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26 Years Later, Military Spouse Renews Family Tradition By Painting a Children’s Mural at USO Guam

A panoramic view of part of the children's room at USO Guam. USO photos

A panoramic view of part of the children’s room at USO Guam. USO photo

Kasia Bennett has come full circle.

A lifelong artist, the beachy blonde describes herself as a flower child of the 1970s who was so against the Vietnam War that she admits to vilifying returning troops then because she thought “they were a part of the ‘problem.’”

That was until a Marine pilot swept her off her feet. The transition to military life changed the mother of two’s perspective. Now, while’s he’s flying a commercial airliner at 30,000 feet, Kasia is down on Earth pouring her heart into a new acrylic mural inside the children’s room at USO Guam.

“Honestly I am ashamed of my former beliefs and attitudes,” she wrote in an email interview with the USO. “I have learned about and come to appreciate the depth of commitment the enlisted men and women give. Paying if needed, the ultimate price and giving their lives for our nation.

“The time that I give volunteering at the USO to make a soldier or their family’s day a little easier or more pleasant will never be too much to ask.”

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The full-room work of three-dimensional art honors the local Chamorro people, highlights the cultural beauty of Guam and brings life-size Sesame Street characters to the walls to welcome military children.

“What was once designed as a USO for single service members, the Pacific pivot means more and more families are coming to Guam with very different needs,” said Leigh Leilani Graham, Area Director of USO Hawaii and Guam

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Graham described USO Guam as a “destination center” with more of an island spa feel as opposed to the more traditional USO centers military families are used to at airports and bases.

Bennett, a USO volunteer, has spent more than 200 hours creating the mural. And it’s not the first time her family helped paint the building. It was actually the discovery of an old newspaper clipping of her husband, Craig, 26 years ago, painting a USO Guam wall that motivated her.

“The location of the facility has changed, [but] we are keeping volunteering at the USO a family tradition,” Bennett wrote in an email. The USO has moved from Piti to The Royal Orchid on Tumon Bay between the time her husband painted the roof and now.

“It felt fantastic to give my time,” she wrote. “I was made to feel appreciated and supported during the entire endeavor by the Guam USO staff.”

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Almay Helps the USO While Highlighting the Strength and Determination of Military Women

Our blog readers will be familiar with the story of Margaux Mange, a former military police officer who suffered a traumatic brain injury and PTSD after a pair of bombings in 2006 and 2007, the second of which killed three of her close friends. Her lingering injuries put her in a constant state of pain and depression. 

But Mange has been a model of resiliency. She had nearly 130 hyperbaric oxygen treatments that have helped diminish her pain and let her be active again. In the last several years, she’s won medals at the Warrior Games, trekked to the South Pole and recently attempted to summit Denali in Alaska.

Her strength and determination mirrors the values trumpeted by USO partner Almay. The cosmetics giant is celebrating female service members with their Simply American campaign. As part of the initiative, Almay is donating $250,000 to the USO and creating a #SimplyAmerican social push to raise additional funds and awareness.

Almay was so impressed by Mange that they wanted to hold her up as an example of the Simply American spirit. So when it came time to talk about their USO partnership on ABC’s “The View” this spring, Mange was front and center.

“I was in pain trying to climb up a flight of stairs, so I thought that the couch would be my best friend,” Mange said about the years after her injuries. “But after remembering that three of my best friends died in Iraq, I couldn’t live that way for them. So, with their memories, I chose to live instead.”

Almay will continue highlighting women like Mange throughout the summer in two unique ways.

First, they’re embarking on a summer-long road trip to fairs and festivals to create what they’re calling a Simply American experience that celebrates female service members, military wives and their families.

Almay also is soliciting photos depicting “Simply American moments.” The company will donate one dollar for every like or share on social media that uses the hashtag #SimplyAmerican up to a total of $10,000.

“Almay celebrates the spirit of American beauty,” Almay Vice President of Marketing Jill Krakowski said. “This fresh, uncomplicated, all-American beauty look. And there is no better embodiment of this spirit than the women of the U.S. military.”

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Starbucks Hosts USO Transition 360 Alliance Event in Seattle

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SEATTLE–Coffee titan and USO partner Starbucks hosted a USO Transition 360 Alliance Career Opportunity Day on Thursday at Starbucks Center.

The synergy at Thursday’s event was ideal, as Starbucks — which has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars in product to troops through the USO — has committed to hiring 10,000 former service members and their family members by 2018.

“I’m really excited about the opportunity for [the USO Transition 360 Alliance],” Starbucks Military Talent Acquisition Director Tom Tice said in an interview last month. “This venture into employment for the USO in partnership with other organizations like Hire Heroes USA really brings a new value to what the USO is doing for service members and their families.

“Starbucks is really honored from a military recruiting perspective to be a part of that. And I think we’re going to be able to build a relationship that can last.”

Career Opportunity Days, a joint venture between the USO and Hire Heroes USA, give transitioning service members the chance to do mock interviews and get real-time feedback with perspective employers. Sometimes, those interviews turn into real jobs.

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USO Partner Kroger Hosts 13 Red, White and BBQ Events for Troops and Families Around the World

Kroger — a longtime USO partner — understands how many family dinners America’s troops miss while they’re deployed. As a gesture of their appreciation, the grocery giant hosted Red, White and BBQ events in 10 cities and towns across the United States and three additional celebrations on U.S. bases in Germany and Kuwait serving roughly 7,000 troops and their families.

Kroger has been a USO partner since 2010, raising more than $11.9 million through its Honoring Our Heroes program. The funds support USO programs and services that help troops and military families from the moment they join, through deployments and as they transition into civilian life.

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Special Delivery, Indeed: Air Force Spouse Leaves USO/What To Expect Baby Shower to Give Birth

Kylee Austin and Heidi Murkoff at the USO Special Delivery event, left, and then hours later at the hospital. Photos courtesy of the Austin family.

Kylee Austin and Heidi Murkoff at the USO Special Delivery event, left, and then hours later at the hospital with Kylee’s husband Air Force Capt. Josh Austin. Photos Copyright Candace Castor.

Heidi Murkoff said the room was beautiful — full of baby shower decorations and brimming with pregnant women.

Kylee Austin, an Air Force spouse and mom-to-be attending the baby shower at the Kadena Officers Club in Okinawa, Japan, had waited a year for the USO event to come back to the country after her friend raved about her experience at the 2014 edition.

“I thought my baby would come before the event and I was really sad I was going to miss out, but I figured I might register anyway just in case,” Austin said.

USO/What to Expect Special Delivery baby showers are a chance for new military moms and moms-to-be to bond with others in their community going through similar experiences, like being away from their family and coping with their spouse missing the birth of their son or daughter. The showers typically feature lunch, traditional baby shower games, supply giveaways and an intimate Q&A session with Murkoff, author of the “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” series.

But this wouldn’t be a typical baby shower.

Austin had gone to the doctor’s that morning and everything looked fine. She was enjoying the event with the other mothers and all of a sudden started having contractions. First seven minutes apart. Then six. Then five.

The USO volunteers were so worried for me, checking on me and offering to drive me to the hospital if necessary,” Austin said, “but I wanted to stick it out to hear what [Murkoff] had to say.”

Murkoff, familiar with pregnant mothers, noticed Austin pacing around the back of the room “looking very serious and talking on the phone.”

“She was doing a lot of belly clutching and holding her back,” Murkoff wrote in an email. “I thought — hmmm, that’s interesting. Sure enough, I found out during the book signing that she had been having contractions and another mama had taken her over to the hospital.”

The timing meant Kylee missed the opportunity to spend one-on-one time with Murkoff, but the USO made a point to bring Murkoff by hospital the next day to meet baby Tristan, who was born at 5:42 a.m. that morning.

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“It isn’t easy being pregnant under the best of circumstances — to do it while serving our country, far from the network of family and friends who usually help and support a mom-to-be through the journey — is exponentially harder,” Murkoff wrote. “To work with the USO to fill in some of those blanks for these mamas is an honor and an incredible opportunity. Plus I love the hugs and the baby cuddles.”

Murkoff says a special delivery during Special Delivery was bound to happen at some point. Still, this was a first for the program.

“The USO was just so sweet and supportive,” Austin said. “My favorite thing about being there was just getting to meet all the other ladies who were pregnant and getting the community support. It was such a neat experience for us and to tell our son in the future.”

True to military fashion, the Austins had their son Tristan while deployed and then less than two weeks later executed orders to return stateside, doing what military families do best.

“It was no surprise to us,” Austin said about receiving orders so soon, “but that’s why we have the USO there to help us out along the way. We take advantage of every center at every airport and that’s honestly what’s been getting us through.”

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Meet Bandit: The Comforting Canine at USO Fort Leonard Wood

FORT LEONARD WOOD, Missouri—When Kelly Gist adopted Bandit three-and-a-half years ago, she didn’t expect him to become a healer.

Sickly, underweight and suffering from a number of health issues before adoption, the great dane pup looked like he needed more help than he would ever be able to give.

But as Bandit grew stronger and healthier, and started accompanying Gist to her job at USO Fort Leonard Wood, Gist saw Bandit was more than an average rescue dog.

“We would bring him into the USO, and as he grew, his interactions with the troops were unbelievable and we realized he had something else to give [and decided to train him as a therapy dog],” said Gist, the USO Fort Leonard Wood center director.

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Bandit lays on Army Sgt. 1st Class Kevin Albrecht. USO photo by Sandi Moynihan

Whether it’s visiting patients at the hospital, comforting troops at the Warrior Transition Unit or hanging out with military families at USO Fort Leonard Wood, Gist says Bandit is always ready to comfort those in need.

“If anyone can spend five minutes with him, even two, they’ll realize the difference he can make in someone’s day,” Gist said.

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