A USO Moment: 13 Marines Get Impromptu Welcome in Chicago, First Class Seats for Final Leg of Journey

Lindsy Wadas, director of the USO of Illinois' center at Chicago O'Hare International Airport, poses with Marine Maj. Matthew Winkelbauer after he and 12 fellow Marines arrived in Chicago on Monday. The 13 Marines were treated to an inpromptu water-canon salute and gate greeting and all ended up with first class seats on their American Airlines flight to San Diego. Courtesy of USO of Illinois

Lindsy Wadas, director of the USO of Illinois’ center at Chicago O’Hare International Airport, poses with Marine Maj. Matthew Winkelbauer after he and 12 fellow Marines arrived in Chicago on Monday. Courtesy of USO of Illinois

Here at the USO, we’re lucky to get to do things on a large scale for America’s troops and their families. But it’s the little, serendipitous events that come together each day at USO centers around the world that keep us going.

On Monday, 13 Marines on the tail end of a five-day trip home from Afghanistan got a surprise they’ll never forget, courtesy of a web of people who’d likely never met and an enterprising USO of Illinois volunteer. In the course of a few minutes, the Marines went from a routine approach for landing at Chicago O’Hare International Airport to getting a water-canon salute on the runway and an impromptu greeting at the gate by members of Chicago’s police and fire departments, USO of Illinois volunteers and airport personnel. Once they were in the terminal, American Airlines offered up six first class upgrades to the Marines for free for their flight to San Diego. And when the Marine contingent boarded the plane, seven other first-class passengers gave up their seats so the Marines could sit together.

Read how one Marine’s fiancee, roughly 30 of Chicago’s finest, one USO partner, seven strangers on an airplane and a host of airport workers and USO volunteers – including 74-year-old former Marine John Colas, who coordinated it all – made this moment happen.

USO-NFL Partnership Kept Football Streaming to Troops in Afghanistan During Government Shutdown

Troops gather at USO Kandahar in Afghanistan to watch football, courtesy of NFL Game Pass. USO photos by Daniel Wood

Troops gather at USO Kandahar in Afghanistan to watch football in late September, courtesy of NFL Game Pass. USO photo by Daniel Wood

The recent government shutdown – which ended on Thursday – left troops downrange with a slimmed-down version of the Armed Forces Network, and the prospect of missing their favorite football teams on Sunday nights.

However, NFL Game Pass – which the league offers free of charge to USO centers outside the United States – kept the games streaming for troops at sites like USO Kandahar.

“They really saved the day here,” said Daniel Wood, duty manager at USO Kandahar.

Here’s what troops in Afghanistan told the USO’s Eric Raum on Oct. 6:

  • Spec. Gary Stripling: “I thought we just weren’t going to get to watch the games this week. A buddy told me the USO was still going to show the NFL over an Internet connection so we all came down early to get a seat.”
  • Staff Sgt. Brian Duchsne: “It’s something we look forward to all week, it gets you through, knowing you’ll relax for an evening and watch football, so we were pretty excited to hear the USO was still going to be showing the game.”

Our New Look

Yep, you’re still in the right place. Welcome to the new-look USO blog.

The new look comes amid several milestones: our 1,000th post, which came last month, and our 1 millionth visitor, which should happen sometime in the next three weeks.

And speaking of new looks, the USO has recently expanded its video storytelling operation. Check out these two stories from the last few weeks, both originally published on USO.org.

First, Gold Star Father Don Blanchard talks about his cross-country ride to honor his son who was killed in Afghanistan:

And here’s a look at last week’s USO 9/11 Service Project on Capitol Hill:

Team USO Runner Inspired by Fallen Soldier’s Sacrifice

Kenneth Bean graduated high school in the small town of Mansfield, Mo., alongside a school record 41 of his peers, just one year ahead of his friend and fellow baseball player Robert Pharris.

Kenneth Bean with his granddaughters after the Cincinnati Flying Pig Marathon. Photos courtesy of Kenneth Bean

Kenneth Bean with his granddaughters after the Cincinnati Flying Pig Marathon. Photos courtesy of Kenneth Bean

Pharris was the son of a farmer and a Marine who served in both Korea and Vietnam. He was the grandson of a farmer and World War II vet, and the great-grandson of a farmer and World War I vet. Once retired from the Army, Pharris deployed with the Missouri National Guard at 48 years old to serve alongside his son Benjamin — a Marine — in Afghanistan.

In January 2011, Pharris was attacked and killed by insurgents while serving as an agricultural specialist, helping to rebuild the local Afghan economy.

Bean – who’d just been diagnosed with obesity and high blood pressure when he heard about Pharris’ death – was greatly affected by the loss.

“What did I do to deserve one more day than him?” he asked himself.

Motivated by the service and sacrifice of the Pharris family, Bean decided to lose the weight and live a better life for himself, so he can be around longer his own family.

“I was up to almost 270 pounds,” he said. “The doctor said I had high blood pressure and he was going to put me on medication for it. It really worried me and I asked him if I could try something else instead.”

Bean began a strict cardio regimen. He located a place about five minutes from his home in Columbus, Ohio, where he knew he could get the kind of workout he needed. A hilly part of the countryside he now calls his haven.

“I knew I was going to need hills, so I found hills. Lots of them,” he said. “And the more I ran, the more I found I could run longer and farther.”

Bean began posting his longer and longer run results on Facebook where his friends and family encouraged him. A former supervisor from Wright-Patterson Airfield saw Bean had run for two straight hours and asked Bean if he was training for the Air Force Marathon.

“I laughed at him and said, ‘No way! I have no desire to run a marathon.’”

But the supervisor pressed on.

“’What about a half?’ he asked me. ‘Would you try a half?’ And that’s how I first ended up running a half-marathon,” Bean said.

Robert Pharris, who grew up with Bean, was killed in Afghanistan in 2011.

Robert Pharris, who grew up with Bean, was killed in Afghanistan in 2011.

Bean didn’t have a detailed plan, but he started training with the goal of running a half marathon in honor of his friend. Unfortunately when it came time to register for the race, it was sold out. He was heartbroken.

He contacted the race officials and they suggested he go through a charity sponsor.

“I looked at their charity sponsors and immediately the USO stood out,” he said. “It was the obvious choice [considering the relevance of the Pharris family’s service] and I thought wow — you know, this is really cool.”

Bean signed up with Team USO and pledged to raise $3,000 in exchange for a free training plan and a website where his friends and family could donate. With the support of his family, he completed his first marathon at the 2012 Air Force Marathon.

“My wife, family and friends have been supportive from day one,” Bean said. “though [they were] a little hesitant in understanding why, exactly, I was doing this.

“After reading some of my training journals, however, my wife started to get it, which even made our relationship stronger, and now when I go out on a training run … she’s coming along and she has even started to help coach me.”

It’s been a little over two years since he first began training in the memory of his friend. Bean is only 10 pounds short of his goal weight of 210, and he has completed a marathon and raised more than $1,000 for troops and their families.

Bean plans to run four races this year, all for the USO and Pharris’ memory. His final race will be the Marine Corps Marathon in Arlington, Va., this October, where his wife, children and grandchildren plan to be at the finish line to cheer him in.

“I am matching my donations up to $100,” he posted on his Team USO fundraiser page. “Please, help me, help the USO for the troops. They are far away from home.”

–Story by Joseph Andrew Lee, USO Staff Writer

OEF Crisis Hotline Gives Stressed Troops an Outlet Downrange

More than 1,000 runners came out for the OEF Crisis Hotline 5K, hosted May 24 at six USO Centers in Afghanistan. USO photos by Eric Raum

More than 1,000 runners came out for the OEF Crisis Hotline 5K, hosted May 24 at six USO Centers across Afghanistan. USO photos by Eric Raum

It was a run for those who feel trapped.

Six USO centers in Afghanistan hosted more than 1,000 total runners for a 5K on May 24 to promote the OEF Crisis Hotline, a downrange-based call center troops can contact if they are dealing with stress or other mental health issues. The hotline has two mental health professionals on duty 24 hours a day.

The USO – which has been advertising the hotline to troops via posters at downrange centers – provided prizes for the top three male and female finishers.

Sgt. Kristian Patino of the Army’s 254th Medical Detachment said the hotline fills a void downrange and is modeled off a similar system the Department of Veterans Affairs operates stateside.

“It is peer support in its purest form,” Patino said. “You have service members here in Afghanistan going through the same struggles and dealing with the same issues as whoever would be calling in, so they are able to connect with the caller and relate to them.”

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The hotline – which was originally run by the 254th Medical Detachment in Kandahar – is now operated by the Army’s 85th Combat Operational Stress Control Detachment out of Bagram.

Patino believes the hotline makes a difference.

“One instance, a woman called in and was very frantic, in a complete panic and crying,” Patino said. “When we were done, it was a day and night shift. We worked through relaxation techniques and talked through what was troubling her.”

Troops downrange can reach the OEF Crisis Hotline the following ways:

Stateside troops and veterans can reach the VA’s Military Crisis Line by dialing 1-800-273-8255 and then pressing 1. Europe-based troops can reach the Military Crisis Line by dialing 00800 1273 8255 on regular phones or 118 on DSN lines.

–Story by Eric Raum and Eric Brandner, USO

South Carolina Congressman Assembles USO Care Packages that May Find Way to His Son in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Congressman Joe Wilson was all smiles at last Wednesday’s Operation USO Care Package Service Project on Capitol Hill. But his reason for being there was serious.

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Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) jokes around with photographers at the Operation USO Care Package Service Project on May 22 in the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, D.C. USO photo by Mike Theiler

Wilson, who served 31 years in the South Carolina National Guard before retiring as a colonel in 2003, has deep family roots in America’s armed forces.

“I’m particularly grateful to be here, not just as a member of Congress, but as a military family,” Wilson said at the event, which took place in the foyer of the Rayburn House Office Building. “I have four sons currently serving in the military. One is [in Afghanistan] today. So one of these packages could easily end up with him.”

The seventh-term Republican from South Carolina’s 2nd District praised the work he’s seen the USO do for troops and families not only overseas, but also in his home state. USO of South Carolina opened a new center in the Columbia Metropolitan Airport in 2010, and will be unveiling updates to that center on Friday.

“I’m just such a fan of USO,” he said. “As I travel the country, as I travel the world – beginning in my home community in Columbia, South Carolina – we have a USO canteen at the airport. It’s the most prominent location in the airport and we are very grateful, particularly with the trainees coming into Fort Jackson, [that] they are welcomed by USO right away.

“It shows the appreciation of the warriors who maintain our freedom.”

–Story by Eric Brandner, USO Director of Story Development