Faces of the USO: A New Way to Serve

Screen Shot 2013-01-17 at 2.22.26 PMElizabeth Vallette’s first experience with the USO wasn’t exactly life-changing, but it lifted the spirits of a cash-poor West Point cadet making her way through an airport en route to a training assignment.

“Another cadet came running … up the terminal at us, screaming ‘Free hot dogs at the USO,’” Vallette said.

Later, during a 12-month deployment to Iraq with III Corps in 2004, the USO brought comedian Robin Williams to her base in Baghdad. “His show was perfect timing,” Vallette said. “It was just sinking in that things were not going well. We really needed the pick-me-up, and he delivered.”

After leaving the Army, Vallette spent time as an MBA student at the University of Houston and worked for a Canadian nonprofit in Kabul, Afghanistan.

When the project ended, she saw a job listing for a center director at USO Houston.“It hadn’t ever really occurred to me that you could actually work for the USO … and get paid,” she said.

Since July 2011, she has led a team that serves nearly 35,000 troops and family members with the help of a team of 400 volunteers.

Anyone who wants a taste of Vallette’s Houston hospitality should check out the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo’s World’s Championship in February and checkout the USO’s entry in the bar-b-cue contest. - Derek Turner, USO Sr. Editor

Away from Home for the Holidays: USO Events Spread Seasonal Cheer to Troops and Families

Among the many sacrifices our troops make, being away from family during the holidays is near the top of the list. The USO understands this and is constantly working to make sure troops all over the world know how much their efforts are appreciated.

Here’s a brief (and far from all-inclusive) look at holiday events the USO held for troops and families in the last week:

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Holiday cheer in the desert. USO photo

USO Bagram Duty Manager Michelle Turner, front bottom left and USO Forward Operating Base Fenty Duty Manager Jason Lewis, center right in red, helped troops deliver Christmas cheer to Forward Operating Base Torkham in Nangarhar province, Afghanistan, with a little help from Molson Air.

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Thanks to generous donations, military children in New England will get a few extra gifts this holiday season. USO photo

Thanks to generous donations, military children in New England will get a few extra gifts this holiday season. USO photo by Sarah Kelley

Instead of preselected gifts from anonymous donors, USO New England’s Little Elf pilot program allowed military families to shop for their gifts at Target. Each family was given a set amount to spend on their children, with USO staff and volunteers on hand to pay the bill with funds specifically donated for the endeavor and to wrap the gifts on site.

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Apparently, you’re never too old for a visit with Santa. USO photo

Santa and company found ways to make things festive at Camp Buehring, Kuwait. Check out their robust photo collection from December events here.

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A special guest at USO Fort Hood's Story Time. USO photo

A special guest at USO Fort Hood’s Story Time. USO photo

USO Fort Hood’s Story Time went down a different path last week when children got a visit from Santa. The recurring event–held for children up to 4 years old–featured a reading of “Santa Bear” and the distribution of stockings filled with a USO teddy bear, a juice box and animal crackers.

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Business and individuals from around the Washington, D.C., area pitched in big for USO Metro's Project Elf. USO photo

Businesses and individuals from around the Washington, D.C., area pitched in big for USO Metro’s Project Elf. USO photo

USO of Metropolitan Washington’s Project Elf brought hundreds of gifts to military children last week. USO Metro took toys and clothes purchased by donors for military kids in the local area, wrapped them and distributed them at Fort Meade, Md., and Fort Belvoir, Va.

–USO centers around the world are America’s way of supporting the troops. Show your support by making your year-end donation today here.

Google, USO Honor Military With Circus Performance

Screen Shot 2012-12-07 at 1.00.37 PMAs a part of Veterans Week NYC, the USO and Google teamed up with Big Apple Circus to provide laughs for more than 1,500 veterans, active duty service members and their families! This special performance opened with a full military color guard, with the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ performed by the USO Liberty Bells, and an had a guest ringmaster, Congressional Medal of Honor Recipient Paul Bucha of the U.S. Army. The show was held in NYC’s Lincoln Center and also streamed live on both YouTube and Google+.

Jenny Milewski, wife of SSGT Bryan Milewski  said “We were thrilled to have the opportunity to see the Big Apple Circus! Each family member had a favorite part—we had never been to the Big Apple Circus, but we are now going to make it a family tradition! This was one of the highlights of Veterans Week, and the USO has been so wonderful to our family.”

Watch some of the highlights with your family now!

USO Hawaii Volunteer Honored for 25 Years of Service

For most of America’s active-duty troops, 25 years seems like a lifetime. For George Villa, its been a rewarding chapter in a life of service.

George Villa, center left, and USO Hawaii Director Leigh Graham, center right, are seen at the Dec. 1 Service Salute in Hawaii. USO photo

George Villa, center left, and USO Hawaii Director Leigh Graham, center right, are seen at the Dec. 1 Service Salute in Hawaii. USO photo

Villa was honored at USO Hawaii’s Service Salute on Dec. 1, where he received a USO Lifetime Achievement Award for his 25-plus years of service to the organization along with the USO Hawaii Volunteer of the Year award.

“George is undeniably a key part of our operations in the Honolulu center,” USO Hawaii Director Leigh Graham said in a recent email.

Now 85 years old, Villa still commutes to the Honolulu International Airport via public transportation four days a week to perform his volunteer duties. Villa volunteered for 1,850 hours in the past year and a half, where he “provides directions, tips on places to visit, ideas on things to see, secrets on best places to eat and directions on how and where to catch ‘The Bus!’” according to a citation in the Service Salute program.

—Eric Brandner, Director of Story Development

Wounded Veteran Receives Home Makeover With Help From USO

The Extreme Makeover: Home Edition team presented the Harris family with a new, state-of-the-art house that helps wounded veteran Shilo Harris lead a more comfortable and enjoyable life. Photo courtesy of the Harris family

On February 19, 2007, while on patrol in Iraq, a massive IED struck the truck that SSG Shilo Harris was traveling in. Despite suffering devastating injuries, with burns to over 40% of his body, Shilo’s only concern was for the wellbeing of the men under his command, refusing medical treatment until he’d been assured that his troops were out of harm’s way. During the months of painful surgeries that followed, Shilo and his loyal wife, Kathreyn, found a true calling — to help wounded warriors through the agonizing and traumatic processes of recovery, rehabilitation and learning to face a life that will never be the same. Shilo, once sufficiently healed, began a career as a motivational speaker, giving hope to others similarly wounded, while Kathreyn, taking up the cause as well, began working for the Army Wounded Warrior Project. Shilo and Kathreyn have dedicated their lives to giving back.

With each day that passes the Harris family put more distance between themselves and the event that changed their lives, but their home still stands as a reminder of their struggles, as it cannot protect Shilo from dangerous dust and heat. The family have tried everything to make the home comfortable and safe, but whatever they do, it’s not enough. This hero who was disfigured in service to his country cannot find respite in his own home.

Tonight on ABC at 8:00 PM EST, watch as the “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” team changes all of that, with help from the USO.

‘It’s the Little Things’: Vet Drives 11 Hours to Donate Boxes of Supplies to USO Fort Campbell

It’s the single largest private donation ever received by USO Fort Campbell. And according to Center Director Kari Burgess-Brown, it’s also the most exuberant exchange she’s witnessed.

Jay and Kerri Giglio pose inside USO Fort Campbell, Ky., after driving from Texas to deliver 18 boxes of donated goods. USO Fort Campbell photo

Jay and Kerri Giglio pose inside USO Fort Campbell, Ky., after driving from Texas to deliver 18 boxes of donated goods. Photo courtesy of the Giglio family

For months, Burgess-Brown exchanged emails and phone calls with a passionate veteran from the Dallas area who couldn’t wait to give back to troops at his old command in Kentucky.

A veteran of 101st Airborne Division, Jay Giglio served during Operation Desert Storm, and for more than 20 years he has been working hard so that one day he might have the means to return the favor he received from generous Americans.

“At first he told us he was going to collect some things from his friends and co-workers and mail them to us,” Burgess-Brown said. “But as the weeks went by, his emails got more and more enthusiastic about the contributions he continued to receive from his community.”

Between Jay, his wife Kerri, their co-workers, and his wife’s two grown children, the Giglios gathered so many supplies that an 11-hour road trip became necessary in order to get the haul to Kentucky. In total, they collected 18 copy paper boxes full of things like snacks, games and hygiene supplies.

The Giglio's collected donation to USO Fort Campbell included snacks, games and hygiene supplies. USO photo

The Giglio’s collected donation to USO Fort Campbell included snacks, games and hygiene supplies. Photo Courtesy of the Giglio family

“We looked at the road trip as an opportunity for both of us because this is something Jay has wanted to do for a really long time, and I really wanted to see where he received his training,” Kerri Wilson-Giglio said. “I wanted to see where he was made into the great man he is today.”

For Jay, the donation was a chance to pay it forward.

“When I was at war, I remember opening a care package from a random citizen,” he said. “This person didn’t know me from Adam. In fact, I think it was even addressed to ‘Any Soldier.’ But when I opened it up and saw the thoughtful things inside, it gave me an overwhelming feeling of pride for my country.

“It’s the little things. The little things meant everything to us out there. It’s those little reminders from home, those things you can’t put a finger on that just aren’t easy to come by out there. Some of the things I remember clearly, like bobby pins and hair ties for the female soldiers. I remember crafting some of these things by hand for them because products like these were rare. The females are overlooked sometimes, and we made sure to include that stuff in our donation.”

But to Giglio’s surprise, the biggest hit within his 18 boxes of donated supplies wasn’t the bobby pins.

“When we told our guys in the field about the details of what we had coming their way, we were surprised to find out the troops were most excited about the assortment of condiments,” Burgess-Brown said.

“We had all these packets of sauce from random restaurants like Taco Bell and Chick-fil-A in our refrigerator just taking up space,” Jay Giglio said. “It was really an afterthought when we tossed them in there, but it makes sense that they would be a big hit. After all, troops must get tired of flavoring MREs with Tabasco.”

Filled with the confidence and pride of knowing their contributions were well received, the Giglio family returned to Texas with the determination to return to USO Fort Campbell each year with even more supplies for the troops of the 101st Airborne.

“I always said I would if I could,” he said. “And now I can — so I am.”

To make a similar donation, contact your local USO center or visit www.uso.org/donate.