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

USO Centers Around the Globe Celebrate National Volunteer Week

As National Volunteer Week comes to a close, here’s a look at a few of the scores of celebrations held at  centers around the world. The USO’s 27,000-plus volunteers  donated more than 1.375 million hours last year in service to America’s troops and their families..

USO Fort Hood

USO Fort Hood Programs Manager Isabel Hubbard, left, USO volunteer Frank Wright and USO Fort Hood Story Time Coordinator Andrea McDonald attend Wednesday's event. USO photo

USO Fort Hood Programs Manager Isabel Hubbard, left, USO volunteer Frank Wright and USO Fort Hood Story Time Coordinator Andrea McDonald attend Wednesday’s event. USO photo

USO Fort Hood held a luncheon Wednesday to honor its volunteers who logged a total of more than 22,000 hours last year.

“I’m really proud to stand here and see how many amazing people answer the call,” USO Fort Hood Director Robin Crouse told the Killeen (Texas) Daily Herald, which covered the event.

Read more about the event in the Herald’s story.

USO Forward Operating Base Fenty

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USO Forward Operating Base Fenty volunteers share a joke – and a cupcake – during National Volunteer Week. USO photo

The USO at Forward Operating Base Fenty in Afghanistan showed its appreciation to volunteers – almost all of whom are troops themselves – with some baked goods. They posted photos of the volunteers earlier this week.

“Thanks to all the great volunteers at Fenty for all you do for your fellow soldiers!” USO Senior Vice President of Operations Alan Reyes wrote in a Facebook comment about the celebration.

USO Houston

USO centers know how to get creative. To celebrate National Volunteer Week, the staff at USO Houston put together a JibJab breakdance video.

USO Houston had 248 volunteers donate 20,056 hours to their center last year.

USO San Antonio

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USO San Antonio volunteers pose at Wednesday’s USO Volunteer Appreciation Breakfast at the USO’s airport center. USO photo

USO San Antonio held a USO Volunteer Appreciation Breakfast at their airport facility on Wednesday morning.

“We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again, ‘We couldn’t do what we do without our volunteers,’” the staff wrote on its Facebook page.

–Story by USO Story Development

Passion for the Customer: USO Partner 3Di Goes the Extra Mile to Connect Troops to Families

Most of us get frustrated when our Internet service goes down. 

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Thanks to 3Di, troops were able to surf the Internet during their down time while deployed to New York City for Superstorm Sandy cleanup late last year. USO photo

But what if when you called your service provider – instead of putting you on hold for an hour to listen to elevator music – they made your broken connection such a high priority that the owner of the company dispatched a plane to fly a tech out to fix it that day.

It’s not make-believe. It’s 3Di Technologies.

The day before Thanksgiving, a satellite dish donated by 3Di to the USO for use during SuperStorm Sandy was inadvertently moved out of position, severing the Internet connection for deployed troops assisting with the cleanup. On a day most people were gathering with family, 3Di co-founder Don Baker wasn’t about to leave deployed troops in the dark.

As soon as he learned of the outage, Baker flew one of his techs from Baltimore to New York to fix the problem, re-connecting the dedicated satellite network in time for early-afternoon Thanksgiving chow.

“Serving the USO is a natural and truly effective way to provide comfort communication services to those who dedicate so much to our great country,” Baker wrote in an email. “We’re honored to do what we do, and we look forward to more opportunities to help the USO accomplish their mission.”

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The 3Di team during a trip to Kuwait. Courtesy photo

Satellite communications are at the heart of the USO mission to lift the spirits of troops and their families every day at more than 160 locations worldwide. The dedicated satellite network provided by 3Di makes it possible for the USO to connect deployed troops with family and friends over a game of Call of Duty from trailer in the middle of Africa, and it’s what brings new fathers into the delivery room via Skype from a remote center in Afghanistan.

3Di Technologies – a subsidiary of L3 Communications – helped the USO connect 3.1 million calls in 2012. That’s nearly 28 million minutes of goochie-goos and I love yous that military parents and spouses would have otherwise gone without.

After working for more than 10 years installing communications solutions in harsh, remote locations overseas, operating partners Dan Throop and Don Baker teamed with a financial backer to create 3Di Technologies. Their company aims to deliver end-to-end satellite communications, equipment, integration and – most importantly – field support, to their growing number of customers.

Their partnership with the USO began by supporting the USO-in-a-Box field canteen trailer program, and continues today with the coordination of connectivity at 14 centers in Kuwait and Afghanistan.

“USO-In-A-Box wouldn’t have existed over the past year without 3Di Technologies’ charitably donated bandwidth support,” USO-In-A-Box Program Manager Juston Reynolds said.

“Wherever those USO trailers went, no matter how far out into nowhere they were dragged, or what conditions they were under, they always had connectivity,” Reynolds said. “3Di came through when the USO needed them most, and I think that’s really what made them stand apart from their competition — their determination to get it right.”

In their own view, being passionate about the customer and working in the field to customize communications solutions that perfectly fit the customer’s needs is part of the fabric of the organization.

“The motto at 3Di has always been ‘passion for the customers,’” 3Di Technologies Director of Business Development Ray Fuller said. “That’s because most of our customers are guys on the front lines, and whether they are calling for fire support or calling their wife and kids from a USO, our mission is to make that connection happen.”

For the USO, it was clear 3Di understood the significance associated with connecting deployed troops with their loved ones at home via email, voice, video and gaming.

“Connectivity always rates at the top of troop needs in the field,” USO Director of Operations Kristen Baxter said. “What 3Di brings to us is a dedicated satellite network we can use to connect our troops directly to their families without hassle. Ten-digit calling — just like here in the states.”

–Story by Joseph Andrew Lee, USO Staff Writer

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

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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