‘He Came to Us’: USO Staffer in Germany Takes Action to Save the Life of Despondent Soldier

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How do you know if someone’s contemplating suicide?

For Shannon Huffman, it’s instinct. Huffman, a USO employee in Landstuhl, Germany, received extensive suicide prevention education during her 20 years in the Air Force. Late last year, that training may have saved someone’s life.

One evening, Huffman was at Landstuhl’s USO Warrior Center in Germany teaching a volunteer how to make chili. A service member approached her, looking distressed, and asked if she would help mail some belongings for him. Even though Huffman could sense something was wrong, it wasn’t until the he gave her his mother’s mailing address that she realized he was in a fragile, possibly suicidal, state and needed immediate help.

Huffman, an information specialist at the center, asked a volunteer to watch the service member while she alerted the hospital’s medical staff. Within minutes, Huffman subtly asked the service member to step outside the center and speak with medical personnel, who later escorted him to the hospital for treatment.

“She didn’t just help an individual – she helped all of his family and friends who may have had to suffer an irreplaceable loss,” said Laura Ponzo, the USO Warrior Center Manager and Huffman’s supervisor.

“The reason our center exists is to provide a home away from home for the wounded, ill and injured service members and give them someplace where they can feel comfortable and relax. That service member probably wouldn’t have felt comfortable going up to someone in uniform and asking for help, so he came to us.”

Because of her actions, Huffman was honored with the USO President’s Award, which recognizes USO employees for outstanding contributions to or on behalf of the organization.

“To be in a position where I get to help our veterans in need on a daily basis makes going to work a passion, not just a job,” Huffman said. “I was on the [receiving] end of the USO for 20 years and am honored to be able to return the kindness.”

Huffman says it’s the simple actions — like listening to someone vent or giving them a hug — that most benefit recovering troops who visit the USO Warrior Center.

“Often when a person comes in our center they are shook up and distraught,” she said. “Helping them make a cup of coffee and dial the phone back home to let family know they are OK is the most important thing in the world to them at that moment.

“It feels good to make that kind of difference for somebody, but that’s what we do right? Make every moment count.”

USO Volunteers Help Wounded Airborne Medic Traveling on Christmas Eve

Nathaniel Strangways poses with some of his children. Courtesy photo

Nathaniel Strangways poses with some of his children. Courtesy photo

It was going to be a long trip.

On Christmas Eve, Army Spc. Nathaniel Strangways set off to relocate his wife Hannah and their four children — ages 13, 9, 5 and 2 — from Tripler Army Medical Center in Hawaii to Tennessee, where he planned to medically retire due to back injuries.

The plan was simple: they’d fly from Hawaii, to Los Angeles, pick up a rental car and drive across the country to their new home near Fort Campbell, Kentucky.

There was only one problem.

“He wasn’t accounting for his injury when planning the logistics of the move and all of the luggage,” said Hannah Strangways, who realized when they landed at Los Angeles International Airport at midnight that they probably couldn’t handle managing the family’s luggage alone.

In 2008, while serving alongside an Iraqi Police Battalion, Nathaniel — who was an airborne medic — came to the aid of a wounded soldier. As they climbed some stairs, the wounded soldier was shocked by an explosion and fell backwards on top of Nathaniel. The fall herniated a disk in Nathaniel’s back. Nathaniel had surgery for the injury in 2011, but the pain persisted to the point where he could no longer serve his country.

After they deboarded, Hannah led her family to the Bob Hope USO, located outside the airport, to regroup.

“We got inside and there were these two people at the front desk who were genuinely worried for us,” she said, “They problem-solved for us and helped us get organized. It was such a relief.”

The USO volunteers transferred the family’s luggage into storage, showed the kids to a playroom and fed them some hot food so Nathaniel could get the rental car.

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“For a moment, I could finally breathe,” Hannah said. “They had this kids room with a little couch and two rocking chairs and books and toys, so my kids just sat and played. Seriously — without it, I mean — I know we could have done it, but it would have been so hard.”

Nathaniel returned with the only rental van the company had, which was barely large enough to fit the whole family and their luggage. USO volunteers and other troops came out to help the family with the heavy lifting, getting everything inside and tied down on top of the van.

“They loaded it well enough to [get] us to Arkansas, where we finally unloaded the baggage,” Nathaniel said. “Without them, I would have been stuck sitting there for hours. I’m not sure it would have even been possible.”

USO volunteers and troops helped load up the Strangways' rental van. Courtesy photo

USO volunteers and troops helped load up the Strangways’ rental van. Courtesy photo

Nathaniel said he always knew the USO was a place where he could sit down and decompress, or even call his wife and kids to let them know he was okay. But this time, he said, “the USO went above and beyond.”

“I can just imagine what it might have been like without the USO there to help us out,” Hannah said. “It can be hard when you are in a position to take care of your wife and kids and you are hampered due to injury.

“Thanks to the USO and the team effort, he left LAX feeling as proud as he would have if he had done it himself.”

Celebrate Valentine’s Day With These Five Huggable USO Moments

In the spirit of Valentine’s Day and making memories for military families, here’s a look at five of the most huggable USO moments from the past year.

1. Americans Around the World Send USO Love Notes to Troops

In the past two years during the weeks leading up to Valentine’s Day, the USO has asked people at home and overseas to send love notes to troops and their families. People all around the globe embraced the challenge and sent in 3,713 notes of love and affection to troops between January and March of last year.

2. USO and NASCAR Help a Soldier Surprise His Family on Father’s Day

Sgt. Sean Brady, center, is reunited with wife Lauren, right, son Sean and daughter Sarah prior to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan International Speedway.  (Photos by Sean Gardner/NASCAR via Getty Images)

Sgt. Sean Brady, center, is reunited with wife Lauren, right, son Sean and daughter Sarah prior to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan International Speedway. Photo by Sean Gardner/NASCAR via Getty Images

Not even a made-for-TV movie writer could dream up a military homecoming this special.

Last June, the USO and NASCAR teamed up to pull off the ultimate homecoming for Sgt. Sean Brady and his family, reuniting them on the pit road on Father’s Day before the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan International Speedway.

But that’s not all.

In the spirit of making moments count, the USO turned the tables on Brady and gave him a Father’s Day surprise, too. Check out the video to see what happened:

 

 

3. A Happy Ending: USO Steps in to Make a Wedding Happen for a Young Military Couple

The unpredictable military lifestyle can making planning big life moments, like weddings, a little difficult.

This was the case for Pvt. Chase Howard and his then-fiancee, Brittany, who had been trying to find a date to tie the knot for months. So when a Chase received a four-day pass over Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend last year, the couple finally had the perfect opportunity to say ‘I do.’

The only problems were that the couple only had a week to plan the ceremony and had no nearby family to help make the arrangements. That’s when Howard called his mother, who got in touch with the USO.

With some quick planning and a few good Skype connections — one with Chase’s father in Afghanistan and another with Brittany’s parents at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington — the Howards had a day to remember at the USO Warrior and Family Center in Fort Belvoir, Virginia.

4. USO Sets Up Surprise Homecoming for a Soldier’s Family on “The Meredith Vieira Show”

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Every service member deserves a special homecoming.

But for Lt. Beau McNeff and his wife Ceci, who had missed their last two wedding anniversaries due to deployments and work-ups, something a bit more extravagant seemed to be in order.

The USO, which benefitted from more than 250 hours of McNeff’s volunteer service while he was stationed at Forward Operating Base Fenty in Afghanistan, selected the McNeff family for a surprise reunion on “The Meredith Vieira Show” and also arranged three days of fun for the family in Manhattan. Read more about the homecoming here.

5. A Perfect Proposal: USO San Antonio Helps an Army Private Pop the Question (Again)

Volunteers hold up signs during the surprise proposal at USO San Antonio. USO photo

Volunteers hold up signs during the surprise proposal at USO San Antonio. USO photo

When most girls dream about their perfect proposal, they imagine their future husband down on one knee — not a long-distance call from a boyfriend hundreds of miles away.

Unfortunately for Pvt. Zoe Tunchez and Pvt. Emmanuel Aleman, who were stationed at different Army bases, a happy phone conversation seemed like the closest to a fairy-tale proposal they would get.

That is, until Aleman, his mother, Marita Maldonado, and the team at USO San Antonio joined up to give Tunchez the surprise proper’ proposal of a lifetime just hours before the wedding ceremony. Read more about the couple’s magical USO moment here.

Trace Adkins and Casey James Thank Troops Before Performing at Fort Hood

Before hitting the stage to perform for military families at a free concert at Fort Hood, Texas, this weekend, nine-time USO veteran Trace Adkins took a moment to thank troops around the world for their service.

Country music newcomer Casey James, who opened the concert for Adkins, also gave a quick shout out to troops before the show began.

The concert, sponsored by the USO, Fort Hood MWR and Pentagon Federal Credit Union (PenFed), featured nearly three hours of music at Fort Hood Stadium.

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TEAM USO Army Ten-Miler Runners Raise More Than $30,000 for the USO

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For 30 years, the Army Ten-Miler has been the unifying fitness event for members of the Army family around the world. Since 1985, more than 300,000 soldiers, service members and civilians have traveled to Washington to participate in the service’s signature race.

This year, 50 runners from around the nation dedicated their time and energy to run for TEAM USO, raising more than $30,000 that will go toward USO programs and services.

“It was an outstanding event, and everyone and everything came together perfectly,” said Ginni Guiton, USO Director of Donor Operations and Stewardship.

In addition, some 6,000 runners who couldn’t make it to the nation’s capital this year participated in Army Ten-Miler shadow races held in Kuwait, Afghanistan, Egypt and Africa.

“It is an opportunity for us here downrange to participate and be part of this great event,” Army Sgt. 1st Class Arnel Liwanagan, who is stationed at Kandahar Airfield, was quoted as saying in the Army Ten-Miler program. “It promotes camaraderie between different branches of service in the armed forces and civilians as well. It also helps build good relationships with coalition forces.”