Helicopter Rides, Crazy Food Pairings and Troops: Steve Byrne and Roy Wood Jr. Talk About Their USO Travels

Comedians and USO tour veterans Steve Byrne and Roy Wood Jr. have dozens of great stories about traveling the world to entertain troops on USO tours.

At the beginning of May, the duo was part of the USO’s first entertainment tour to Iraq since 2011.

In this video, Byrne and Wood discuss the allure of riding in military helicopters, the wild world of DFACs (dining facilities) and why they keep going overseas to perform shows.

Former Airman Found His Way Home Thanks to Chance Meetings at USO Centers

Former Air Force Capt. Jeff Smith poses for a photo. Photo courtesy of Jeff Smith.

Former Air Force Capt. Jeff Smith poses for a photo. Photo courtesy of Jeff Smith.

Former Air Force Capt. Jeff Smith has started some of his most memorable travel adventures at airport USO centers.

But they weren’t planned that way.

On one trip, Smith was traveling home to Ohio to attend a friend’s funeral. A delay forced him to miss his connecting flight at Washington Dulles International Airport. After trying to reschedule for the following day, he realized he might not make it home in time for the service. He went to the airport’s USO center to clear his head. While relaxing at the center, Smith started chatting with a Marine who he recognized from his first flight.

“I talked to him and found out that he was going to his grandmother’s funeral on the same day, but one town over,” Smith said. “We figured out that if we took turns sleeping and driving, we could make it to Ohio by morning.

“We went from being complete strangers, to renting a car together and driving seven hours and 400 miles across the country.”

And it wasn’t the last time this happened. On another trip home, this time to see his family for the holidays, Smith found himself sitting in the Destin-Fort Walton Beach airport USO facing a similar situation.

Due to a series of flight delays, Smith and two soldiers he met at the USO were stuck at the Florida airport and were told they should anticipate missing their connecting flights home from Atlanta the next morning. Instead of spending their holiday time at the airport, the trio decided to rent a car and drive to Atlanta so they could catch their connecting flights.

“We all made our flights and got to see our families for Christmas instead of just New Year’s,” Smith said.

Another USO visit also led Smith to talk with a major who helped spark his involvement in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. Smith has been mentoring his Little Brother for over a year now.

“I’m very grateful that the events turned out the way they did, because I probably wouldn’t have met him any other way,” Smith said.

“Some of my best memories from nine years in the Air Force were in airport USO facilities,” Smith wrote in a Facebook post.

Cute Overload: After a Cross-Country Move, USO Arizona Helps Military Family Welcome Quintuplets

The Hoffman quintuplets. Photo courtesy the Hoffman family

The Hoffman quintuplets. Photo courtesy the Hoffman family

It was a far-fetched scenario that became reality.

In 2013, Roxanna Hoffman, a former Air Force reservist, and her husband, Air Force Staff Sgt. Michael Hoffman, found out they were expecting quintuplets.

A few weeks after receiving the big news, the Hoffmans, who were living at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, decided to move to Phoenix to be close to Dr. John Elliott, a physician who specializes in multiples pregnancies.

The Hoffman family. Photo courtesy the Hoffman family

The Hoffman family. Photo courtesy the Hoffman family

While Michael worked to arrange the cross-country move, Roxanna went ahead of her family to Phoenix and spent the rest of her pregnancy on bed rest, far from her husband and 9-year-old son, Connor. After receiving a new post at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, Michael and Connor reunited with Roxanna in Arizona just two days before the babies were born.

It was a lot of changes and excitement, all in a new place. Still, the Hoffmans were welcoming five newborns thousands of miles away from family, friends and their established support system. That’s where USO Arizona came in.

USO Arizona Center Director Tara Mogan heard about the Hoffmans, their cross-country move and their new bundles of joy at a monthly meeting with Luke Air Force case representatives. She immediately knew the USO had to help.

“It is crucial that we address the needs of the entire military family, because they are all pulling their weight to support the service member’s commitment to serve our country,” Mogan said in an email.

USO Arizona Center Director Tara Mogan poses with the baskets with Staff Sgt. Hoffman's commanding officer.

USO Arizona Center Director Tara Mogan poses with the baskets with Staff Sgt. Hoffman’s commanding officer.

Mogan quickly reached out to USO Arizona volunteers Sue Fogel and Susan Armor, who helped put together two gift baskets full of handmade baby blankets, bottles, diapers, wipes, gift cards, USO onesies and other supplies.

“We sincerely hope that it lifted their spirits, … provided some financial relief and reminded them how much we appreciate and recognize their service to our country,” Mogan said. “And, we knew our USO onesies would create a super cute photo opportunity!”

Once the baskets were assembled, Mogan presented them to Michael, along with his first sergeant, at the following month’s meeting with Luke Air Force Base representatives.

“That they took the time to make us something was just special and kind of eye opening for what [the USO does] for different service members,” Roxanna said. “It was really … special because we didn’t at the time really know anybody in this area or anything.

“It’s just been a great organization.”

After receiving the baskets, the Hoffmans took photos of their newest family members sporting the green USO onesies and, several months later, snapped another USO onesie photo to show how much the babies have grown.

The Hoffman quintuplets in their USO onesies. Photo courtesy the Hoffman family

The Hoffman quintuplets in their USO onesies. Photo courtesy the Hoffman family

 CORRECTION: The rank of the service member in one of the photos above was changed. He is a first sergeant.

The Stories Behind Military Challenge Coins

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They’re one good deed and an open palm away. And they can be kinda heavy.

Challenge coins permeate the military. Almost everyone with a significant rank doles them out. Even the commander-in-chief has one.

If you’ve been in the military for a while, you probably have a case or a rack (or a vintage sea chest) to display your coins. Last week, the coins reared their heads (or tails) in mainstream culture when the popular design podcast 99% Invisible did an episode on their existence, purpose and history. The podcast even highlighted an oft-repeated awkward civilian moment: the first time a service member shakes their hand and simultaneously plants a coin in their palm.

At the USO, we know a handful of people who have a few (hundred) coins from their years both serving in the military and serving troops. And behind every coin is a pretty cool story. Here are five of them:

Rachel Tischler

Three of the scores of coins Rachel Tischler has received during her tenure as USO Vice President of Entertainment.

Three of the coins Rachel Tischler has received during her tenure with the USO. USO photos by Eric Brandner

Rachel Tischler has taken more flights into the Middle East than a lot of service members. The USO’s Vice President of Entertainment has traveled the world supporting USO tours, including 15 trips to Iraq. She’s collected a lot of coins along the way, too. Here are the stories behind the three pictured above:

Dempsey and Tischler. DOD photo

Tischler with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin E. Dempsey. DOD photo

  • Top of the World: “That’s from Greenland, from the Vice Chairman [of the Joint Chief’s of Staff] tour,” Tishler said. “You can only land there a couple times of year because the runway is frozen ice. And it’s 200 people in the middle of nowhere. I can’t even imagine [a full] deployment.”
  • Gen. Ray Odierno’s coin: “Gen. Odierno was a permanent institution. I saw him every time we went over there,” Tischler said. “I think about it as [a symbol of] all the good work the USO did in Iraq and specifically his support of the USO and entertainment.”
  • The South Park coin: “I don’t know if it’s even appropriate to have this one [on display for this story] but I do love it,” Tischler said laughing. She received the coin with a take on the signature “South Park” line on it from a unit during a USO entertainment tour to Iraq. “I just loved it because I love ‘South Park.’ … You have to admit that is a good sense of humor for [being deployed].”

Glenn Welling

USO Vice President of Operations Glenn Welling holds his personal coin, which he's carried since he deployed to Iraq in 2008. USO photo

The personal coin of USO Vice President of Operations Glenn Welling who is also a command master chief petty officer in the Navy Reserve. Welling has kept the coin in his pocket every day since he deployed to Iraq in 2008.

Glenn Welling always has a challenge coin on hand. It’s his own.

Glenn Welling

Glenn Welling

“For the first 20 years of my Navy career, I had no concept what [challenge coins were about],” said Welling, the USO’s Vice President of Operations and a command master chief petty officer in the Navy Reserve. “When I was selected to be a command master chief in the Navy, I decided it would be a good idea to have my own coin minted so I could recognize sailors that were part of my organization for exceptional service.”

Welling had 100 personal coins minted before deploying to Iraq in 2008.

“This particular coin has been in my pocket every single day since June of 2008, which is when I left for Iraq,” he said.

Welling's sea chest, where he keeps his coin collection.

Welling’s vintage sea chest, which he bought to display his coin collection.

Welling said the coin, along with a prayer stone his neighbor gave him that he also still carries each day, “provided me comfort and security while I was deployed.”

He’s scheduled to retire in October after 37 years in the Navy. But he won’t be taking his coin out of his pocket.

“I may not be in uniform anymore, but I’ll always be a sailor,” he said, smiling. “Til the day I die, I’ll carry my coin with me.”

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Dr. JD Crouch II

USO CEO and President Dr. J.D. Crouch II holds his recently minted personal coin.

USO CEO and President Dr. J.D. Crouch II holds his recently minted personal coin.

USO CEO and President J.D. Crouch II had a clear direction in mind for his first personal coin.

USO President and CEO Dr. J.D. Crouch II shakes volunteers' hands. USO photo by Gretchen Ertl

Crouch greets USO volunteers last fall. USO photo by Gretchen Ertl

“[The USO is] a strong support center for that military family – for spouses, for children as well as the people who sort of orbit around that military family,” Crouch said. “So I thought having that at the center of my coin reflects everything we do: The service members themselves and the family members that also serve in their own way.

“I wanted this to be something that was both reflective of the values [of the USO] and also reflective of the emphasis that I want to place on things while I’m here.”

Valerie Donegan and Jonathan Matthews

USO Director of Information Technology Val Donegan, left, and USO Director of Logistics and Facilities Jonathan Matthews hold up a coin they both received in 2012 for their work building the USO Warrior and Family Center on Fort Belvoir, Virginia.

USO Director of Information Technology Valerie Donegan, left, and USO Director of Logistics and Facilities Jonathan Matthews display a coin they both received in 2012 for their on the USO Warrior and Family Center on Fort Belvoir, Virginia.

Valerie Donegan and Jonathan Matthews are critical to planning the USO’s computer and facilities infrastructures around the globe, which puts them in some interesting places.

In the photo above, Donegan is holding the coin then-Joint Force Headquarters-National Capital Region commander Maj. Gen. Michael T. Linnington gave them to commemorate their roles in building the USO Warrior and Family Center at Fort Belvoir, Virginia.

Donegan holds a coin she received in Iraq in 2009.

Donegan holds a coin she received in Iraq in 2009.

Donegan and Matthews were installing the USO’s downrange satellite communication system in 2009 when they received the coin in the inset photo at then-Balad Air Base in Iraq. It was a trip they’ll never forget for sobering reasons, including their leg in Afghanistan.

“[That trip was] also where I saw my first dignified transfer,” Donegan said. “We hadn’t been at the [USO Pat Tillman Center] for two hours …”

“And everybody stopped,” Matthews interjected.

“Everybody stopped and you lined up,” Donegan said. “That was my first time ever to see a [dignified transfer] out to a flight line.

“There’s nothing as powerful as standing on that flight line watching those coffins go by. … I think that’s really the first time I understood the role [the USO] plays.”


Joseph Andrew Lee

Joseph Andrew Lee holds up the coin President Barack Obama gave him in 2011.

Joseph Andrew Lee holds up the coin President Barack Obama gave him in 2011.

Joseph Andrew Lee has a knack for being in the right place at the right time. It’s a great skill to have if you’re a multimedia journalist like Lee, a gregarious former public affairs Marine who chronicles USO stories.

Joseph Andrew Lee

On Aug. 9, 2011, Lee was working at Dover Air Force Base in the wake of the greatest single-event loss of life U.S. Special Operations has experienced. Three days earlier, a Chinook helicopter carrying 38 coalition troops — including 31 Americans — was shot down in Afghanistan, killing everyone on board. That included 25 special operators. Lee traveled with several fellow employees from the USO’s Arlington, Virginia, offices to do whatever he could to support the mass dignified transfer through USO Delaware. He took a role refilling a cooler of drinks for families, service members and senior officials.

“Our task was to get these grieving families anything they needed,” Lee said.

Three hours in and soaked with sweat after unloading another palate, someone tapped Lee on the shoulder and asked “Hey, you mind if I grab one of those?”

“I looked up and it was the President of the United States,” Lee said.

President Barack Obama took the drink Lee handed him, recognized the USO logo on Lee’s shirt, and struck up a conversation.

“The first words out of his mouth were ‘Thank you for what you do. The USO’s a great organization,'” Lee said.

Lee told Obama that his USO experiences during his 10 years in the Marine Corps were the reason he decided to work for the nonprofit.

Obama then looked over at an aide who handed him something, turned back, and shook Lee’s hand, placing his presidential challenge coin in Lee’s palm in the process.

“He said ‘Thank you for your service and thank you even more for what you do for the USO today,'” Lee said. “And I thought that was pretty special.

“Obviously that day was nothing to celebrate. … Like a lot of medals that Marines receive, it was kind of a reminder of one of the saddest days I’ve served.”

Want to share your own challenge coin story? Send it to us at usomoments.org/stories.

Vince Vaughn Treats Troops to an Advance USO Screening of ‘Unfinished Business’

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Giving back to the military is in Vince Vaughn’s blood.

So when he was presented with the chance to treat troops at Edwards Air Force Base, California, to an advance screening of his upcoming film “Unfinished Business,” the three-time USO tour veteran had to say yes.

“I have military in my family,” Vaughn said. “My sister was [in the military], and [I have had] relatives [serve] way back, all the way back to the beginning, I believe, to the revolution.

“I’m always appreciative of the troops and all the sacrifices that are made and it’s always been important to me to express that.”

In addition to meeting with base leadership and personally kicking off the screening event, Vaughn got to chat and take photos with troops who had recently returned home and others who’d been recognized for excellence in their jobs.

“I hope that the movie brings them some laughter, that they have a good day laughing,” Vaughn said. “[I’m glad I] just get the chance to send the message that I know that a lot of people share, which is that they’re always in our minds and in our hearts.”

Vaughn traveled overseas with the USO to screen “Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story” for service members in Southwest Asia in 2004.

“I [had] shot ‘Dodgeball’ and was shooting ‘Wedding Crashers,'” he said. “I had met Pat Tillman and then I got the news … on the TV that he had passed. It really bothered me and I had other friends who were overseas. So, I called the USO out of nowhere and said, ‘Can I come over?’”

The following year, Vaughn continued his USO relationship by screening “Wedding Crashers” for troops. In the past decade, he’s entertained more than 8,735 servicemen and women through the USO.