‘A Much Needed Shot In The Arm': Navy Commander Talks About the Impact the USO has on Deployed Troops

USO Sailor of the Year Petty Officer 1st Class Troy Cromer and his wife,

USO Sailor of the Year Petty Officer 1st Class Troy Cromer and his wife, Laura, last week in Washington. USO photo by Mike Theiler

Even bona fide heroes can use a pick-me-up.

Troy Cromer has an Army Commendation Medal, a Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal with Valor, a Combat Action Ribbon an is credited with saving multiple lives during his 2013 deployment to Afghanistan with Navy SEAL Team 10.

Last week, the petty officer first class added 2014 USO Sailor of the Year to his trophy case at the 2014 USO Gala. According to his commanding officer, it was a timely show of appreciation.

“Last week [the] USO lived up to my own personal memories of your dedication to our troops,” Navy Cmdr. Matthew Andrews wrote in an email. “EOD1 Cromer and his family are extremely appreciative for the opportunity to participate. Troy has given so much of himself, and I know that the burdens of his personal sacrifices are shared by his family. It is absolutely phenomenal that the USO recognized Troy, and even more impressive that you were also able to include [and] recognize the critical role our families play.”

According to his gala program citation, Cromer — an explosive ordnance team leader — directed suppressive fire against enemy forces while neutralizing an improvised explosive device planted between two of his team’s vehicles during an ambush in Afghanistan. On another mission, he led four vehicles through an area littered with IEDs, dismantling three of the bombs. And on a third mission, he located a system of caves, destroying the weapons inside and then making sure enemy forces couldn’t use them any longer as underground bunkers.

For Andrews, who also attended the USO Gala, the recognition brought back memories of a USO moment he had during a deployment seven years ago.

“Before this event, my most vivid experience with the ’21st Century USO’ was the reception I received at the Atlanta airport on my mid-deployment R&R layover back in 2007,” he said. “Words would not do justice to the amount of gratitude I felt for the tremendous outpouring of sincere care [and appreciation] as we marched through the airport to resounding applause. That was an extremely tough deployment for me, and that was a particularly tough time during that long deployment. USO provided a much needed shot in the arm. Thank you.”

“The support [the USO gives] the families and forward-deployed guys is above and beyond all,” Cromer said at last week’s USO Gala. “It’s a phenomenal organization.

USO Sets Up Surprise Homecoming for Soldier’s Family on “The Meredith Vieira Show”

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Last month in Manhattan, a special reunion took place on Meredith Vieira’s new talk show between an Army Reserve officer and the family he hadn’t seen in nearly a year.

First Lt. Beau McNeff and his wife Ceci had missed their last two wedding anniversaries due to deployments and work-ups. While Ceci was in on the reunion, their four kids – including their newborn daughter Lexi – got the surprise of their young lives on live television.

The USO, which benefitted from more than 250 hours of McNeff’s volunteer service while he was stationed at Forward Operating Base Fenty in Afghanistan, selected the McNeff family for the surprise reunion and also arranged three days of fun for the family in Manhattan as a thank you for his contributions to the military and the organization.

“Before deploying, the only thing I knew about the USO was that they did care packages and they were in the airports,” McNeff said. “But then I go to Afghanistan and they’re in every airport that I went through. Fellow veterans, families, people who want to help and support our veterans and our military [were volunteering at each location], and these people loved us. They treated me like family at every stop. Then I get to Afghanistan and there’s a USO on my [forward operating base].”

McNeff visited that USO almost daily, and used the USO/United Through Reading Military Program room as often as possible to communicate with his four children back home in Beaverton, Oregon. After he became one of the first fathers to participate in the USO’s Tiny Tots program (a reverse care package program where a dad requests a personalized USO newborn kit be sent to the mom back home), he became a committed USO volunteer for the rest of his deployment.

“The McNeffs are a wonderful example of how a family is able to stay connected through so many of our wonderful programs and services,” USO President and CEO Dr. J.D. Crouch II said during the show’s taping. “This truly shows how we are always by their side … from the moment they join, through their deployments and as they transition back to their communities.”

On set, Vieira concealed the show’s surprise by demonstrating how the USO keeps families together via Skype. But McNeff, who could be seen on camera in uniform, was not actually in Afghanistan. He was backstage, waiting to surprise his family.

“It was surreal,” McNeff said. “I got to go behind the scenes and see how the show was put together. I’m sitting in this green room looking down on the set of “Saturday Night Live” as they set up for the weekend’s show. They pretended like the camera feed dropped out and I came out on stage. Our two oldest came running to me and started crying. Our 2-year-old stayed crying the whole time she was out there, holding her daddy doll … and that’s when I got to meet [Lexi] for the first time.

“It was one of those moments in life when everything felt right. I’d seen pictures of her, but I finally got to hold her and she smiled at me for the first time and you can’t beat that.

“And the USO set that up for me. It was more than anything I could have asked for.”

After the show, the USO had more surprises in store for the McNeff family. Volunteers from USO of Metropolitan New York spent three days with the McNeff family, leading them on a guided tour of the Museum of Natural History, the USS Intrepid and the Statue of Liberty.

McNeff’s two little girls, 6-year-old Elena and 2-year-old Sarah, were taken to the American Girl store where they were able to design their own custom dolls, and his 4-year-old son Daniel was taken to FAO Schwarz, where he picked out “the coolest Transformer in the whole world.”

“It’s just amazing the experience the USO can bring to a soldier,” McNeff said. “Both while you’re gone, and redeployment and now coming home.”

Joan Rivers, the San Diego Padres and a Soaked 5K: A Look at USO Events Around The Globe

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

As the summer draws to a close, USO centers around the world were busy hosting events to lift the spirits of troops and their families. Here’s a look at a few of the fantastic moments from USO centers around the world:

10520516_801924503161120_4387197194055551878_o

Joan Rivers visits USO Denver. USO photo.

Joan Rivers Makes Surprise Visit to USO Denver
Long-time USO supporter Joan Rivers paid a surprise visit to USO Denver last Wednesday morning and made sure each guest, volunteer and staff member knew how much she appreciated them. Rivers was the 2001 USO of Metropolitan New York’s Woman of the Year.

“Thank you for your service,” Rivers told the group.

Military Kids Hit the Field at the Be a San Diego Padre for a Day Event
The USO partnered with Petco Park and the Padres to give military kids a Major League experience. Several local kids from military families spent the day practicing baseball fundamentals, talking with former Padre Damian Jackson and learning all about what it would be like to be a Major League Baseball player. Check out the video from the event here.

Sixth Annual Clark After Dark in Chicago
The USO of Illinois took to the streets Thursday night for its sixth annual Clark After Dark block party. Thanks to the support of Alderman Brendan Reilly of the 42nd Ward, Boss Bar and other USO partners, partygoers enjoyed live music, military vehicle displays and plenty of food. Despite the rainy weather, Chicagoans came out in full force to support their troops and show appreciation.

Heidi Murkoff smiles with an expectant military mother. USO photo.

Heidi Murkoff smiles with an expectant military mother. USO photo.

USO/What to Expect Special Delivery Baby Shower in Fort Drum, New York
On Friday, the USO and the What to Expect Foundation, founded by best-selling author Heidi Murkoff, delivered a special baby shower to expecting military spouses and service women stationed in Fort Drum, New York. The moms-to-be enjoyed an afternoon filled with shower games, food, a raffle and a question-and-answer session with Murkoff, who wrote the best-selling book “What to Expect When You’re Expecting.”

Second Annual H2GO in Okinawa, Japan
There aren’t many stickier places on the planet than the South Pacific in the summer, where near-100-degree temperatures are coupled with crippling humidity. To help troops and their families stationed in Okinawa beat the heat and stay in shape, volunteers at USO Kadena created H2GO, a 5K foot race with water-themed obstacles along the route.

The H2GO race let participants enjoy slip-n-slides, water cannons and the soaking power of over 20,000 water balloons.

Girls show off their nails and face paintings at Sun and Fun day with Kaiserslautern USO. USO photo.

Girls show off their nails and face paintings at Sun and Fun day with USO Kaiserslautern. USO photo.

Sixth Annual Sun and Fun Day in Kaiserslautern, Germany
As the dog days of summer come to an end, Kaiserslautern USO and TKS hosted the sixth annual Sun and Fun Day for troops and their families to help them enjoy the last of the warm weather. Despite some rain, over 2,300 visitors came out to enjoy the five-hour event that included food, raffles, live music and search-and-rescue dog demos.

Troops Get Their Game on at Camp Buehring Volleyball Tournament
Service members rallied their way to victory at a volleyball tournament Saturday night in Camp Buehring, Kuwait. Troops were able to form teams of six and compete for prizes — all while jamming out to the beats of DJ Break One. The winning teams were even awarded victory T-shirts!

Troops Churn Up Homemade Ice Cream at USO Camp Marmal

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Nothing says summer like a eating a bowl of cold, delicious ice cream.

And while troops at Camp Marmal, Afghanistan, can’t exactly head to a grocery store and pick up a pint, they can head over to the USO.

After hearing that the base cafeteria only served ice cream once a week, USO Camp Marmal staff members decided to start monthly homemade ice cream nights.

“We gave it a try and it’s been a big hit since then,” said USO Camp Marmal Center Manager Michael Eyassu.

With a few zip bags, milk, ice and a lot of shaking, troops can whip up a batch of homemade ice cream within a matter of minutes. USO Camp Marmal even provides service members with a number of syrups and toppings to enhance their homemade ice cream creations.

“Troops love it because it’s a fun and interactive event they can participate in with their fellow troops,” Eyassu said. “The end result is delicious, so it’s a win-win!”

If you want to try making homemade ice cream like the troops, check out the recipe below:

In a gallon zip bag:
1/2 cup salt
Ice to fill bag 2/3 of way full

In a quart zip bag:
1 cup of half and half
2 table spoons of vanilla extract
Flavored syrup (optional)

Place ice and salt in a large gallon zip bag. Set aside. Place half & half and vanilla in quart zip bag. Seal tightly and place inside gallon zip bag. Seal gallon zip bag. Shake until ice cream is solid or at consistency of your choice — roughly 10 minutes. Remove quart zip bag from gallon zip bag. Scoop contents of quart zip bag into bowl, add desired toppings and serve immediately.

Want to help the USO bring more unique programs like this to troops deployed troops around the world? Consider supporting the USO today.

Robin Williams Created Lasting Moments on 2007 USO Tour

Comedian Robin Williams greets troops during a 2007 USO Chairman's Holiday Tour stop at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, on Dec. 17, 2007. Photo by Chad J. McNeeley/Courtesy of the Department of Defense

Comedian Robin Williams greets troops during a 2007 USO Chairman’s Holiday Tour stop at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, on Dec. 17, 2007. Photo by Chad J. McNeeley/Courtesy of the Department of Defense

Robin Williams’ personality is too big to fit into one story.

Here are two moments from the 2007 USO Chairman’s Holiday Tour we couldn’t fit into yesterday’s tribute to Williams’ service to the military.

‘You Gave Me Yours, I’ll Give You Mine’

The December 2007 tour – which also included Kid Rock, comedian Lewis Black, cyclist Lance Armstrong, Miss USA 2007 Rachel Smith, Irish tenor Ronan Tynan and was led by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen – was a bit of a rough ride. There were travel delays and crazy weather – everything you’d expect when hopping in and out of remote locations in war zones.

At one point on the tour, Williams lost his voice.

“We got on a plane and flew to Afghanistan,” said John Hanson, a USO senior vice president who was on the 2007 tour. “Long flight – got there after the show was supposed to start and the audience had been standing outside in this wet, heavy snow. [Williams] could hardly speak. But he did the show. …

“The next morning … we got on a C-130 with body armor and it was stacked in front of us. … His manager said, ‘Sit next to Robin and whenever he starts talking, tell him to shut up cause he needs his voice this afternoon.’ …

“For some reason, we had to give up our body armor. These troops were coming on and offloading it. It was either a soldier or an airman – I don’t remember – but he said ‘Mr. Williams, I didn’t get to see your show last night, but thank you for coming. It means a lot to us.’ And Robin nodded. And the guy came back on later and said ‘You know, I’ve had this for a while and it’s protected me,’ and he pulled off a St. Christopher medal. And Robin [said] ‘I can’t take that.’

“[And the service member said] ‘It’s done well for me, please take it,’ and he took a couple of the [body armor] vests and walked off. So Robin sat there and he looked at it, and he looked at his manager and me and was puzzled [and] moved.

“The guy came back on to get the last batch of [body armor], and Williams said ‘Wait, you gave me yours,’ and unbuttoned his shirt and pulled out this huge silver cross and said ‘I’ll give you mine.’

“And the [service member] said ‘I can’t take this.’ And [Williams] said ‘if you don’t take that, I won’t take this.’ And so the guy walked off with it.”

Mork at War

Part of the 2007 Chairman’s tour involved officially opening the USO center at Joint Base Balad in Iraq, with some peculiar furniture.

“When we walked in, in the computer room, there was a gaming chair,” Hanson said. “It was a big, white plastic oval. Looked like a gigantic egg.

“And [Williams] ran across, jumped in it and spun around. And it was a weird cultural reference for a lot of the young guys because they didn’t really quite get it.

“And [Williams] said ‘I better stop this [or somebody’s going to get the idea for a TV series.’”

(For everyone under the age of 40, Williams’ breakout role on “Mork and Mindy” – a sitcom that ran from 1978 to 1982 where he played an alien named Mork who came to Earth in an egg-shaped spaceship.)

Fresh off the Plane: USO Fort Drum Volunteers Try to Think of Everything When Welcoming Home Troops

FORT DRUM, N.Y.–After a long flight – and a longer deployment – a little Febreze sounds like a good idea.

While no one is recommending it as a substitute for proper hygiene, it’s a viable – and apparently welcome – quick fix for troops who’ve just returned from their deployment and don’t have the luxury of showering before reuniting with their families.

These are the things USO volunteers George and Alice Barton prepare for when they are among the first civilians to welcome 10th Mountain Division soldiers home.

George Barton receives a certificate of appreciation for his USO volunteerism at welcome home events from Army Brig. Gen. Michael Howard on July 15 in Fort Drum, N.Y. USO photo

George Barton receives a certificate of appreciation for his USO volunteerism at welcome home events from Army Brig. Gen. Michael Howard on July 15 in Fort Drum, N.Y. USO photo

“We tell them ‘OK, arms up for a shower before you see your family.’ And we give them a quick squirt,” a chuckling George Barton said July 15, a few hours before welcoming 293 10th Mountain troops back from an Afghanistan deployment. “They get a kick out of that.”

The Bartons have been greeting returning troops at Fort Drum for more than three years. George – a retired airman who also worked for U.S. Customs and Border Protection – welcomes troops with a hearty handshake the moment they clear customs while Alice helps facilitate the snack table, occasionally weilds the Febreze bottle and trades playful barbs with the men and women who’ve just returned from deployment. A host of other USO volunteers are on hand as well, doing everything from ringing a cowbell and yelling “Welcome home!” on the tarmac as troops stream off the plane to making sure those service members have plenty of distractions, coffee and snacks while they kill time before their official return ceremony.

USO volunteer Alice Barton mans the snack table as troops wait for their welcome home ceremony July 15 in Fort Drum, N.Y. USO photo

USO volunteer Alice Barton mans the snack table as troops wait for their welcome home ceremony July 15 in Fort Drum, N.Y. USO photo

“It’s like being a mother to every one of these kids,” Alice Barton said before the July 15 ceremony. “I’m glad they’re back. It’s wonderful.”

“I appreciate what they’ve done because I know what they’ve done,” George Barton said. “I’ve been over in Iraq and Afghanistan and I know what it’s like over there and I know what they’re going through. I was only over there two, three weeks at a time. They were over there for a full year. So I appreciate when they come home, they’re glad to see green again most of the time.”

The Bartons – who spend their winters in Las Cruces, New Mexico – volunteer at USO El Paso as well, working with the USO Mobile program.

“For me the retirement’s great,” George Barton said. “And working with the service people – you couldn’t be with better people.”