Christmas in Afghanistan

I’ve been fortunate enough to visit our troops overseas and see firsthand what it’s like for them to spend this special time thousands of miles from the people they love most. I’ll never forget the selfless heroes I met. That’s why I feel so strongly about the USO’s Christmas Convoy.

With your help today preparing the way, this very special convoy — loaded up with everything the troops need for a much-deserved respite from the rigors of war — will reach our troops serving in remote and hard-to-reach forward operating bases in Afghanistan in time for the holidays.

It’s part of a larger USO effort to give our troops everything they need this holiday season. The logistics of such an undertaking aren’t easy. It takes time to put together. And to get the job done, we need to raise $100,000 by October 20th.

Will you join me in making sure the USO has the resources to reach as many troops as possible this holiday season?

The Christmas Convoy is especially close to my heart because it reaches troops in some of the most isolated front line outposts, where the small comforts of home are especially hard to come by.

It’s the centerpiece of our ambitious effort to bring a touch of holiday happiness to more troops than ever. And everything we do — from care packages, to free phone calls home, to special holiday meals — requires vigorous support from folks back home like you and me.

So I’m hoping the thousands of troops who’ll spend the holidays on the frontlines dreaming of home and family can count on your loyalty the way you count on theirs.

Make a gift to help make the 2012 Holiday Season a special one for our troops serving in Afghanistan and around the world.

Some October thoughtfulness from you can pave the way for wonderful holiday moments for our troops. Please join me in making this happen.

Happy (Early) Holidays,
Joan Jett

Bringing Comfort to Those Saving Lives in Afghanistan

Optimal levels of comfort achieved!

At a remote forward operating base in Afghanistan, a small team of medical officers, surgeons, nurses and corpsman stand in harm’s way, always at the ready to save the lives of our frontline troops

They live as close to the action as possible. It’s a life of hurry up and wait. But with few luxuries available in a combat zone, they pass the time sitting on tires, playing cards and eating MRE’s.

True to our mission, the USO recently provided much needed furniture, toiletries, energy drinks and entertainment to lift the spirits of the 629th Forward Surgical Team at FOB Orgun-E, on the eastern border of Afghanistan. The unit received a USO2GO shipment which included coffee makers, video games, bean bag chairs and more, bringing them a much-needed touch of home.

“We can’t thank the USO enough,” said Army Capt. Phyllis Thieken of the 629th FST. “We are a team of medics, doctors, CRNAs [Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetists] and nurses who are devoted to taking care of the wounded, and it makes me feel good to know that with the help of the USO, we are able to help other soldiers here on the FOB.”

The medical team is using the care package to further pay it forward to Special Operators passing through their base.

“Some come here just to get a shower after being out on missions,” she added. “By supplying simple packets of Gatorade to these guys who have been eating MREs, we get such a good feeling. Their faces light up over Gatorade!”

“Little things like furniture—comfortable places to sit—are often taken for granted out here. Most every piece of furniture is hand built from scrap wood and sleeping mats. Outside we were sitting on tires, so with the folding chairs and bean-bag chairs you gave us, we’re now able to actually sit and be comfortable, especially when we have meetings or training as a group. It’s made a huge difference in our everyday lives.”

Right now the unit is engaged in a fierce Call of Duty tournament on the X-Box 360. The combat shooter has been a constant source of rivalry within the unit and gives them something to look forward to each day.

“That X-Box is hands down the most coveted piece of equipment in that box,” said Thieken. “If that thing broke we would have a riot on our hands. It’s our number one source of entertainment, and it really helps us pass the time.” -  Joseph Andrew Lee, USO Staff Writer

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Priceless Gift for a New Father

Army Spc. Corbin Wright watches the birth of his baby girl via Skype from the USO center at Camp Marmal, Afghanistan.

Though he’s only 23 years old, Army Specialist Corbin Wright has always wanted to be a father.

He never imagined he would miss the birth of his first child.

But while his fiancée was in the delivery room at a Texas Hospital this spring, Wright was thousands of miles away serving at Camp Marmal in northern Afghanistan.

It was a bitter disappointment for a new father who had tracked every moment of the pregnancy and talked about nothing else for months.

“I wanted to see everything!” he says.

Wright, a logistics specialist, believed he would make it home before his daughter arrived, but fate seemed to conspire against him.

“I was trying to be financially stable for my child so I [re-enlisted] for another four years,” he says.

That decision pushed back his departure date from Afghanistan. Meantime doctors at home recommended an emergency C-section, moving up the baby’s delivery date by several weeks.

Wright volunteers at the Marmal USO, and when center director Michael Eyassu heard what was happening, he sprang into action, arranging a Skype connection in a private room to allow father, mother and baby to spend their first moments together as a new family.

The whole setup took some planning—Skype is not an everyday convenience in a combat zone.

Most troops cannot access Skype on the secure computers at their work stations. They can purchase internet service from a commercial provider but it’s unreliable and expensive—upwards of $100 per month. Even if you pay for a connection, soldiers at Marmal live in group tents and have nowhere to go for a private conversation.

The USO offers free phone and internet to troops, but Eyassu says “Skype is blocked [at the Marmal center] because we don’t have enough bandwidth to support it. So when we have special events, we have to contact our internet service provider to unblock it.”

That extra effort was a priceless gift for Wright.  Just after his baby arrived by C-section on April 23rd, he watched as the doctor placed little Korlea Santrice in his fiancée’s arms.

“Whew! That’s my baby!” he thought.

“Skyping meant everything to me, because it felt like I was in the room right there with her.”

Korlea weighed just over five pounds and everyone thinks she looks just like her daddy.

Wright is grateful for those precious moments—watching his newborn take her first breaths, hearing her first cries and seeing for himself that she was safe and healthy. But he longs for so much more.

“To give her a big kiss, hold her. I want to feed her,” he says. “She loves when she’s getting fed, and I could talk to her while I’m feeding her. And she could recognize me, hopefully recognize my voice and my touch and my smell.”

One bright spot for Wright is that he’s scheduled to be home in time to celebrate Father’s Day with his baby girl. Many other deployed fathers have to wait months before they can see and hold their babies.

“There’s a lot of people like that in my unit, that weren’t able to get home for the birth of their child,” says Wright, “Because they’re out here serving our country.”  - Malini Wilkes, USO Director of Story Development

The USO arranges Skype connections at bases around the world to bring deployed fathers into the delivery room. This Father’s Day, give the gift of a Skype connection to a military dad, or choose another gift for your own father from the USO Father’s Day Wishbook

Activision Sends Battleship Gaming Goodness

A video game based on a movie loosely based on a board game… sounds complicated! But to troops stationed at the US Naval Forces Central Command Headquarters in Afghanistan it was simple: a little bit of time to relax and have some fun!

The men and women from the US Naval Forces Central Command Headquarters Afghanistan played the Battleship game on the side of a rocket attack bunker.

Activision Publishing, Inc. donated copies of the new Battleship video game to fourteen USO Centers, USO2GOs and MEGS in Southwest Asia. The game combines first person action and naval strategy for hours of fun and a little touch of home for our troops.

“It was a breath of fresh air in a combat zone to see the USO take the time out of their busy schedules to come and set this up for us.  The game was a blast, graphics were awesome, and it provided a nice change of pace…  The USO has certainly outdone themselves with the care they have shown towards the troops.” said YN2(SCW) Matthew Nolan.

Time to kick some alien butt!

Thanks Activision for helping the USO deliver a little gaming goodness to our troops overseas! – Vyque Elessar, USO Director of New Media

The USO Family

Air Force Major Phil Ambard and his wife, Linda. Courtesy photo.

Air Force Major Phil Ambard was a family man.

“From the time he was a young Airman Basic through his commission as an officer 16 years later, he has been warmly greeted and taken care of at each USO,” said his wife of 23 years, Linda Ambard. “When we flew to Germany for the first time, we had five children under the age of ten, but we were made to feel like the USO was ours—that we were family.”

“This USO family has never meant more to me than when my Phil was killed in action on 27 April 2011.”

Her Phil was among eight Air Force officers shot and killed at Kabul International Airport by a 50-year-old Afghan Air Corps pilot.

Linda was left devastated and in a fog.

Their five children, including three Air Force Academy graduates and one who was attending West Point, flew to Dover Air Force Base from all around the world to meet their mother and repatriate the remains of their father.

The pain was so fresh; Linda couldn’t coordinate any of her own travel. She had trouble remembering the gates and felt dizzy navigating the crowds.

“At every single airport where there was a USO, we were each met by USO staff who walked us to our gate, brought us drinks, and who stayed with us the entire time,” she said. “They didn’t know us, yet they stood with each and every one of us.”

In Texas, while buying a magazine, she learned that all of her bank accounts had been frozen due to Phil’s death. The USO representative was quick to offer her some money, pay for her purchase and even spoke to the bank on her behalf.

“When we arrived at Dover, the USO came out with many volunteers,” said Linda. “Once again they had representatives for each of us. They allowed us to talk, make jokes—our family’s way of dealing with the stress—and they sat with me as I broke down yet again.”

Afterward, the family returned to Colorado Springs for the funeral.

“The USO ensured we were all seated together and near the front of the airplane,” she said. “This was no easy feat to get seven of us together, yet they did it for us.”

Eight months later, Linda knew that she couldn’t celebrate Christmas at home, so the family flew to Hawaii.  On the return trip, she and her cadet son spent 10 hours in the USO where their story eventually got out.

“The USO staff once again bent over backwards to make sure that we knew that people were walking with us and that we were still important to the USO family,” said Linda, “and I just want you to know that the USO was important to him and since his passing, the USO has meant so much to the Ambard and Short families.”

“He started as an immigrant boy,” she said, “but died as a man willing to stand up for the freedoms of all. He truly was an American hero.” — By Joseph Andrew Lee, USO Staff Writer

______________________________________________________

Phil Ambard, 44, was born in Caracas, Venezuela. He didn’t speak a word of English when he moved to the United States at the age of 12. After graduating from high school, he enlisted in the United States Air Force as an Airman Basic. He rose to the rank of Senior Master Sergeant (select) before he was commissioned as an officer and then rose to the rank of Major before he made the ultimate sacrifice for his country.  He had recently graduated from Denver University with a Ph.D and his second master’s degree.

He is survived by his children Patrick, Emily, Alex, Tim and Josh, his daughter-in-law Karla and his wife Linda.

The USO <3s Rodney Atkins

Tennessee native and American country superstar Rodney Atkins just recently returned from Kuwait and Afghanistan after a weeklong USO tour. This isn’t his first time supporting the troops, though. In 2011, Rodney partnered with Applebee’s to help launch a military support campaign to honor veterans and active duty military personnel worldwide. The “Thank You Movement” officially launched last October and allows folks to post thank you messages on ThankYouMovement.com, Applebees’ Facebook page, Twitter using the hashtag #ThankYouMovement, or YouTube. Veterans and servicemen and women can then go online and see those messages.

 During his most recent endeavor, Rodney visited eight bases and performed six formal USO shows in addition to several “unplugged” performances for wounded soldiers and service men and women unable to their posts. He also posed for pictures and signed autographs with over 3,400 service members at Camp Buehring, Camp Arifjan, Camp Leatherneck and Kandahar Air Field.

Rodney Atkins on his 2012 USO Tour

“I can’t say enough about how amazing my USO tour to the Middle East was,” Atkins said. “From all of the skilled and brave service men and women I met to the warm reception I received throughout my time downrange.  I learned a lot, had a great experience and, most importantly, made a lot of memories.  I can’t wait to go back out again and extend my thanks.” – Joseph P. Scannell, New Media Intern