Your USO at Work: February 2014 — Kellie Pickler, Stephen King and Blake Shelton Support the Troops

Country Star Kellie Pickler Brings Good Times to Deployed Troops

Country music singer Kellie Pickler poses alongside Sgt. Jeremy Harrington, left, and Sgt. Robert Epley, who built the stage the trio is sitting on for Pickler’s performance at Forward Operating Base Walton, Afghanistan. USO photo by Eric Raum

Country music singer Kellie Pickler poses alongside Sgt. Jeremy Harrington, left, and Sgt. Robert Epley, who built the stage the trio is sitting on for Pickler’s performance at Forward Operating Base Walton, Afghanistan. USO photo by Eric Raum

Kellie Pickler prides herself on her commitment to our military and more specifically, to the USO.  Since 2007, the country music star has participated in seven USO tours and 75 USO Entertainment events, quickly becoming a performer who is synonymous with the USO’s mission of lifting the spirits of troops and their families.

As part of the USO’s Every Moment Counts campaign, Pickler spent the holidays with troops stationed in Kuwait and Afghanistan, delivering cheer, glad tidings and special presents. Along with the customary meet-and-greets, Pickler treated the troops to five USO shows and visited a military hospital.

The singer also accompanied the USO Christmas Convoy, which delivers hundreds of gifts annually to some of the most remote parts of those countries. NBC News captured the convoy in action and broadcast a story on the “Today Show.” The video can be viewed at tinyurl.com/NBCUSO.

“The USO tours and programs I’ve been a part of have definitely been the highlight of my career, so I’m honored to join the USO in helping to raise awareness about the many precious moments that our troops and their families sacrifice,” Pickler said. “Every Moment Counts is especially close to my heart because it not only recognizes their personal sacrifices, but gives Americans the opportunity to thank our troops with a special gift of a moment.”

Learn how you can help us provide memorable moments for troops by visiting usomoments.org.

Iconic Author King Visits Deployed Troops in Germany

Stephen King shares a moment with Navy Lt. j.g. Pablo Yepez at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. USO photo by Mike Clifton

Stephen King shares a moment with Navy Lt. j.g. Pablo Yepez at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. USO photo by Mike Clifton

Stephen King’s words have always moved readers along an emotional roller coaster, but during his USO tour stop at Ramstein Air Base in Germany in November, he also learned how quickly spirits can be lifted with just a handshake and a smile.

“I never realized until earlier this week just how important everyday moments with our nation’s troops and their families really are,” King said. “Volunteering with the USO and spending time with our men and women in uniform was an eye-opening experience that I hope to be able to do again soon. I stand behind the USO’s Every Moment Counts campaign and encourage others to join the USO in supporting our troops.”

As part of his European book tour in support of his latest best-selling novel, “Doctor Sleep,” King teamed with the USO for a day with deployed troops and the medical professionals who care for our wounded heroes. King passed out free copies of the book during visits to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center and the USO Warrior Center and enjoyed mingling with all of the personnel and families.

USO, United Through Reading Partnership Links Deployed Families for Holidays

Army Spc. James Gleason's daughter, , touches the television as she watches him read a book to her via a USO/United Through Reading video. Photo courtesy of the Gleason family

Army Spc. James Gleason’s daughter, , touches the television as she watches him read a book to her via a USO/United Through Reading video. Photo courtesy of the Gleason family

Once a month, Army Spc. James Gleason walks into the USO at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan and picks out a book to read to his 2-year-old daughter, Jameson. He makes extra reading trips for special occasions like Halloween and Christmas.

While Gleason wasn’t with his little girl during the holidays, his presence was still felt in their California home, thanks to United Through Reading’s Military Program.
Many USO centers downrange have private rooms with a collection of books where troops can record themselves reading a story to their children back home. The USO then ships each book and recording to their families. The program has been keeping military families connected during deployments since 2006.

“My daughter absolutely loves the books,” wrote Gleason. “Every time she gets one she has the same reactions. She always asks for me and kisses [my image on the screen].

“It surprised her when she heard my voice. … She said, ‘Hi Daddy! Thank you for reading to me!’”

The program partnership helps create holiday moments that Gleason—who is on his first deployment to Afghanistan—and thousands of American troops with families back home will remember.

“It means everything to me,” he wrote. “I’m fighting for my girls and those reactions are priceless.”

The USO needs your help to connect troops to their families back home. Visit uso.org/donate4troops to learn how you can get involved.

Wounded Warriors Receive Business Training Through USO/Georgetown Program

“You worked twelve hours and you slept two. You worked twelve hours and you slept two. In the military, that was just a given,” said Michael Phillips, a 10-year Army veteran and successful UPS Store franchisee.

“Owning your own franchise won’t be much different at first,” the guest speaker told a classroom of transitioning wounded warrior students at Georgetown University School of Continuing Studies. “But now that I’ve got almost five stores bringing in money every day, I’m here to tell you that it’s well worth it.”

In November, the USO collaborated with Georgetown University to offer a certificate in franchise venture planning to wounded warriors, their caregivers and surviving spouses.

Led by Dr. Ben Litalien at Georgetown’s Washington, D.C., campus, the condensed, six-day course was designed to teach wounded, ill and injured soldiers, their caregivers and surviving spouses the fundamental skills needed to start a franchise business.

“We understand that any transition can be difficult, and that injuries, illness or the loss of a loved one can make it even more so,” said USO President/CEO John Pray. “That is why the USO is so committed to our transitioning troops.”

The program focused on both the initial decision to invest in a franchise as well as the operational, tactical and strategic decisions needed to run a successful business. Guest speakers also shared their expertise on the process of transitioning from a career in the military into franchise ownership.

Litalien led students through an intense week of case studies, lectures, guest speakers and meetings with professionals who support our active-duty and veteran communities in business efforts.

At the graduation ceremony, Associate Dean Edwin Schmierer announced the continuation of the program in 2014, and reminded graduates to apply their knowledge and skills in service to others.

“The value of your Georgetown education doesn’t come from how it benefits you,” said Shmierer. “It comes from how you will use it to serve others, and as service members and families of service members, you’re more than familiar with such a sacrifice.”

JCPenney Raises Holiday Cheer, Support for USO

JCPenney’s Jingle Mingle campaign made it easier to spread cheer during the holidays.

Singer Blake Shelton and USO President and CEO John Pray attend a surprise holiday event courtesy of JCPenney on Dec. 19 at Greeley Square Park in New York. Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

Singer Blake Shelton and USO President/CEO John Pray attend a surprise holiday event courtesy of JCPenney on Dec. 19 at Greeley Square Park in New York. Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

The company invited everyone to record videos of themselves singing “Silent Night” at jcp.com. Singers could add their videos to an online choir gallery and share them with friends and family. As an incentive to participate, JCPenney donated $20 to the USO for each video submitted to the gallery. Even country music superstar Blake Shelton joined in, teaming up with the USO Show Troupe for a performance in New York City.

As the featured JCP Cares charity partner in December, customers were also invited to round up their in-store or jcp.com purchases to the nearest dollar and donate the difference to the USO. The proceeds raised will support USO programs and services that provide memorable moments for troops and military families around the world. JCPenney’s combined efforts raised more than $2.2 million for the USO.

“Our overall goal is to be a contributing factor to the overall success of the USO,” said Crystal King, senior manager of philanthropy at JCPenney. “Our partnership with the USO really allowed us to discover ourselves as a company. Founder James Cash Penney had an affinity for the military and supported personnel who were deployed and those who returned with injury. It’s our intent to stay true to our roots and continue that relationship, and supporting the military means supporting the USO.”

USO Osan Air Base Duty Manager Dedicated to Serving Troops

USO Osan Air Base Duty Manager Ju-Yeon Park. Courtesy photo

USO Osan Air Base Duty Manager Ju-Yeon Park. Courtesy photo

For many troops and families arriving in South Korea, USO Osan Air Base Duty Manager Ju-Yeon Park is often the first smiling face they see.

“Every day working with the USO provides new and exciting opportunities and challenges,” said Park, whose husband is a senior noncommissioned officer in the South Korean military.  “There is often no guidebook on how to do things, which allows for personal creativity to come up with ideas to entertain [troops] or to make them smile or … make them feel more like they are at home.”

Born and raised in the South Korean capital of Seoul, Park always wanted to work for an international organization, so when a community relations position opened up at the USO in her hometown, she jumped at the opportunity.

“I like that the USO not only supports the U.S. military, but also plays an important part between the military and the local community,” she said. “I wanted to work at the USO more than just about any other [place].”

Park, who started working at USO Camp Kim in 2008, loves to travel and enjoys experiencing new places and trying different foods. She spent five months backpacking around Europe on her own after graduating high school and said the journey gave her new levels of respect and admiration for other cultures and countries.

She has applied some of the lessons learned on that trip to her work with the USO.

“I have had many experiences meeting many people from different nations and different places,” Park said, referring to her job with the USO. “Almost every day I learn new things. I find myself growing, and it’s a feeling that is really nice.”

Video

2013 Warrior Games Highlights

The fourth annual Warrior Games has come to a close in Colorado Springs, and though it was close competition with the Army in every event, the Marines brought home the Chairman’s Cup once again.

“Congratulations to all of the 2013 Warrior Games competitors,” said Charlie Huebner, chief of Paralympics for the U.S. Olympic Committee, during the closing ceremony. “While we celebrate medals, this competition is really an example of how sport can change lives. We hope these service members and veterans don’t stop here. The goal is for them to return home and get involved in sport programs in their communities.”

The competition formally ended Thursday night at the U.S. Air Force Academy in a ceremony honoring the nearly 200 wounded troops and disabled veterans who represented their services in the inaugural Warrior Games.

Troops and veterans from the U.S. and Britain competed in a week-long series of paralympic-type events at the U.S. Olympic Training Center and at the academy. They were challenged as individuals and as teams in shooting, swimming, archery, sitting volleyball, cycling, wheelchair basketball and track and field events.

The USO and all of the volunteers from Colorado were proud to stand by the side of these elite athletes throughout the week of Paralympic competition. Please enjoy this montage of footage from the past week of Warrior Games competition.

–Video and story by Joseph Andrew Lee, USO staff writer

National Constitution Center Opens “Art of the American Soldier”

"Marines Call It That 2,000 Yard Stare" by Tom Lea, oil on canvas, 1944, Peleliu Island

It’s one of the greatest assemblages of art in America, yet most of us have never seen it.  It’s the U.S. Army’s art collection, and it resides mostly in storage, comprised of thousands of pieces of art.  The Army’s art program officially began in World War I, when eight artists were commissioned as captains in the Corps of Engineers, then sent to Europe to record the activities of the American Expeditionary Forces there.

Opportunities to view the art, however, occur at museums around the country; The National Museum of the United States Army at Fort Belvoir won’t be completed until 2015.  Luckily, Philadelphia’s National Constitution Center is running “Art of the American Soldier” now through Jan. 11.  The exhibit contains 250 works from the collection and is curated thematically.

“It’s an amazing collection, and not a lot of people know it’s here,” Sarah Forgey, its curator, told the Philadelphia Inquirer. The current exhibition is “a good opportunity to see a wide variety of what we have. This many pieces haven’t been seen in one place in quite some time.”  The museum was inspired to mount this exhibit in part by a story that aired last year on CBS Sunday Morning.
Even if you can’t make it to the City of Brotherly Love, you can enjoy many of the pieces via an online, interactive gallery.  Military artists can even submit their own work for inclusion online!  We hope that some of you get to experience this amazing Army art opportunity and that you’ll let us know what you think.  Be sure to check out the preview video below, too…

Retroactive Stop Loss Pay: The Army Perspective

By Major Roy Whitley, Program Manager, Army Retroactive Stop Loss Special Pay Program

Image Courtesy of The U.S. Army's Facebook Page

Perhaps the biggest challenges we’ve faced with this program are identifying and notifying Soldiers and veterans eligible for this pay.  Historically, stop loss has been a force management tool and not tied to compensation, so we did not readily maintain lists of those held under stop loss.  Prior to Congress authorizing this pay, the Army took proactive steps to review personnel records spanning a decade to establish who may be eligible.  While the Army has identified 120,000 who qualify, we have consistently asked anyone who may qualify to submit an application.  We’ve expanded our message to the broadest audience, to ensure those whose extended service may not have been captured in our database are still afforded the opportunity to apply for and receive the benefit they have earned.  For that reason, we jump at opportunities like this one presented by the USO.  Like all outreach activities we undertake, I hope this post reaches those yet to hear about the program, while serving as an alert to apply for the pay and to spread the word.

The Army’s Retroactive Stop Loss Program Management Office has been taking and working claims since October 21, 2009.  To date, over 70,000 Soldiers and veterans have at least initiated a claim.  The Army has completed disbursement of almost $200 million.  Currently, we have many cases to work through over the next few months.  However, as the October 21 deadline approaches, we’d like to see more claims in our system.

Image Courtesy of US Army Retroactive Stop Loss Special Pay Facebook Page

Through our work over the past year, we have learned a great deal about stop loss and the mentality of Soldiers and veterans.  Many of those the Army has contacted directly are skeptical about this pay.  This pay is real.  The Army’s average payout is around $4,000.  Many of those who hear about this program from a friend aren’t sure they qualify.  The Army is encouraging everyone who believes they served under stop loss to submit a claim.  Our case management team will review your submission and make a determination.  If you think you qualify, you should apply.  If you know of someone who may qualify, please tell them to apply.

We have read and heard some of the great stories born from this program.  For many Soldiers and veterans, this is money they never expected to receive for their extended service.   Mathew Ecker, whose son SPC Michael Ecker passed away after separating from the Army, received notification from the Army that his son was eligible for retroactive stop loss pay.  As a beneficiary, our office worked closely with Mr. Ecker to ensure his experience was easy and successful.  He wrote to us, “I just wanted to send you a thank you. Each time I contacted your office concerning stop loss, the staff was pleasant to talk with, patient, and knowledgeable. Their help alone made this process flow without any problems. You are free to share my experience, so others might benefit.”  We endeavor to provide the same level of assistance to all claimants, specifically focusing on those who have been wounded and survivors.

I encourage everyone to visit our official Facebook page—US Army Retroactive Stop Loss Special Pay—to read more about other experiences people have had with the program.  To apply for retroactive stop loss pay and learn more about eligibly requirements you can visit the Army’s site directly at https://www.stoplosspay.army.mil

This blog is part of an ongoing series on Rectroactive Stop Loss Pay.  Learn more by visiting the Department of Defense’s Retroactive Stop Loss Pay Special website today.

We’d like thank Major Roy Whitley for his contribution.  The opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of Major Whitley and do not necessarily reflect those of the USO.

It’s Flag Day…and the Army’s 235th Birthday!

Happy Birthday, Army!  Celebrations around the world are commemorating the 235th year of the US Army and we here at the USO are proud to be a part of that tradition.  The Army has set up a special website and they’ve created a place where you can submit a video with your birthday wishes!  And if you’re on Twitter, be sure to join in the celebration: @USArmy will be hosting an #ArmyBirthday Twitter Party on Mon, June 14 from 1-2:30 EST. Send your birthday wishes & Shout-outs to the Army via Twitter

Today is also Flag Day, the day when we commemorate the official adoption of the “Stars and Stripes” in 1777 by the Second Continental Congress.  The National Flag Day Foundation has information on the history and observance of this holiday and the American Legion’s Flag Advocacy site has a wealth information on the Flag Code and more.  We hope you’ll join us in saluting the American Flag today – and every day – and remember all that it stands for!

Audience members proudly display the Stars and Striped during a Toby Keith USO Tour at Camp Victory in 2007. (USO Photo by Dave Gatley)

Bringing USO Goodness to Camp Leatherneck

CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan - Sergeant Mark Matice, a utilities NCO with Marine Wing Support Squadron 274, and Lance Cpl. Rory MacEachern (right), a military policeman with Combat Logistics Battalion 6, 1st Marine Logistics Group (Forward), perform a bagpipe rendition of 'Amazing Grace' prior to Toby Keith taking the stage here May 5. (Photo by Sgt. Justin Shemanski)

At the hot, dusty base in Afghanistan known as Camp Leatherneck, there wasn’t much to do during Troop’s downtime.  The surrounding Helmand Province is inhospitable territory, and the 60,000 Marines and Soldiers stationed there needed a break from the intensity of their work.  Enter the USO.

We identified the needs for Camp Leatherneck and quickly went into action providing the comforts of home and much needed programs and entertainment.  Although it’s not an official USO Center, we’re providing USO support and goodness at this established Army facility in the form of comfortable furniture, games, TVs, and more.   Plus, Toby Keith even visited on his last USO tour in the Persian Gulf!

To kick off the introduction of the USO’s presence at the camp, we sponsored a run with t-shirts for all participants (shown at right).  Then we threw a huge BBQ for Marines and Soldiers, followed by a ceremony for the official building dedication.  We capped the day’s events with a unique talent show showcasing the diverse skills of the Troops: one act featured a mime, another a bagpipe player.  There were also two comedians, break dancers, an actress, musicians from a Marine Corps Band, and many talented singers.  What a group!

New USO programs and services are now being offered in an existing Army facility at Camp Leatherneck. (USO photo by LTC Tom Rivard)

We’re thrilled to be able to support the men and women stationed at Camp Leatherneck in this innovative way and will continue to look for new ways to bring the USO goodness to COB’s and FOB’s, as well as other locations around the world not currently served by a full-scale USO Center.  We’d like to thank the Army for establishing and managing the facility, and thank all of the Troops who are stationed there.

Earlier this year, National Geographic featured Camp Leatherneck for its “Explorer” television series.  The snippet below offers a brief glimpse into what life is like there.  Hopefully, we’ll continue to make it a little better…