Duty, Honor, Country: West Point Ideals Guide Today’s USO

by Kevin Wensing, VP of Executive Office at the USO, for ASSEMBLY and the West Point Association of Graduates:

Duty, Honor and Country. Those words are the guiding principles for every member of the Long Gray Line. They also ring true for the USO, an organization established by President Franklin Roosevelt and Congress on the eve of America’s entry into World War II. These principles continue to guide the 22nd president of the USO, Sloan Gibson ’75. For Gibson, when duty, honor, country are combined they translate into trust, which is the foundation of effective leadership in any situation.

For the USO, an organization that is an American icon, trust is the key element that draws troops and their families to the 140 USO Centers around the world. In 2011, the USO will mark 70 years of service to America, and, since its founding in 1941, nearly every man or woman who has worn a military uniform has been helped or entertained by the USO and its thousands of volunteers in some way. Since coming aboard in 2008, Gibson and the USO have been working hard to adapt to meet the needs of today’s military and the “new normal” of repeated deployments to combat zones and to humanitar- ian missions around the world.

The USO was chartered by Congress to “lift the spirits” of America’s men and women in uniform. That prime directive still applies as the USO asks, “What, if we could do it, would be truly special for our troops and their families?” In the past year the USO has done a number of truly special things for our warriors and military families, from the front lines in Afghanistan and Iraq to places like Ft. Hood, TX, where the USO Center commenced 24-hour operations after the tragic shootings in November 2009. The USO is also with the families of America’s fallen every day at Dover Air Force Base, where a beautiful new center was built for families who come to witness the dignified transfer of their loved one when they return home for the final time.

Army Cheerleaders are joined by Steve Hodges of ATT (far left) and USO president Sloan Gibson ’75 (far right, 2nd row) at the 2009 Army-Navy game. (Photo courtesy of ASSEMBLY)

Last year the USO recorded more than seven million visits and produced hundreds of celebrity performances, bringing smiles to the faces of our troops and their families. Recently new centers opened in Landstuhl and Grafenwoehr, Germany, Osan and Daegu, South Korea, Camp Sather and Basrah, Iraq, Ft. Carson, Ft. Drum, Ft. Bragg, Ft. Benning, Columbia, and Dover, and others, in places like Kuwait, Dubai, St. Louis and Houston, were renovated.

Staying in touch with family is the number one morale issue, and that’s why the USO provided more than one million free phone calls home from its new private telephone network in Afghanistan and Iraq, while continuing to distribute hundreds of thousands of free calling cards. Connecting deployed troops with their children is a high priority, and last year the USO sent some 50,000 United Through Reading recordings and books to military kids. Last year, 400,000 USO Care Packages and 300 USO2GO bundles, that in- clude entertainment and gaming systems, were sent to forward de- ployed troops, enabling them to set up their own entertainment areas.

The USO has focused on serving those who need help the most. At the very top of the list are those serving in harm’s way; our wound- ed, ill and injured, their families, and the families of the fallen. Today’s USO has delivered an unprecedented level of support towounded warriors and families through its own programs and by building strong partnerships with other organizations. In 2010, the USO will break ground on its most ambitious undertaking as con- struction begins on two new USO Centers, one at the new Army Hospital at Ft. Belvoir, VA, and at the other at the new Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, MD. They will be dedicated to serving our wounded, their families and those who care for them. These centers were inspired by the success of the USO Cen- ter at the Army’s regional medical facility in Landstuhl, which has won high praise from its users and from the Pentagon. The Army’s Warrior and Family Support Center at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, built with donations from the local community and gifted to the Army, was another model that guided the USO.

Gibson describes these centers as, “Gifts from the American peo- ple. Our wounded warriors and their families deserve our best.” Rick Cantwell ’75, President of Odell International and a classmate of Gibson, said, “Sloan is a close and trusted friend who has taken up the challenge of serving the men and women of our armed forces and their families at one of the most critical times in our nation’s history. The USO has made a remarkable difference in the lives of our troops and has adapted to meet the needs of our wounded, ill and injured and their families with the two new USO Centers at Bethesda and Ft. Belvoir. These centers will help those who need USO support the most, and at a critical time in their lives.” Cantwell added, “This ability to adapt to the ever changing needs of those who serve our country is what has made the USO a trusted friend.”

As an additional 30,000 troops surge to Afghanistan, the USO continues to find ways to do even more for those serving in harm’s way and for their families at home.

New USO Centers will soon open in Kandahar, Ft. Campbell, Ft. Riley, Ft. Bliss, Ft. Hood, Richmond, Phoenix and Las Vegas, with renovations planned for centers in Japan, Qatar, San Antonio and McChord AFB. The USO also will continue to send hundreds of performers and celebrities to let our troops know that the American people appreciate their service and sacrifice. The USO has always relied upon the goodness and generosity of the American people to accomplish its mission, and for seven decades it has had their steady support. The ongoing requirements of two wars and the pressing needs of our wounded and their families will require the USO to find additional resources to build, operate and sustain the new centers at Ft. Belvoir and Walter Reed hospitals and support other programs for our wounded and their families.

These are challenging times, and the support of the American people is more important than ever. Gibson says, “People often ask why we need a USO. Shouldn’t the government be doing all this for our troops? Well, the government does a lot, but this is different. This is the American people saying thank you and doing something special for our troops and their families.” With trust in the American people, and the trust of the brave men and women who serve, the USO remains committed to continuing the mission that began al- most 70 years ago. For more information on the USO and its programs please visit their website.

Black History Month and the USO

Black History Month traces its roots to the work of Carter G. Woodson, who – in 1926 designated a week in February to reflect on the contributions of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass to the lives of African Americans.  Nearly a century later we observe “Black History Month.”

The US Military has a long tradition of African Americans serving.  And although the military was not legally desegregated until 1948 by President Harry S Truman, the USO served the needs of Black service members from the outset.

African American soldiers relax at a USO Center in the early 1940s

In 1942, a USO Club opened in Hattiesburg, MS, specifically for African American soldiers; it is the only extant USO Center built for that purpose.  In 2003 it was added to the National Register of Historic Places and is home to Hattiesburg’s African American Military Museum.

From the beginning, USO policy expressly forbade discrimination on the basis of race or creed, but as Gretchen Knapp explained in “Experimental Social Policymaking During World War II: The United Service Organizations (USO) and American War-Community Services (AWCS),” it was not uncommon for separate USO Centers to spring up in the same town, “either because of local regulations or by the request of African Americans who deplored the tensions that arose when they entered the USO center.”

USO Centers designed exclusively for Black soldiers soon sprung up around the country, including Tacoma, WA; Tuscon, AZ; San Marcos, TX; and Portland, OR, just to name a few.  In fact, by 1943, “more than 180 of 1,326 USO operations were designated for African Americans.” (ibid)

African American serviceman, being greeted at the front desk of a USO Center, 1943.

As the military integrated, so did USO Centers, many of whom also opened their doors to female service members around the same time.  The impact of those early, segregated clubs was felt, however, in a lasting acknowledgement and respect for the service of Black Troops during World War II and the idea that a “home away from home” was available to anyone visiting a USO Center.

Today the USO and the US Military continue to recognize the contributions of African Americans from every branch of the military.  The Coast Guard has announced the soon-to-be released documentary “RESCUE MEN: The Story of the Pea Island Life Savers,” the story of the Pea Island Lifesaving Station surfmen.  The Marines are celebrating the legacy of African American Marines with a multi-media project entitled “The Line.”  One part of that project is this commercial:

Other branches are celebrating, too: the Navy’s remembers the “Golden 13″ and offers a series of events at the Navy Memorial; a number of Air Force Bases are holding celebrations, such as the Gospel Extravaganza at Offut AFB.  The Army has created a website, “African Americans in the U.S. Army,” chock full of unique content on the history of Black soldiers.  Likewise, Military.com is offering exclusive content on the history of African American service, from the Buffalo Soldiers to the Tuskegee Airman to current Troops.  Speaking of the Tuskegee Airman, George Lucas’ film Red Tails – the story of the Tuskegee Airman – will be released later in 2010.

As of June 2009 Black troops account for 239,661(17%) of total active duty (Total Pop 1,405,489) and minority women continue to join the military at a higher rate than their share in the civilian population.  We salute these service members – and all African Americans who have served in the US military – during Black History Month and every day of the year!

A Page From History

“PARIS, Dec. 24 (AP) – Maj. Glenn Miller, director of the Unites States Aire Force Band and a former orchestra leader, is missing on a flight from England to Paris, it was announced today.

Major Miller, one of the outstanding orchestra leaders of the United States, left England Dec. 15 as a passenger aboard a plane.  No trace of the plane has been found.”

So read the December 25, 1944, page 4 article in the New York Times.  Miller – perhaps the most famous of big band directors – was an accomplished trombonist and actor as well.  At the height of his fame and fortune, Miller enlisted in the Army then transferred to the Army Air Force in 1942.  He eventually formed a 50-piece Army Air Force band, which toured domestically and internationally, often to USO Centers.

He was on his way to entertain Troops who had recently liberated Paris when his plane disappeared.  Still officially listed as “Missing in Action,” Miller’s story sparked the popular imagination of conspiracy theorists and Hollywood executives alike.  His wife, Helen Miller, posthumously accepted a Bronze Star on his behalf in 1945.

No trace of the plane or any of the other passengers has been found in the last 65 years.

Entertainers Show How America Supports the Troops

While Fort Hood’s “Community Strong” supporters thanked entertainers and celebrities for taking the time to come to Fort Hood on a cold, blustery Friday, it was the celebrities who thanked the troops for having them.

“I just got back from Afghanistan and spent Thanksgiving with the troops,” said actor Gary Sinise, who also leads the LT Dan Band, which goes on frequent USO tours around the world.

“After (the Nov. 5 tragedy), I felt it was important to show our support for Fort Hood,” Sinise said. He said taking a little time isn’t hard for him — but he knows it can make a difference.

“Just showing up and shaking hands … can make a world of difference,” he said.

Sinise, along with singer Aaron Lewis of Staind, rapper Chamillionaire, Nick Jonas and the Zac Brown Band make up the entertainment for “Community Strong,” as serviceman and their families  line the stands and field of Fort Hood Stadium for a day of fun and healing. Carnival Rides, free food and  entertainment are helping to bring together the Fort Hood community through tonight.

III Corps Commander General Robert W. Cone said it wasn’t just having celebrities and entertainers on hand that makes “Community Strong” a great event. It shows the Fort Hood community that America cares.

“Everybody knows ‘Army Strong’ is our motto, but we know … that a whole community needs to be strong,” Cone said. “America and the Central Texas community is in this together.”

Read more from “On the Frontlines”