military families over a spring-themed breakfast. Families enjoyed waffles, eggs, bacon and fruit prepared by GR Catering/Gourmet Rotisserie Events before story time with United Through Reading and meeting the Easter Bunny. There was music from the Hullabaloo band, balloon artists and baskets of toys for each child in attendance.

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Peyton Manning, Stevie Nicks And Other Stars Shine at USO of Metropolitan Washington-Baltimore’s 33rd Annual Awards Dinner

ARLINGTON, Va. — For Peyton Manning, Stevie Nicks, Sebastian Junger and Seema Reza, it was a night to remember.

The four stars, along with nearly 30 Medal of Honor recipients, were honored last night for their contributions to the military community at the USO of Metropolitan Washington-Baltimore’s 33rd Annual Awards Dinner.

Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning accepts the USO-Metro Merit Award. USO Photo by Mike Theiler

Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning accepts the USO-Metro Merit Award. USO Photo by Mike Theiler

Manning, who traveled to Europe and the Persian Gulf on the USO Vice Chairman’s tour in 2013, has been an active supporter of the military throughout his entire NFL career.

“I really had a life-changing experience on my USO tour two years ago,” Manning said. “Just how they’re protecting our freedom, their service to our country, [it’s] very inspiring and I’m really glad that I took the trip.”

The Denver Broncos quarterback received the USO-Metro Merit Award for dedicating his time to help lift the spirits of troops all around the world

Stevie Nicks accepts the USO Achievement Award.

Stevie Nicks accepts the USO Achievement Award.

Five years ago, Nicks received a last-minute invitation to visit troops at Naval Support Activity Bethesda — home of Walter Reed National Military Medical Center — and has committed to spending time with wounded, ill and recovering service members ever since.

Nicks, who wrote the 2011 song, “Soldier’s Angel,” about her numerous visits with wounded troops as part of USO-Metro’s celebrity handshake tours, received the USO Achievement Award for donating her time, talent and treasure to helping bring smiles to recovering troops.

Sebastian Junger accepts the Legacy of Hope Award. USO Photo by Mike Theiler

Sebastian Junger accepts the Legacy of Hope Award. USO Photo by Mike Theiler

Junger, a war correspondent, best-selling author and Oscar-nominated filmmaker received the Legacy of Hope Award for his heart-wrenching storytelling. His most recent documentary works – “Restrepo,” “Korengal” and “The Last Patrol” – focus on the challenges military members endure during combat and upon returning home.

“I was thrilled to sort of discover that those works were very helpful to soldiers [and] emotionally useful to soldiers,” Junger said.

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Seema Reza (far left) poses for photos before the USO of Metropolitan Washington-Baltimore’s 33rd Annual Awards Dinner.

Reza, a poet and essayist, has spent years working with wounded, ill and injured service members at military hospitals and USO Warrior and Family Centers at Fort Belvoir, Virginia and Bethesda, Maryland.

She conducts art workshops for service members recovering from visible and invisible wounds and said “the work that I’ve been able to do is its own reward.”

Reza received the Col. John Gioia Patriot Award for her outstanding commitment to helping recovering troops navigate the healing process.