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.”