Four USO Entertainment Staffers Honored by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs for Work on Tours

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They’re normally behind the scenes. This month, they were in the spotlight.

Four USO Entertainment employees were honored Feb. 13 for their roles in entertaining America’s troops at a surprise Pentagon ceremony with the military’s top officer.

Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, presented the Joint Chiefs of Staff Distinguished Public Service Award to USO Vice President of Entertainment Rachel Tischler and the Outstanding Public Service Award to USO Vice President of Celebrity Recruitment Juliet Gilliam, USO Entertainment Specialist Brook Northrip and USO Tour Producer Jeremy Wilcox.

The quartet was specifically honored for their work on Dempsey’s four USO Chairman’s Holiday Tours, the last of which he wrapped in December. The tours – which are whirlwind USO visits traveling from the U.S. to Europe to the Mideast and back in the course of a week – touch thousands of troops annually in the weeks before Christmas.

“The Chairman’s Holiday Tour is an incredibly important annual tour that directly connects our nation’s top military leader with our troops serving around the globe,” said retired Brig. Gen. John I. Pray Jr., USO Executive Vice President for Operations, Programs and Entertainment. “The tour always includes an amazing group of celebrities who eagerly volunteer to accompany the chairman and I was thrilled that Gen. Dempsey recently recognized four USO entertainment team members with the Distinguished and Outstanding Public Service Awards for the key roles each played in making these tours such a big success.”

The most recent tour covered five countries in six days, including stops Afghanistan. The tour roster included eight-time USO tour veteran and country star Kellie Pickler, 2007 USO tour veteran and comedian Rob Riggle, “Glee” co-star Dianna Agron, former Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher, “Suits” co-star Meghan Markle and Washington Nationals pitcher Doug Fister.

“In my dealings with the USO over the past few years, spearheading tours around the globe, I can confidently say that the USO is as helpful and comforting today as it was back [when I joined the Army],” Dempsey said in a press release during the 2014 tour. “This year’s tour has been just as memorable.”

Channing Tatum, Adam Rodriguez and Nick Zano Wrap USO Tour to Afghanistan

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Actors Channing Tatum, Adam Rodriguez and Nick Zano wrapped the USO’s first 2015 entertainment tour to Afghanistan over the weekend. The six-day handshake tour was the first USO experience for the trio, which spent time with more than 1,500 troops, including these folks from Oregon.

In all, Tatum, Rodriguez and Zano visited seven bases downrange and the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan.

“My trip with the USO was a once-in-a-lifetime window into the sacrifice and duty that these brave soldiers and their families devote every day to,” said Tatum, whose “Magic Mike XXL” will hit theaters this summer. “Thank you from the bottom of my heart for the experience. Safe travels home and until then, keep holding it down there and in every other place that flies the stars and stripes.”

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Messages from the Front: See What Troops Told the USO About Being Away for the Holidays

It’s hard for civilians to be away from home for the holidays. Now imagine serving in a war zone.

Friend of the USO Eric Raum traveled to the Mideast to talk to troops about what its like to be missing their families during the holidays. He also profiled how the USO gives those troops a little piece of home during a tough time through the USO Holidays for Heroes program.

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How to Make the Perfect Care Package for Troops

A group of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington-based airmen  help the USO distribute Girl Scout Cookies. Photo courtesy of the Department of Defense

A group of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington-based airmen help the USO distribute Girl Scout Cookies. Photo courtesy of the Department of Defense

It’s easy to take the little things for granted. For most Americans, stocking up on snacks, baby wipes and Kleenex is as simple as heading to a convenience store.

But for troops stationed around the world — especially at overseas locations like the Mideast or Okinawa — stocking up on every day commodities can mean waiting on, or rationing from, care packages shipped from the United States. However, even the most thoughtful — and jam-packed — of care packages eventually runs empty.

Luckily, the USO is there to help.

Anyone who wants to create the ultimate box of goodies for the troops can do so. Remember, even just one package worth of supplies can brighten a service member’s day.

Step 1: Find a USO center

This is easy. A list of all our centers can be found here. Click the dropdown menus on the left side of the page to search for a center in the region you want to help out.

Step 2: Check in with that center before you buy

Before you gather supplies and seal that box, send your selected center an email to doublecheck that they’re able to receive care packages and ask them what sort of items troops at their location need most. They’ll help you get the right address to send your package to, too.

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Step 3: Fill up a box

We always defer to the individual centers’ knowledge (see Step 2) when it comes to knowing what troops need. No one knows our troops like the USO staff and volunteers on the ground. Still, we took the liberty of compiling a list of some of our downrange troops’ favorite things to receive in care packages:

  • Healthy snacks: Jerky, trail mixes, granola bars and fruit snacks
  • Drink mix packets: Gatorade, lemonade, iced tea and crystal light packets
  • Microwavable food: Easy Mac, popcorn, Cup O’Noodles, Chef Boyardee, oatmeal and other snacks that come in their own bowl (dining ware is scarce in Afghanistan)
  • Non-perishable food: Tuna cans or packets, fruit cups, peanut butter, Nutella, soups and other canned foods
  • Chocolate: Wait until the winter months to send chocolate, as it will melt in the mail if sent now
  • Toiletries: Travel-size shampoo, conditioner, body lotion, body wash, wet wipes and hand sanitizer (Please send these in separate boxes from food — no one likes shampoo-flavored oatmeal!)

Step 4: Don’t have the time? We can do it for you …

Everyone has something they’re passionate about. And if you’ve read this far, helping our troops is probably one of those things for you. But time can get in the way, especially during the holidays. If you still want to help troops, but can’t make it to the store to fill up a care package, the USO can take care of it for you through a donation to USOwishbook.org, where you can send items like comfort food packages, books, movies, video games and more.

A Holiday Gift Guide for Our Troops

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The holidays are here.

If you didn’t see them coming it before this week, a pile of mail with circulars and glossy catalogs probably brought them into focus. By Thanksgiving night, your inbox was stuffed with email sales pitches aimed to get you to do a little Christmas shopping while you’re riding out that turkey coma.

And while we think everyone should treat themselves to that new coat 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.

Your USO at Work: November 2014 — USO, Sesame Street Celebrate 500,000 Smiles

The Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families celebrated a major milestone with families at Fort Benning, Georgia, on October 3 when the tour entertained its 500,000th military family member. USO photo by Dave Gatley

The Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families celebrated a major milestone with families at Fort Benning, Georgia, on October 3 when the tour entertained its 500,000th military family member. USO photo by Dave Gatley

Sesame Street/USO Experience Reaches 500K Milestone

It’s always a sunny day on Sesame Street, but Elmo, Cookie Monster and the Muppets had an extra special reason to sing and dance with all their friends last month. The Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families entertained its 500,000th military family member.

“The fact that we hit that particular number is a giant milestone for us,” said Nicole McClendon, tour manager for the USO/Sesame Street Experience for Military Families.

The Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families has toured since July 2008 and has taken its message of facing fears and embracing change to more than 500,000 troops and military families. With help from Katie, a military child who is moving to a new place, and all of her friends, the tour has performed more than 893 shows on 147 military installations in 33 states and 11 countries.

“Five hundred thousand represents the number of smiles Elmo and Katie have brought to military kids and their families … as the tour has traveled around the world,” USO President and CEO Dr. J.D. Crouch II said in a release. “We thank our friends at Sesame Street for helping to make this possible and we look forward to seeing many more smiling faces as the tour continues its journey.”

USO’s Every Moment Counts Flag Breaks World Record

The USO's Every Moment Counts flag is displayed at The Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati on Sept. 11. USO photo by Mike Theiler

The USO’s Every Moment Counts flag is displayed at The Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati on Sept. 11. USO photo by Mike Theiler

With signatures gathered from all 50 states and seven countries, USO announced in September that it broke the Guinness World Records title for most signatures on a flag with 115,405 gathered digitally and in-person around the world. The USO shattered the current record set in 2012 by more than 82,132 signatures.

As part of its Every Moment Counts campaign, the USO rallied Americans to show support for troops and their families through the simple act of saying thank you with their signature.

“Every signature on the Every Moment Counts flag is a symbol of a grateful nation’s appreciation for all that our men and women in uniform and their families do for us on a daily basis,” said J.D. Crouch II, USO President and CEO.

Go to USOmoments.org to show your appreciation for our troops and their families.

Al Roker Sets Weather Forecast Record in Support of the USO

With six minutes to go in #Rokerthon, the expression momentarily drained from Al Roker’s face as his co-anchors piled into his small New York City studio.

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

“I don’t think there are enough people in here,” Roker deadpanned. More than 33 hours  — and despite several jokes suggesting the contrary — he was still lucid.

And then he delivered more temperatures.

Roker, a USO tour veteran, set a Guinness World Record on Nov. 14 for the longest continuous televised weather forecast at 34 hours. He did it to raise awareness for the USO, asking a national audience, a litany of NBC affiliates and livestream viewers to visit his still-active Crowdrise page, where he raised more than $75,000 for the organization by the time he went off the air.

He had a lot of help while he was on the air, too. #Rokerthon was often the No. 1 trending topic on Twitter, with thousands of viewers (including USO centers around the world) tweeting in questions about the weather to keep Roker’s forecasting streak alive.

USO, Renovating Hope and Gary Sinise Foundation Repair Home of Wounded Vet

After returning from Afghanistan with PTSD and a traumatic brain injury, medically retired Army Nurse Corps officer Jim Gardon came home to a surprise.

Unfortunately it wasn’t the good kind.

“When Jim was deployed to Afghanistan, I hired a contractor to remodel the back two rooms of the house,” said his wife Cece Gardon. “He came in, pulled out the electricity, did a haphazard job of sheet rocking and left and never came back.”

Stuck with a huge bill for incomplete work, they didn’t have the money to invest in the project a second time. The USO introduced the Gardons to Paul Hoffecker, the CEO of Renovating Hope, after Cece attended a USO Caregivers Conference. Renovating Hope secured grants from the USO and the Gary Sinise Foundation to make sure the job could be completed once and for all.

“The USO has been better than the 15 different medications the VA has tried to improve my attitude,” Jim Gardon said. “This is something that actually physically, emotionally and socially helps the soldier.”

Visit USO.org/donate to learn how you can support our healing heroes and their families.

USO Supports Fort Drum Spouse Through Deployment – and Homecoming

Ashley Sandgren

Ashley Sandgren

Ashley Sandgren’s smiles said as much as her words. Sometimes anxious. Other times confident.

Either way, she knew her wait was almost over.

Just 24 hours away from reuniting with her husband, Army Sgt. Jeremy Sandgren, after his nine-month deployment to Afghanistan, the Virginia native talked through the emotions of what it was like to wait out the couple’s first overseas deployment.

“I think putting it out of your mind is helpful in some sense, but you shouldn’t live your life in denial that they’re in danger, because they are,” she said.

Not that she didn’t have plenty to do. A trained cosmetologist, Sandgren balanced her work with coordinating a family readiness group at Fort Drum, N.Y., and volunteering with the USO, where many Fort Drum spouses have found a home away from home while their significant others were deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade.

“I think this USO has such a huge heart,” Sandgren said. “I think it’s extremely important to have the community and the different groups to lean on when your soldier’s deployed. It helps in the sense that you realize that you’re not alone.”

BNSF Helps the USO Support Transitioning Veterans with a Landmark Donation

Job searches are never easy. The task can be even more daunting for veterans looking to land their first civilian position.

That’s where the USO and supporters like the BNSF Railway Foundation step in.

On July 24, the BNSF Railway Foundation announced a $3 million pledge to support USO Warrior and Family Care employment programs for active-duty troops transitioning out of the military. The first-of-its-kind, three-year pledge will fund USO programs designed to assist transitioning troops – including those who are wounded, ill or injured – entering the civilian workforce.

Former Army Officer Makes a Difference for USO, Troops

USO Houston Center Director Liz Vallette

USO Houston Center Director Liz Vallette

USO Houston Center Director Liz Vallette understands what it’s like to be far from home.

With a tour in South Korea and a deployment to Iraq, the former Army officer and West Point graduate also knows that the USO is able to deliver a piece of home to deployed troops around the world.

“I was eager to join an organization that I had directly benefited from during my service, from relaxing in airport USO centers … to enjoying a touch of home from entertainers,” said Vallette, who started with the organization in 2011.

She arrived at USO Houston after serving six years in the Army and another two working with an economic development group in Afghanistan. Having daily opportunities to positively impact the lives of troops and their families was a driving factor in her decision and working with outstanding, motivated colleagues is an added benefit, she said.

Under Vallette’s leadership, USO Houston is piloting innovative programs that connect transitioning troops and their families with high-profile companies in the city’s booming industries. Oil and Gas 101 – a free, two-day orientation to the oil and gas industry – helped troops network directly with Houston-area hiring managers. Vallette and her team are planning another session for 2015 and hope to help more troops prepare for life after the military.

Go to USO.org/donate to support our nation’s transitioning troops and their families.