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Little Things Often Mean the Most: How One Wounded Warrior’s Day was Brightened at the USO

Army Maj. David Keithan

Army Maj. David Keithan

After a brief surgical stay to repair the shoulder he injured during a 2006 tour in Iraq, Army Maj. David Keithan stopped into the USO Warrior Center in Landstuhl, Germany. He just wanted to “chill out and taking a break for a minute” before walking the rest of the way to the Fisher House where he was staying.

After signing in, Keithan spotted a jar of spaghetti sauce and a packet of ramen on the counter and it transported him back to his childhood.

“I saw it and I just thought, ‘Man that looks good,’” Keithan said. “I know it sounds really, really weird but I used to eat that as a kid. I’d always throw the packet of flavoring in the Oodles of Noodles away because it was too salty and I’d put spaghetti sauce on it instead. It’s a quick meal and growing up I used to eat it that way all the time.”

Whether it’s the smell of fresh cooking, a familiar brand of coffee or just the “howdy” of an American volunteer, it’s often little things inside each USO center that connect troops to their communities back home.

Keithan, who has been in the Army more than 18 years, asked a USO volunteer if it was okay if his wife – who was traveling with him – cooked him some spaghetti the way he likes it.

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“It wasn’t anything gourmet, but it was exactly what I wanted at that moment,” he said. “It’s like chocolate chip cookies made by Grammie. Grammie loves her American service members, and when you eat that cookie you feel connected … and you love her like she’s your own grandmother. I don’t care how young and how tough these soldiers think they are, they all have mothers and grandmothers and they know exactly what I’m talking about.”

Being from a small town in Maine, Keithan says it’s the little things that continue to bring him back to the USO. On one USO visit, he found his favorite local brand of coffee from Boston, which reminded him of home. Another time he was just comforted by hearing a friendly northeastern accent.

“It comes from everywhere,” Keithan said. “We all have different cultures in the States and all these little things come from the people who donate to the USO and as little as those things are — it could be a packet of sauce from your favorite local fast food chain — it brings you back home in that moment.”

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Your USO at Work: June 2015 — The USO Looks to Cover Every Angle of the Transition to Civilian Life

USO’s Transition 360 Alliance Combines the ‘Very Best’ to Help Troops Reintegrate into Civilian Life

It’s five nonprofits with one goal: help transitioning troops right now.

Transition StackedThe USO recently announced the formation of the USO Transition 360 Alliance, an initiative that attempts to cover every angle of a military family’s transition into civilian life when troops’ service ends.

We are partnering with Hire Heroes USA, The Comfort Crew for Military Kids, Stronger Families and newcomer RallyPoint/6 (RP/6) to form a comprehensive menu of programming for everyone from new and pending veterans seeking new careers to young military children who are facing yet another move.

“The USO has brought these groups together to combine the very best of what each of us has to offer America’s transitioning military families, on a scale that no single organization could achieve alone,” USO CEO and President J.D. Crouch II said in a release.

While three of the four nonprofits will be familiar to service members who’ve taken advantage of USO programming, the USO says the difference will be the alliance’s ability to work seamlessly to present a holistic approach to military transition.

USO Transition 360 Alliance Partners

Comfort Crew for Military Kids: Supports military kids and teens as they overcome the obstacles unique to growing up in a military family.

Hire Heroes USA: Provides active-duty and wounded, ill and injured troops and their spouses with tools, resources and networking opportunities to meet their career goals.

RP/6: A team of case navigators known as scouts employ a unique concierge approach, creating action plans for the service members and their families to ensure they are supported through a “no wrong door” experience.

Stronger Families: Helps military couples to reconnect and strengthen their relationships by establishing effective ways of communicating and building trust and hope.

Read more about the USO Transition 360 Alliance here.

Female Troops, Military Spouses Get Styled Up at USO Operation That’s My Dress

As a busy mom and public affairs officer in the Navy, Petty Officer 1st Class Bickiana Patton doesn’t have many opportunities to show off her feminine side. But thanks to the USO — and sponsors Sherri Hill, Ann Taylor and Ralph Lauren — Patton was able to let her hair down and enjoy an afternoon of fashion and pampering at USO Operation That’s My Dress at Fleet Week New York 2015.

“I have to admit, it was wonderful,” Patton said. “The USO helped me feel like a diva today.”

Now in its third year, USO Operation That’s My Dress, which normally caters to military teens attending formal events, has expanded to include events for female service members and military spouses.

The afternoon of glitz and glamour kicked off with a performance by the USO Show Troupe and a fashion show featuring professional models and the Miss USA and Miss Teen USA titleholders. After the show, attendees enjoyed hair and makeup demonstrations by professional stylists before heading upstairs to find the perfect dress. Spouses and female service members were even treated to free accessories by JTV jewelry to complete their looks.

Caregivers of Wounded, Ill and Injured Troops Get Lessons in Resiliency at USO Seminar

Angela Brooks, left, chats with another USO Caregivers Seminar attendee at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, last month. USO photo by Sandi Moynihan

Angela Brooks, left, chats with another USO Caregivers Seminar attendee at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, last month. USO photo by Sandi Moynihan

Angela Brooks can’t remember the last time she put herself first.

Between working, taking care of her children and caring for her disabled Air Force veteran husband who struggles with PTSD, there’s little time left at to address her personal needs.

“I literally have the world on my shoulders,” Brooks said. “[Caregivers like me] do a lot and it’s not so much physical anguish, it’s mental anguish, and that’s hard.”

So when Brooks heard Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, was hosting a USO Caregivers Seminar — a day of interactive programming designed to address the immediate needs of those who care for wounded, ill and injured service members — she knew she had to attend.

After participating in the two morning sessions, which featured game on Nation Vice President Blair Bloomston and Stronger Families Executive Director Noel Meador, respectively, Brooks — who’d never attended any type of caregiver-centric programming before — was already glad she came.

“I felt very isolated up until today,” Brooks said. “[But today at the USO Caregivers Seminar] I feel comfortable. I feel safe and I feel like I’m not going to be judged.”

Brooks even felt comfortable enough to share details about her daily challenges with the entire room during a communication activity. Brooks admits she relished in the rare opportunity to talk about being a caretaker with others who are experiencing similar situations.

“I just want to learn more and be open and this environment is very opening and freeing,” Brooks said. “I just really appreciate people thinking of us”

You can help caregivers like Brooks get the support they need by visiting USO.org/donate.

USO and Sesame Street Debut New Performance Focused On Military-to-Civilian Transition

More than a million troops are expected to leave the military between 2011 and 2016. That’s why the USO and Sesame Street teamed up to help military kids cope with the challenges of transitioning from military to civilian life.

The cast of the Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families shakes hands with young audience members. USO Photo by Dave Gatley

The cast of the Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families shakes hands with young audience members. USO Photo by Dave Gatley

The organizations are addressing these new realities by debuting a show focused on military-to-civilian transition. The performances of “Katie’s Family Transitions to Civilian Life” are in addition to the already-popular show, “Katie is Moving to a New Base.” Both shows will run as part of the 2015 Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families tour, which kicked off on May 7 at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska.

“Just as separating from the military can be a challenge for an adult, we knew that that could be a challenging transition for a kid as well,” Rachel Tischler, USO vice president of entertainment, told DOD News.

Sesame Street and the USO know that when one family member serves, the whole family serves. In the new show, military families are taken on a journey as Katie, a character created for the USO, starts a new adventure outside of the military. She makes new friends, keeps in touch with old pals and learns how to talk to her parents about the challenges she’s facing.

“We like to feel it starts a dialogue so kids can then open up even more about what it is they’re going through because they just heard Katie and Elmo talk about it,” Tischler said.

This year, more than 100 performances at 45 military bases in nine countries are scheduled. Click here to see if the 2015 Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families is coming to a base near you.

USO and The Grand Ole Opry Salute Troops with an All-Star Concert

The world famous Grand Ole Opry in Nashville welcomed troops and family members last month and treated them to a special red carpet arrival and a star-studded show featuring USO tour veterans Trace Adkins, Kellie Pickler, Craig Morgan and Lee Greenwood.

“I tell people all the time, one of the greatest stages to play on in the world is the Grand Ole Opry stage,” said Morgan, who served in the Army for more than a decade. “The only stage that’s better is the one we’re standing on when we’re in front of the men and women who are serving. Tonight we got to put them both together, so it was extremely special.”

The Opry, which will celebrate its 90th anniversary later this year, partnered with the USO and MusiCorps to honor troops and families during Military Appreciation Month. The show was part of the Opry’s Cause for Applause series, where the musical institution is highlighting causes it believes in.

“I’m very proud that the Opry has decided to get involved on this level with the USO,” said Adkins, who returned from a USO tour to Kuwait, Afghanistan and Germany in time to take part in the Opry concert.

The USO invited troops from Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and the Nashville area to take part in the VIP experience.

“It’s important that our military knows that we love, support and are praying for them,” eight-time USO tour veteran Kellie Pickler told Country Weekly. “We have their backs because they have ours.”

USO Joins Forces With Indian Motorcycle, Zac Brown Band to Support Military

Indian Motorcycle has a proud military history, building bikes for the military during World Wars I and II, so it makes sense that the company would team with the USO to continue its longtime support of our troops.

IndianIndian, America’s first motorcycle company, recently announced a partnership with the USO and donated $100,000 to the organization. It’s also partnering with the Zac Brown Band, which has entertained thousands of troops on its USO tours. The three-time Grammy Award winners will meet with troops on select stops of their 50-city North American concert tour and will also donate tickets to each of their concerts. Indian Motorcycle will distribute the donated tickets to military personnel and first responders.

“We are proud to serve as brand ambassadors for Indian Motorcycle, and are happy to continue supporting the troops through our friends at the USO,” Zac Brown said in a release.

“There is a very natural relationship between Zac Brown Band, Indian Motorcycle, the USO and the military families we all support,” said Steve Menneto, vice president of motorcycles for Polaris Industries. “Bringing the band onboard as a brand ambassador is both a pleasure and a tremendous value for our partners and our rider community.”

Kroger’s Honoring Our Heroes Program Builds on Generosity of Its Customers

Kroger recently announced a robust, multifaceted program involving events and customer engagement that will help honor our military heroes all summer long.

Kroger Co LogoThrough its annual Honoring Our Heroes program, Kroger is inviting its customers to support the USO in multiple ways. Shoppers can give to the USO through register scan cards and coin boxes or by donating online at HonoringOurHeroes.com. Kroger will match every donation dollar-for-dollar, up to $1 million.

“Honoring Our Heroes started as a small project in 2010, with coin boxes in 1,200 stores,” said Lynn Marmer, Kroger’s group vice president of corporate affairs. “When we raised $400,000, we knew our customers were as committed to recognizing our troops and their families as we are, and we decided to amplify our effort.”

In addition to donating at stores or online, customers can also purchase special gift cards in $5, $10, and $15 denominations that will be delivered to local USO centers.

Kroger and the USO also teamed up to treat troops and military families to some barbecue. As a token of the company’s appreciation for the many dinners families miss together because of deployments, Kroger hosted Red, White and BBQ events in 10 locations across the United States and three additional celebrations on U.S. bases in Germany and Kuwait.

“While we can never truly thank our service men and women enough for the sacrifices they make, we are deeply committed to recognizing our troops and their families through our partnership with the USO,” Marmer said.

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23 Facts for the Army’s 240th Birthday

Department of Defense photo

Department of Defense photo

1. First, the basics: The United States Army as we know it today was founded June 14, 1775, when the First Continental Congress OK’d the enlistment of soldiers to serve the united American colonies.

2. Nearly 70 percent of all Medals of Honor have been awarded to soldiers. And 1,198 of the Army’s 2,403 Medals of Honor were awarded for actions in the Civil War.

3. Hungry, soldier? Well, the Army is looking into 3D printing food.

4. The USO has been helping soldiers since its inception. Here’s one Tuskegee Airman’s story of how a USO tour director helped him in the face of racism.

5. Gen. Martin E. Dempsey is the ninth Army general to serve as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. That’s more than double any other branch. Dempsey is retiring in 2015.

6. Francis Marion – known as “The Swamp Fox” – headed a group of Revolutionary War-era Army Rangers known as Marion’s Partisans. He is also credited with creating modern guerrilla warfare, which was key to the American victory against the British.

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7. More than half of the men elected President of the United States – 24 to be exact – have worn the Army’s uniform.

8. Pvt. James Buchanan was the only president who served in the Army who didn’t become an officer.

8. June 14 is also Flag Day. Officially adopted in 1916, the first iteration of the American flag was actually authorized by the Second Continental Congress on June 14, 1777.

9. The Army is marginally responsible for inventing the microwave. A World War II engineer at Raytheon realized radiation from radar – which the Army was using to scan for enemy missiles – could be used to heat products, too.

10. Galusha Pennypacker is widely recognized as the youngest general in Army history, earning a promotion to brevet brigadier general at the age of 20 during the Civil War.

11. The Army was the last branch to adopt an official song, declaring “The Army Goes Rolling Along” as its official tune in 1956. (You can download it here.)

12. The USO helps out modern soldiers in a host of ways beyond snacks and a place to snooze. Here’s the story of Army Spc. Austin Hunsinger, who needed help fast to get to his father’s funeral.

An Army CH-47 Chinook helicopter in Bagram, Afghanistan, in 2004. U.S. Army photo

An Army CH-47 Chinook helicopter in Bagram, Afghanistan, in 2004. U.S. Army photo

13. The Army likes to name its helicopters in honor of Native American tribes. Here’s why.

14. The Air Force was part of the Army until 1947.

15. Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold is the only person to be promoted to the rank of five-star general in two different branches — the Army and the Air Force.

16. The Lewis and Clark Expedition was actually an Army campaign to map and discover the geographic secrets of the continent.

17. Robert E. Lee famously graduated from West Point in 1829 with zero demerits. He’s often given credit for being the only person to pull off the feat. But according to at least one researched column in the Topeka Capital-Journal, Lee actually graduated second in his class behind a man named Charles Mason, who also equaled Lee’s zero demerits feat.

Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Dwight D. Eisenhower.

18. For the sake of comparison, Gen. of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower graduated with 307 demerits, according to the same story. (He turned out alright, though.)

19. Eisenhower was the last general from any branch to be elected president.

20. It sounds like a conspiracy theory, but it’s true: the Army tested the spread of biological agents on unknowing Americans from the 1940s through the 1960s, inadvertently killing at least one civilian by dispersing what was previously thought to be a harmless bacteria.

21. Bob Neyland graduated West Point in 1916 and is still the baseball team’s all-time leader in pitching victories (35). Neyland was also a boxer and — perhaps most famously — went on to coach the University of Tennessee’s football team. The school’s football stadium is named after him.

22. Speaking of football, Army was once a national power. They won a piece of three straight national championships between 1944 and 1946.

23. The Old Guard still keeps watch over the Tomb of the Unknowns.

Celebrate the U.S. Army’s 240th birthday with us by signing their birthday card.

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Video: USO MEGS Keep Troops Gaming in Far Corners of Globe

By 2008, roughly 97 percent of American 12-to-17 year olds were playing video games. Thousands of those kids are now in the military and they’re still gaming—even when they’re deployed—thanks to the USO-developed MEGS (Mobile Entertainment Gaming System).

“MEGS is a portable, ruggedized case containing a console gaming system and a television, which troops can take with them and easily set up anywhere they have a one-ten power connection and play DVDs and video games in a matter of minutes,” said Juston Reynolds, the USO Programs Manager responsible for launching and managing the program.

“The USO started this project about five or six years ago in order to meet the growing needs of deployed troops, and now the project is in its third iteration with the Xbox One and everyone downrange can’t get enough of it.”

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USO2GO Shipments Help Troops Take a Load Off in the Middle East

Troops in Qatar pose with  some gear from their USO2GO shipment. Courtesy photo

Troops in Qatar pose with some gear from their USO2GO shipment. Courtesy photo

The master sergeant really wanted chairs.

The video games, TVs and snacks were great, too. Still, years of deployments, bad weather and overall wear and tear had left the furniture at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar in bad shape.

New folding chairs were actually a pretty big deal.

“I use one of your chairs almost every day to relax outside and enjoy my cigar and destress from the daily workload,” Air Force Master Sgt. Richard Rude wrote in a May 2 email to the USO.

The folding chairs – along with bigger-ticket items like video game consoles and televisions – were part of a USO2GO shipment Rude requested earlier this year.

“When I got to my deployed location [in January], I wanted to see what I can to take care of my troops,” Rude wrote in a May 5 email. “I went to the USO website and started doing some research about what [the USO] had to offer [and] I stumbled upon the USO2GO program.”

Troops play video games - part of their USO2GO shipment - and use other USO2GO gear in Qatar. Courtesy photo

Troops play video games – part of their USO2GO shipment – and use other USO2GO gear in Qatar. Courtesy photo

USO2GO delivers some of the USO’s most popular services to troops in remote and restricted areas around the globe. Service members in remote areas can go to the USO’s website to see their options: anything from snacks, coffee and toiletries to board games, video game consoles and sporting goods.

Rude was immediately drawn to the electronics and furniture offerings. He said the younger airmen in Qatar have personal electronics with them at all times, even though they don’t always have reliable Internet. However, many of the base’s communal video game consoles had been damaged by ubiquitous sand, intense heat and constant use.

“The main attraction to deployers is electronics,” Rude wrote. “I knew that my squadron could use consoles, especially since they double as [DVD players].”

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Once he’d narrowed down his wish list using the USO2GO online menu, Rude emailed USO2GO program manager Cristin Perry to coordinate the shipment. Rude submitted the final paperwork in mid-March. Two weeks later, the shipment was filled and on April 22, Rude’s unit started receiving packages.

“It is definitely difficult to explain how amazing it feels when several boxes of equipment come in from the USO,” Rude wrote. “I guess I can explain it best to ask someone ‘How did you feel when you seen all the presents under the Christmas tree as a child?’

“I thought the packages [the USO] had setup were perfect in efforts to help bring my guys together and get to know one another. It is also a positive distractor, especially being away from loved ones.”

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Alabama Baseball Tournament Unites Community, Raises More Than $60,000 Over Three Years for the USO

The check presentation. USO photo

The Hits for Heroes check presentation. USO photo

Each spring in America, colored stirrups are excavated from the bottom of sock drawers, hardened orange clay is knocked loose from cleats and home plate is dusted clean so the local baseball diamond – and community – can come to life.

In Dothan, Alabama, the game has evolved beyond America’s pastime to become the way this small town says thank you to the men and women who protect their freedom.

Organized by a self-proclaimed stay-at-home wife who “couldn’t stay at home while service members sacrificed,” Hits for Heroes Director Angela Dunning brought more than 20 teams together in her local area to participate in a two-week baseball tournament to raise awareness of the sacrifices America’s troops make and to raise money so the USO can provide them more comforts when they’re away.

Players and coaches wore camouflage Hits for Heroes jerseys at each game. And during the fifth inning, Dunning invited everyone who is a veteran or military family member onto the field to be honored.

“Our community has just wrapped its arms around it,” said Dunning, who canvassed Dothan to gather corporate sponsors and participants.

“It’s more about the cause than it is about baseball, but because you’re including baseball, we get so many more people participating. And since every single person in America needs to thank our military, it has … become the way this town says ‘thank you.’

“And when it comes to the best vehicle in which to deliver that message of thanks, the USO is a no-brainer.”

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This year’s Hits for Heroes tournament raised $23,000 for the USO, bringing the three-year total donation to more than $60,000.

“I’ve yet to meet a single person who has a relationship with the military — either through their spouse or themselves — who doesn’t have a great story to tell about the USO,” Dunning said. “So we feel honored to partner with the USO and hope we can continue this effort for years to come.”