Why I Volunteer: Suzy Hicks – USO Fort Drum, N.Y.

The USO is highlighting its volunteers from around the world to mark National Volunteer Week, which runs April 21-27. We asked a few of them to tell us why they give their time to the USO. Here is a reply from Suzy Hicks, a former service member, combat veteran and the current USO Volunteer of the Quarter for the Continental United States Region:

Volunteering with the USO Fort Drum is a fun and enjoyable way to give back to our service members who give so much of themselves every day.

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USO Fort Drum volunteer Suzy Hicks, center, is a former soldier who did four combat deployments. USO photo

As a prior service member, I know firsthand the value that the USO has to the troops. From a comfortable place to grab a snack or a cup of coffee on base, at an airport, or even in deployed locations, the USO volunteers can be counted on for a smile and a friendly hello. Our mission is to lift the spirit of America’s troops and their families, and that is exactly what we do at the USO Fort Drum.

The family of volunteers at USO Fort Drum is made up of civilians, family members, veterans and even soldiers who work together to keep the center running smoothly six days a week while operating numerous other events we have going at any given time. I enjoy working with my fellow volunteers towards our goal of putting a smile on our soldiers’ faces. We have so many volunteers who selflessly give hours of their time each week to be there for our troops and their families.

Perhaps the most rewarding mission that I have had the opportunity to be a part of is Here When They Land. As a USO volunteer, I am able to be one of the first people to welcome our brave heroes back from deployment. After a long journey back to the states, these soldiers are always happy to see us with our fresh hot coffee and snacks. It is an honor to personally welcome home and thank our troops for a job well done. I can’t think of a better organization to be a part of!

–Suzy Hicks, USO Fort Drum volunteer

Why We Volunteer: Army Spc. Thibaut Lenkoue and Patrick Jenkins – USO Warrior Center at Ramstein Air Base, Germany

The USO is highlighting its volunteers from around the world to mark National Volunteer Week, which runs April 21-27. We asked a few of them to tell us why they give their time to the USO. Here are two of their replies.

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From left, USO Warrior Center volunteer Patrick Jenkins, entertainer Nick Cannon and Army Spc. Thibaut Lenkoue — also a USO volunteer — pose earlier this month at the USO Warrior Center at Ramstein Air Base, Germany. USO photo

Volunteering for me means love, giving and sharing great moments.

When I first came here, I thought only civilians worked at the USO. I enjoy every single moment that I spend here. The USO [volunteers and staff] are awesome, always polite, hard working professionals. I was happy to spend time here because I had found a home far from home. So when I discovered that I could volunteer at the USO, I decided to do so to take care of other members of this new family [and] give back what I have enjoyed.

It is always a pleasure to take care of people and make them realize that we appreciate all [their] sacrifices.

–Army Spc. Thibaut Lenkoue, volunteer at the USO Warrior Center at Ramstein Air Base, Germany

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Volunteering is an important way to give back what the soldiers have sacrificed and given to me. If you haven’t already taken part of this opportunity of volunteering for the USO, I highly recommend it.

I am a 21-year-old student who recently relocated all the way from Florida to Ramstein, Germany. My mom, a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force, was temporarily deployed here and I took the opportunity to come here and stay for school.

I started volunteering at the USO Warrior Center in February and I have over 350 hours and counting. I don’t think of it as “getting hours,” because I have to, or just being here for the events or the food (even though most people will tell you that all I do is eat). I volunteer for our soldiers [because] we try to make this a home away from home. In return, it makes me feel that I am at home and – in a way – leaves me feeling like I’m helping with the whole mission.

The staff have become my parents and the soldiers and volunteers have become my brothers and sisters. I always say “If I’m not working or at school you can find me at the USO Warrior Center volunteering,” as as I like to think of it as going home (I just have to leave every night).

–Patrick Jenkins, volunteer at the USO Warrior Center at Ramstein Air Base, Germany

Why I Volunteer: Capt. (Select) Mark Kleinhenz, USO of North Carolina

The USO is highlighting its volunteers from around the world to mark National Volunteer Week, which runs April 21-27. We asked a few of them to tell us why they give their time to the USO. Here is one of their replies.

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Navy Capt. (S) Mark Kleinhenz

My name is Mark Kleinhenz. I am a USO Volunteer. I am also an active reservist in the Navy. I have been proudly volunteering at the USO of North Carolina’s Charlotte Douglas International Airport center for just over a year.

It was an honor to be selected as a volunteer. It is something I plan to do for many years to come. Why? Because after 21 years of service to our country, it was time to give back to those I am so proud to serve alongside and those who have served before me.

My volunteer experience has been outstanding and rewarding to the point where I actively recruit my friends to sign up to volunteer with me. I want to share this experience because my fellow volunteers at our USO in the Charlotte airport are family, and they each feel as I do. Every time you volunteer, you see familiar faces – fellow volunteers, folks flying out for their drill weekends and other veterans who are frequent fliers. I volunteer because while I feel serving your country is important, serving those who serve our country is equally important. I get a kick out of the fact that the young soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen and spouses who come through have now idea who just made them a cup of coffee or welcomed them in the door. That is the way it should be at a USO. Rank doesn’t matter when you walk in our doors – only that you served or are serving your country.

Throughout my Navy career, I have stopped into every USO I have run across – Camp As Sayliyah in Qatar, Vicenza and Naples, Italy, both of Dallas’ excellent facilities and many others, including the two best USOs I have ever been to – the USO in Guam and our own USO of North Carolina’s Charlotte airport center. I have always received warm welcomes, something to eat or drink, a free phone call if I needed it, an Internet connection and the ability to swap out a good book out for a trip wherever I was heading. This service year after year while flying in and out of Charlotte and stopping by my USO is what motivated me to volunteer.

USO facilities are great. However, it is USO volunteers that truly make the difference. I can confidently say that USO volunteers are cut from the same cloth in every location. To a person, every volunteer does their best to make every service member – active, reserve and retired – feel special. We strive to ensure people feel welcome and are made to feel at home during their visit. If you want to do something very positive in your life, become a USO Volunteer!

–Story by Navy Capt. (Select) Mark W. Kleinhenz, USO of North Carolina volunteer

Volunteers Ready to Serve at New USO Warrior & Family Center

The largest USO Center ever built!

The largest USO Center ever built!

“Give the service member 100% of your attention.”  I wrote this down during today’s volunteer training at the new Fort Belvoir USO Warrior and Family Center.  Simple statement, HUGE impact.

I was attending training to better understand the new Center and all of its features, but in my head I kept circling back to that statement.  “100% of your attention.”  I was having a hard time devoting 100% of my attention to the training!  My virtual to-do list racing through my head:  Did that reporter email me back?…What is the deadline on that press release?…Expense reports are due!

Of course, for these volunteers, devoting time and attention to our nation’s troops and their families is second nature.  350 individuals signed up to volunteer at the new Warrior and Family Center in just a few short months, all before the Center is even open.  350 Washington, DC area residents.   Moms, dads, retirees, college students- all with one thing in common: a desire to support our nation’s men and women in uniform.

This new Center may be unique in size (the largest USO Center in history) and design (20 rooms with unique functions and purpose), but it shares something in common with our more than 160 USO locations around the globe- our volunteers will serve as the heart and soul of the Center.

From our active duty military who work patrols in the field during the day and spend their free evening volunteering in our Centers in Afghanistan and Kuwait, to the many military spouses who take time away from their own families to support those deployed troops serving in Europe and the Pacific regions, to the volunteers stateside who serve “no dough dinners” at USO Centers on military installations.  We also can’t forget the airport volunteers who greet traveling service men and women with hot coffee and a comfortable seat, and those volunteers that we hope to never meet, those who take the call, anytime, day or night, and support the families receiving their fallen soldier.

These individuals, thousands of them around the globe, are the life force of every USO Center.  They give 100% of their attention to our nation’s heroes.  I don’t know your names, but I know your passion.  You do what so many of us cannot, devote fully of yourself and your talents.  Thank you for your service. - Andrea Sok, USO Communications Manager

** See what volunteer opportunities are available near you at USOVolunteer.org! **

Total Strangers and Roller Skates: A Chance Encounter at USO Delaware Brings Back a 50-Year-Old Memory

Rose Hirth, a volunteer at USO Delaware, was on a mission one blustery fall evening at Dover Air Force Base when a blast from her past marched through the door and reminded her of a promise she had made: She would be buried in her roller skates.

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More than 50 years later, USO Delaware volunteer Rose Hirth still has the roller skates she won at a 1961 competition. Photo courtesy of Rose Hirth

USO volunteers take on many missions. At Dover, the mission often involves interacting with families of those who have been killed in action. These strangers often become family, and that bond usually starts with one warm-hearted USO volunteer.

Since the USO’s Families of the Fallen Program began in December 2010, the USO has supported more than 3,000 family members who have traveled through airports and stayed at the Fisher House for Families of the Fallen. Many USO staff and volunteers travel alongside these families and work with airport security officials, airlines and even vehicle rental companies to help smooth transportation logistics to Dover and then on to the fallen hero’s final destination.

On that fall evening, a military escort and a chaplain walked through the door of the USO. Hirth rubbed the two pins — a cross and an angel — she keeps immediately over her heart. The angel is a prayer for those in harm’s way, and the cross is a prayer for our fallen.

The young escort wearing his dress uniform was escorting the remains of his good friend and compatriot. Hirth took one look at him and a name came to mind.

“Oh my gosh, it’s Josh Ward,” she said to herself.

Hirth sat down and began to get to know the young man she was sure she already knew. She found out he was from Williamstown, N.J., and his family, in fact, was into roller skating.

After a few more questions, Hirth confirmed that the young soldier strongly resembled his grandfather. And after a little more conversation, she discovered the soldier’s grandfather died a few years back. Which led to perhaps the eeriest question of all.

“Was he buried with his roller skates on?” she asked

The escort looked puzzled. How did she know?

“Because your grandfather and I met by chance nearly 50 years ago,” Hirth said.

It was 1961 when Hirth and Josh Ward both signed up with different partners for a roller skate dance competition.

“I don’t even remember what the first place prize was,” Hirth said. “It was probably unbelievable but I didn’t care. I had my heart set on the second place prize: a set of roller skates worth $125. That was a pretty expensive pair of skates in 1961, so I was really upset when my partner didn’t show.”

That’s when she met Josh Ward.

“Apparently something happened to his partner, too, so by total chance we were teamed up together,” she said. “We really wanted those skates but we only had a quick moment to rehearse.”

Hirth and Ward came up with a brand new routine on the spot and it hit the mark. They took second place and won the $125 roller skates.

“I’ve taken care of those roller skates all these years and they are still in A-1 condition,” she said. “Every once in a while I’ll take them out and revisit that same rink and skate for ‘one last time.’”

The prize and the chance encounter were so valuable to them both that Hirth and Ward made a promise that they would never lose their skates. In fact, they swore to be buried in them.

“What’s amazing about this story,” she explained, “is that there really are no strangers in this world. Just people we haven’t met yet.

“It’s not a coincidence Josh was there for me that night, and it’s not a coincidence his grandson came through here,” Hirth said as she touched the pins over her heart. “Certain people are placed in your life for a reason. I always look at these kids as my kids because sometimes all it takes is a chance occurrence to turn a total stranger into family.”

–Story by Joseph Andrew Lee, USO Staff Writer

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