8 Ways the USO Connects Troops To Home

A service member uses the internet at the USO.

From the moment they step into boot camp to the time when they transition to civilian life, troops rely on the USO to help them stay connected to their to friends and family. Here’s eight of the ways the USO does it.

1. Getting troops online: Free Internet access is one of the most popular services at USO centers today. While some USO centers offer computers for troops to use, nearly all of them offer free WiFi for people who bring their own devices. Even our Mobile USO units, like the ones we sent to Brooklyn to comfort troops cleaning up after Superstorm Sandy, are WiFi-enabled so troops serving in remote locations can get online.

2. Skyping into the delivery room: Did you know that the USO helps expecting military dads Skype into the delivery room for their baby’s birth, even if they’re abroad? Marine Capt. Nick Whitefield experienced this USO service first-hand when he watched his wife Laura deliver the couples’ second child, Ethan Whitefield, via a USO-provided Skype connection at Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan.

“The fact that I could be there, electronically, over Skype was huge,” Nick said. “It was great. It was a phenomenal experience.”

A troop makes a call from the USO in Bagram, Afghanistan. USO photo by Dave Gatley

3. Free phone calls home: In 2003, the USO launched Operation Phone Home to provide troops with free phone cards so they can call their loved ones at no cost — even when they’re in remote locations. Some USO centers abroad also offer troops access to a private phone network so they can call home on a safe, secure and reliable line inside the center.

One of these free phone calls even helped a new dad hear his baby girl’s first cries in 2006.

“The USO made that call possible for me,” said former Marine Alexander Carpenter. “And to this day I have never said thank you. … Thank you USO.”

4. Keeping story time alive: Thanks to the USO partnership with United Through Reading, deployed troops can record themselves reading a storybook at a USO center and send the DVD recording back home for their children to watch and digitally connect with them in their absence.

Navy Lt. Matthew Stroup records himself reading a book to his children during a United Through Reading event in Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of Matthew Stroup

Navy Lt. Matthew Stroup records himself reading a book to his children. Photo courtesy of Matthew Stroup

While preparing for a deployment form Japan to the Middle East in 2012, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Victor Glover told his squad about the United Through Reading program and received an overwhelming number of requests to participate. He even recorded stories for his own children.

“It was important. They really got a kick out of being able to see me,” Glover said. “At the end of the recordings, I said a message to them. I used each of their names and I said something to the effect of ‘I love you, be good, be supportive to your mom and goodnight’ because I imagined they’d do the books right before bedtime.”

5. Giving the gift of gaming: Video games are one of our younger service members’ favorite ways to unwind. That’s why most USO centers have gaming stations featuring popular video games like “Call of Duty” and “Halo.” At some centers, service members can even play the games against friends and family around the globe online in real time.

But troops aren’t always stationed near brick-and-mortar USO centers. With that in mind, the USO developed the Mobile Entertainment Gaming System (MEGS) so service members can enjoy video games no matter their location.

6. Serving up comfort foods from home: Sometimes, all it takes to make service members feel connected to home is taste of their favorite foods. That’s why USO patrons can always find a variety of snack, drink and meal options at centers around the world. Some centers, like USO Great Lakes, provide a free, home-cooked meals for troops, while others, like many Southwest Asia centers, always seem to be churning out comforting sweet treats, like homemade ice cream.

A Halloween/Thanksgiving USO Holiday Box from 2011.

A Halloween/Thanksgiving USO Holiday Box from 2011.

7. Bringing the holidays to troops abroad: Being deployed during a special holiday can make troops feel even further from home. That’s why many USO centers host a number special parties and events around those red calendar days.

Troops in remote areas far from a USO center can even get in on the fun, too, thanks to the USO Holiday Boxes program. These special seasonal boxes, filled with games, decorations and other festive supplies are designed to help service members celebrate the year’s special days in any location. There are four seasonal boxes units can request throughout the year, including a Halloween/Thanksgiving box that helped a handful of service members have a spooky Halloween back in 2011.

8. Welcoming troops home: Even though a homecoming is already a joyful occasion for military families, the USO has a history of stepping in to make the day even more memorable. From helping arriving troops freshen up before reuniting with their loved ones to coordinating surprise homecomings like this, this, and this, the USO there to celebrate military families finally reconnecting after a long deployment apart.

Worldwide USO Teamwork Helps Bring Marine Home for Grandfather’s Funeral

A old photo of J.D. Scott during his military service. Photo courtesy Bryant Scott

A old photo of J.D. Scott during his military service. Photo courtesy Marine Lance Cpl. Bryant Scott

Bryant Scott knew he was in for a long trip, a lot of waiting and some personal grief.

But he didn’t expect the two people holding the sign.

The Marine lance corporal was stationed on Okinawa, Japan, in April when his grandfather — Korean War veteran J.D. Scott — suffered a stroke and unexpectedly passed away.

Bryant put in a request for emergency leave so he could travel to Granbury, Texas, to attend the funeral. Once his command approved the request, Bryant waited three days at Kadena Air Base before securing a seat on a military flight to Travis Air Force Base, California.

“I had no real logistical plan besides return stateside and improvise as much as possible,” Bryant wrote in an email.

During a layover in Hawaii, Bryant called a cab company and arranged for it pick him up at Travis and drive him to the Sacramento International Airport — the closest commercial airport to the base — where he’d try to find a flight home. That’s when the USO stepped in.

Lance Cpl. Bryant Scott. Photo courtesy Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Bryant Scott

Lance Cpl. Bryant Scott. Photo courtesy Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Bryant Scott

While Bryant was flying over the ocean, his family readiness officer told the USO Pacific office about the situation. USO staff there reached out to the USO Regional Office back in the United States to see if anyone at USO Bay Area could drive Bryant to Sacramento so he wouldn’t have to pay for a long, expensive cab ride late at night. Chris and Mary Ann Mezzapelle, who were volunteering at USO Travis at the time, heard about the Marine’s situation and offered to pick him up and drive him wherever he needed to go.

Bryant landed at Travis around 10:30 p.m. and — much to his surprise — saw the Mezzapelles, who were waiting for him with a “Lance Cpl. Bryant Scott” sign and a USO gift basket.

“I was still somewhat shocked,” Bryant wrote. “I think I asked for their identification to make sure they were legitimate [USO volunteers], or something along those lines.”

After a series of explanations, introductions and assuring Bryant that he wouldn’t have to pay for any cab rides that night, the Mezzapelles helped the Marine book a more convenient flight home out of San Francisco International Airport for the next morning and drove him to that airport. At some point during the drive, the Mezzapelles stopped at Denny’s and treat Bryant to a meal.

“They didn’t ask for anything in return, no matter the amount of times I offered to pay them for gas, food and their time,” Bryant wrote. “I still am just so overwhelmed by their kindness.”

The Mezzapelles pose in front of the USO logo. Photo courtesy Chris Mezzapelle

The Mezzapelles pose in front of the USO logo. Photo courtesy Chris Mezzapelle

Once they arrived at San Francisco International, where the Mezzapelles also volunteer, Mary Ann escorted Bryant to the 24-hour USO center so he could get some rest before his early flight the next morning.

“It sounds kind of selfish, but it makes us feel great,” Chris said. “We really enjoy doing [volunteer work at the USO]. I used the USO when I was in the service back in the early seventies.”

The next morning, rested and refueled with USO refreshments, Bryant took off for Texas, making it home in time to pay his respects to his grandfather.

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“After all the horrible events that had happened to my family, along with the animosity and adversity I encountered while trying to make it home, I was overcome with heartfelt joy and gratitude,” Bryant wrote. “I didn’t know what to say to show my appreciation, hopefully my face and constant ‘thank you’s (which probably became annoying after a while) was enough to show how truly appreciative I am/was.”

Bryant even wrote a poem in honor of the Mezzapelles:

A miracle does not always have to be a mighty act of God
Or some great deed
Or overcoming the impossible
Or walking barefoot on the sea
Miracles come unexpectedly
As an answer to a prayer
To how an act of love
And that someone truly cares
It can be lending a hand to a neighbor
It can be helping a friend in need
It can be doing someone a favor
Without asking for anything
With any act of kindness
Mighty, great, or small
Miracles can happen all the time
When you reach out and lift other from despair
I know because there was a time when I was in need
and you were the ones who were truly there

USO Follows Troops Back to Baghdad with New Location

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If the military is going back into Iraq, then so is the USO.

USO services hadn’t been requested in the region since the 2011 drawdown. But that changed over the July 4th weekend when — with the help of troops there — the USO stood up an unstaffed location in Baghdad.

The facility was set up in a matter of days and features Internet connectivity, food and beverages, video games and a plethora of creative games and holiday supplies from USO2GO kits to keep troops there entertained.

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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 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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