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27 Ways the USO Helped Troops and Military Families in 2014

Thanks to generous supporters like you, the USO was able to do a lot for troops and military families in 2014. Here are just 27 of the thousands of ways we supported those who defend our country this past year.


1. A connection on their big day: Deployed National Guard Staff Sgt. Pedro Cruz couldn’t attend his son’s NYU graduation. But thanks to the USO in the Mideast, he was able to deliver a graduation-day surprise his son will never forget.

2. A homecoming at Fort Drum: USO Fort Drum builds a community for spouses while their soldiers are deployed. See what happens when those spouses come back.

3. USO2GO: How one shipment brought a much-needed pick-me-up to troops at Forward Operating Base Ghazni, Afghanistan.

4. Several USOs come up big with free meals — often called No Dough Dinners — for troops and their families right before payday. See how USO Great Lakes does it.

5. Injured and transitioning out of the Army, Marco Gonzalez was a man without a purpose. Then one day he was invited to have lunch at USO Fort Riley and everything started to change.

6. From Afghanistan to the delivery room: How the USO helped a deployed Marine see the birth of his child in real time.

7. Thousands of troops interacted with star athletes, musicians, actors and more in 2014. Check out our our entertainment year in review.

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8. USO Operation That’s My Dress brought hundreds of teens around the U.S. together with fashion experts this year to pick out free ball gowns for formal events. Check out the November event in Jacksonville, Florida.

9. Stuck in quarantine? The USO has you covered there, too. We continue to be there for troops who are in a DOD-mandated quarantine after supporting the Ebola mission in Africa. Check out what the USO is doing for troops under a precautionary 21-day post-duty isolation in Germany.

10. Uniting families of the fallen: The USO helped London Bell find a new sense of community after the death of her Marine brother. See how in this video:

11. USO/ What to Expect Special Delivery events give military moms-to-be a day of fun and insights with best-selling author Heidi Murkoff:

12. Stranded, but not alone: How the USO at Philadelphia International Airport helped one pregnant military spouse who was in a bind.

13. “A worry-free zone”: See how recovering troops are talking about the new USO Warrior and Family Center in Bethesda, Maryland.

14. Will you marry me? Stationed separately, Pvt. Emmanuel Aleman had to ask Pvt. Zoe Tunchez to marry him over the phone. USO San Antonio helped him pull off a proper proposal just days before their wedding.

15. Getting them home for the holidays: USO volunteers and staff mobilize around the country help young troops get home in time for Christmas.

16. Up all night: See how one USO volunteer at Sky Harbor Phoenix International Airport stayed awake all night so stranded troops could sleep in the center during a dust storm that grounded flights.

17. Resiliency for military kids: The Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families employs some familiar characters to make a big impact.

18. USO Ladies Nights: Learn how the USO brings female service members together in Afghanistan for a little bonding time.

19. Through Operation Birthday Cake, USO centers in the Pacific help troops celebrate their big days despite being far from home.

20. Wounded warriors at Fort Hood, Texas, needed a gym to do their rehab. The USO stepped up and built them one.

21. Creating Christmas moments: USO centers around the world were there to show a good time to troops who couldn’t make it home celebrate.

22. Tickets for troops: Chicago pro sports teams work with USO of Illinois to get tickets to troops.

23. A look at how USO Caregivers Conferences focus on helping a group of folks that never gets a break: the caretakers of wounded warriors.

24. Who doesn’t like coffee? The USO gives tens of thousands of free cups of coffee to troops every year. Check out some of the stats.

25. An emergency place to stay: USO Guam turned into a temporary hotel in August for Marines who were stranded for 30 hours.

26. Deployment music: One Marine shreds on the guitar, then talks about what USO Camp Buehring’s music room means to him.

27. A clutch wedding: When Pvt. Chase Howard had four days of leave in January, the USO Warrior and Family Center on Fort Belvoir, Virginia, sprung into action to turn a last-minute wedding between he and his fiancé Brittany a reality.

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The Year in USO Entertainment

It was a huge year in entertainment for the USO. Here’s a look at some of the biggest celebrity experiences and shows we facilitated for troops and their families in 2014. They’re great examples of how — with your help — we make USO moments happen around the world for thousands of troops every day.

Hunter Hayes Creates Unforgettable Moments for a Military Family

Country star Hunter Hayes performed four USO shows in 2014, including late October and early November shows in New York City and Nashville, respectively, that helped the USO celebrate the anniversary of the Every Moment Counts campaign. Watch the video to see how Hayes created special moments for one Army family in particular during those shows.

Al Roker Entertains Troops and Sets a Guinness World Record

NBC's Al Roker headlined the "Today"/USO Comedy Tour in Afghanistan in October. USO photo by Fred Greaves

NBC’s Al Roker headlined the “Today”/USO Comedy Tour in Afghanistan in October. USO photo by Fred Greaves

Meanwhile, NBC’s Al Roker made it his personal mission to entertain the troops and raise funds for the USO. He went on a USO tour to Afghanistan in early October with TV stars Jay Leno, Kevin Eubanks, Iliza Shlesinger and Craig Robinson.

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While that was a huge commitment, Roker topped himself by pulling off the #Rokerthon, a 34-hour Guinness World Record-setting weather forecast that was broadcast between Nov. 12-14 that benefitted the USO. Roker asked #Rokerthon viewers to visit the Crowdrise page he started to raise money for the USO during the broadcast.

The USO/Chairman’s Holiday Tour

Actor/comedian Rob Riggle, actress Megan Markle, country music star Kellie Pickler, actress Dianna Agron, eight-time Pro Bowler Brian Urlacher and Washington Nationals pitcher Doug Fister went on this December's USO Chairman's Holiday Tour. USO photo by Dave Gatley

From left: Actor/comedian Rob Riggle, actress Megan Markle, country music star Kellie Pickler, actress Dianna Agron, eight-time Pro Bowler Brian Urlacher and Washington Nationals pitcher Doug Fister went on this December’s USO Chairman’s Holiday Tour. USO photo by Dave Gatley

It’s not the holidays if the chairman isn’t on a USO tour. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey went on his fourth and final tour in December, bringing along country star and USO tour vet Kellie Pickler, USO tour vet and comedian Rob Riggle, “Glee” co-star Dianna Agron, “Suits” co-star Meghan Markle, former Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher and Washington Nationals pitcher Doug Fister.

Kellie Pickler and Aisha Tyler at the USO Gala

Speaking of Pickler, she and Aisha Tyler brought a sparkle to the USO Gala on Oct. 17 in Washington. See what they each had to say about why they support America’s troops.

Troops Hit the Red Carpet at “Unbroken” Premiere

Universal Pictures teamed with the USO on “Unbroken,” a World War II story of heroism that is poised to be one of the biggest movies of the Christmas season. See how troops were treated to a red-carpet experience at the premiere of the Angelina Jolie-directed film.

Trace Adkins and Casey James Rock Fort Hood

Longtime USO supporter Trace Adkins performed a special concert for troops on Fort Hood the first weekend in November, bringing up-and-comer Casey James with him.

Idina Menzel Meets Military Families

Broadway Star Idina Menzel — who became even more famous after her smash hit “Let It Go” from the movie “Frozen — joined the USO for a meet and greet with military families in November.

Sesame Street/USO Experience Entertains 500,000th Guest

The Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families entertained it’s 500,000th guest this year. The long-running USO entertainment tour has touched thousands of military families, including the the Curtises. Take a look.

Rock for Troops

Rock and Roll Hall of Famers KISS talked to the USO about why they’re raising awareness about veteran unemployment and why they donated some of the proceeds from their recent tour to the USO.

Pitbull Entertains Military Families on July 4 at the White House

Mr. Worldwide put on a USO show on the South Lawn of the White House for troops and families this past July 4.

The Band Perry Plays for Troops in Norfolk

The Band Perry sat down with the USO before its USO Virginia Beach Patriotic Festival show to talk about entertaining troops and their families.

Trio of NFL Players Visit Troops Downrange

Pierre Garçon goofs around with a service member on his March 2014 USO Tour. USO photo by Dave Gatley

Pierre Garçon goofs around with a service member on his March 2014 USO Tour. USO photo by Dave Gatley

Washington Redskins receiver Pierre Garçon, New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham and Miami Dolphins punter Brandon Fields visited more than 1,800 troops in Afghanistan and the United Arab Emirates during a USO/NFL Tour in early March. Read what Garçon had to say about the trip.

Brantley Gilbert Puts on a Show at the Coca-Cola 600

USO tour veteran Brantley Gilbert played a free concert for NASCAR fans and military members before the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, where the USO played a big role. Find out what he had to say backstage on Memorial Day Weekend to troops still serving in harms way.

Sneak Peek of “How To Train Your Dragon 2″

The crew from “How To Train Your Dragon 2″ stopped by for a special USO screening  at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst earlier this year.

Bruce Willis’ Holiday Message to the Troops

And finally, actor Bruce Willis took a moment to thank America’s troops for the holidays.

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A Look at Holidays Around the World with the USO

St. John's School, Guam National Junior Honor Society donated 12 beautiful Gingerbread Houses to the Guam USO. USO photo

St. John’s School, Guam National Junior Honor Society donated 12 Gingerbread Houses to USO Guam. USO photo

USO Guam

USO Guam invited all unaccompanied and single military members to join their annual “Home for the Holidays Christmas Drop In” on Christmas Day. There was a free holiday buffet available from 1100 to 1400.

USO Vicenza, Italy

Military children receive gifts from Santa at USO Vicenza, Italy.

Military children receive gifts from Santa at USO Vicenza, Italy. USO photo

More than 30 volunteers helped spread holiday cheer to over 250 troops and families at USO Vicenza, where they had a Santa’s area decorated with a chimney and stockings, a Christmas tree and even a 15-foot Snowman. Holiday music played as volunteers set up a bouncy castle, a holiday movie area and a coloring area for the kids. When Santa arrived, he gave gifts to more than 150 children as well as single troops and volunteers gifts and even offered to take pictures. At the conclusion of the event, attendees read letters from people all over the world thanking them for their service.

USO Kaiserslautern, Germany

Military families help themselves to holiday treats. USO photo

Military families help themselves to holiday treats provided by the USO. USO photo

On Tuesday, USO Ramstein provided free photos with Santa for 475 military children and their parents. Attendees were able to have their photo taken, print it out, put it in a card and even go online and download them. Best of all, Santa and his elves gave each child an age-appropriate gift after their picture was taken. The patrons had an assortment of cookies, drinks, popcorn, hot dogs with chili and cheese and hot cocoa. The elves assisted the children, the flow of traffic and serving the food and desserts. USO staff reported one family was so grateful that they teared up.

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USO Camp Courtney, Okinawa, Japan

Marines enjoy a Christmas meal at the Camp Courtney  USO in Okinawa, Japan. USO photo

Marines enjoy a Christmas meal at the Camp Courtney USO in Okinawa, Japan.

Volunteers came together to decorate the USO Camp Courtney center for their Holiday Around the World event on Dec. 10, with holiday trees, lights and other festive décor. The event was open to all DoD ID card holders, but largely focused on serving service members. The event offered holiday-themed games, movies,  music and food. Volunteers baked and cooked side dishes and desserts for the event, and a large portion of the food (turkey with all the fixings) was contributed by an anonymous donor. 

“Events like this are important because they allow service members to get together and have a good time during the holidays,” said 20-year-old Marine Lance Cpl. Austin Stigall of California. “It helps with the morale of service members because not all of us are able to be with our loved ones during the holidays.”

USO Camp Walker, Korea

Expecting couples were able to gift their unborn children with a message of love at USO Camp Walker.

Expecting couples were able to gift their unborn children with a message of love at USO Camp Walker.

Expecting active duty mothers and fathers took advantage of the United Through Reading Military Program to record DVDs of themselves reading a book and heartfelt messages for their unborn children to watch as they grow up. Guests enjoyed popcorn, snacks, fruit and gifts. Special thanks to Disney for assisting with Christmas gifts for their new babies.

USO Hawaii

USO Hawaii centers offered new treats and givaways on each of the 12 Days of Christmas. USO photo

USO Hawaii centers offered new treats and givaways on each of the 12 Days of Christmas. USO photo

USO Hawaii celebrated the holidays with special treats, giveaways and activities in both their Hawaii Centers as they counted down the 12 Days of Christmas. Every day featured something different.

USO of North Carolina

The third annual Breakfast with Santa on Fort Bragg, North Carolina — presented by USAA — was a big hit for military families. The event was held at the Fort Bragg Club and featured family photos with Santa, Jingle Bell the Elf and barbershop-style entertainment by the Golf Capital Chorus from Pinehurst, North Carolina.

More than 350 family members attended and each family received a gift bag filled with children’s crafts, a recordable book, red, white and blue leis, a bag of candy, Christmas tree-shaped sunglasses for each child, gift cards to Texas Roadhouse, coloring books and several other items. A full breakfast buffet was available along with choice of beverages while the USO raffled off 13 bicycles with helmets, a family four-pack of tickets to Disney’s Frozen On Ice, Movie Night bags which included several children’s  DVDs, a sleeping bag, flashlight and microwave popcorn packets.

At the conclusion of the event, Santa joined the children in the ballroom and he read “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.”

The room was full of military families celebrating the holidays with the USO.

The room was full of military families celebrating the holidays with the USO.

Meanwhile, the USO of North Carolina’s Jacksonville center hosted “Breakfast with Gunny Claus” for the children of the Marines and sailors of Camp Lejeune and MCAS New River. Each child gets a stocking filled with goodies and a Christmas ornament, inscribed at 1st Reindeer Division, Marine Corps Base North Pole.

Children of Marines and sailors at Camp Lejeune and MCAS New River receive gifts from Gunny Claus. USO photo.

Children of Marines and sailors at Camp Lejeune and MCAS New River receive gifts from Gunny Claus. USO photo.

USO Fort Campbell, Kentucky

It’s Christmas Eve and if you need a little holiday cheer, stop by the USO. Santa’s helpers are there now, busy serving up cocoa, cookies and cupcakes to our soldiers!

Volunteers at USO Fort Campbell serve up holiday cheer on Christmas Eve. USO photo

Volunteers at USO Fort Campbell serve up holiday cheer on Christmas Eve. USO photo

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The USO Holiday Gift Guide: Your Last Chance to Snag A Gift for Our Troops

DOD photo

It’s the season of giving.  And while we think everyone should treat themselves to a new sweater or gadget if they can, we do have one more holiday shopping suggestion. There’s a group of folks out there who protect our freedoms who can’t just decide to buy a plane ticket online and come home for the holidays. And for a little cash, you can give them a gift that can significantly benefit their lives.

Keeping Families Connected

The USO is a home away from home for deployed troops. But what gets lost in that phrase is the connection those troops get back to their families through our centers. Check out this video about a North Carolina couple who connected just in time for one of life’s most precious moments. This holiday season, it’s easy to support the USO’s efforts to keep troops downrange connected with phone calls home or online video connections back home from war zones.

Homecomings

The USO is also there for spouses back at home during deployment. Here is a story of how one spouse — who is also a USO volunteer — coped during her husband’s deployment in part by tapping into the USO community on Fort Drum, New York.

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USO2GO

Not every service member in the field has access to the basics, much less amenities to pass the time. That’s where USO2GO comes in. Service members like Army 1st Lt. Ben Lyman contact the USO directly from their forward operating base or combat outpost and put in an order to receive customized shipments of everything from furniture to snacks to sports equipment, TVs and even video games. You can donate toward great services like that here, or sponsor an entire shipment via USO Wishbook.

Families of the Fallen

Everyone reacts differently when the unthinkable happens. London Bell’s brother — Marine Staff. Sgt. Vincent Bell — died in Afghanistan in 2011. She was heading into what she thought would be a difficult holiday season in 2013 when the USO called, offering her a USO/TAPS getaway to New York City where she could bond with others who’d lost family a military family member.

“I started out on the journey as a lone traveler, but I left meeting several people who were really just like me,” Bell said. “It was a good way for me to bond.” It’s one of several ways the USO helps military families when they need us most.

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The Hunt is On: $10,000 in Prizes Awaits the Military Family that Finds USO Colorado Springs’ Jingle Bell Rock

JingleBellRockPhil Martinez got up before dawn Friday, went over to Fort Carson, Colorado, and hid a rock. Whichever military family finds it is going to be about $10,000 in prizes richer.

USO Colorado Springs’ Jingle Bell Rock contest sends military families on the Colorado Springs base into a pre-holiday frenzy, as active duty troops and their immediate family members race their peers to find where Martinez stashed the painted piece of Earth. Martinez supplements their search by providing clues through his center’s Facebook page, website and at the USO center on Fort Carson. (HINT: There’s even an exclusive clue at the end of this story.)

There’s a lot on the line this year, too, including a $5,000 tennis bracelet, laptop computer, flat screen television, android tablet and four tickets to the Dec. 28 Denver Broncos-Oakland Raiders game and hundreds of dollars in gift cards to local stores.

“What’s great about it is it’s winner-take-all,” said Martinez, who is the director of USO Colorado Springs. “When I drive around [the base], you see little kids, families all bundled up looking for it together. I love that. It’s what it’s all about.”

Martinez says the contest has evolved over the years. The prize pool is up significantly from last year, when it was roughly $7,000 in gifts. He’s also seen collaboration come into play. After all, winner-take-all doesn’t mean you can’t team up.

“The first few years, everybody would hunt for it individually,” he said. “Now people are splitting up to look for it and pre-agreeing to split the prizes.”

Martinez says it normally takes between three and five days for the winners to combine enough clues to find the rock.

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The hefty prize pool is donated to the USO by local businesses as a way to say thank you to troops for their service. Martinez’s team puts the prizes together, comes up with a strategy to hide the rock and then springs it on the community in the days leading up to Christmas.

“Every year we try to make it bigger and better,” he said. “And with the help of our local partnerships out here with the business community, they are the ones who provide all the presents for our troops and their families.”

The full list of prizes includes:

  • $5,000 tennis bracelet courtesy of Gold Fingers Jewelry of Colorado Springs
  • 20” Mongoose bike courtesy of Coca-Cola of Colorado Springs/Denver 
  • 32” flat screen TV courtesy of Omni Financial
  • Acoustic guitar courtesy of MWR Fort Carson
  • Blu-ray DVD player courtesy of the USO
  • Nabi kids’ tablet courtesy of the USO
  • Assorted DVDs courtesy of Disney
  • Android tablet w/ case courtesy of the USO
  • Laptop computer w/ case courtesy of the USO
  • $500 in gift cards courtesy of the USO
  • Sony DSCW710 camera w/ case courtesy of the USO
  • Overnight stay and dinner for two at Hotel Elegante courtesy of Hotel Elegante
  • Marble top desk  courtesy of MWR Fort Carson
  • Two headsets courtesy of the Colorado Springs Airport
  • Colorado Rapids autographed soccer ball courtesy of Kroenke Sports in Denver
  • Papa John’s pizza for a year courtesy of Papa John’s Colorado Springs
  • Custom-made Disney gift basket courtesy of Disney
  • Four tickets to the Dec. 28 Denver Broncos-Oakland Raiders game courtesy of Coca-Cola of Colorado Springs

And finally, your clue:  Hunt day and night and keep a minimum speed, when you think you are close just look at the weeds.