Your USO At Work: June 2014 — Deployed Dad Surprises Son With Video at Graduation

Pedro Cruz III watches a video message from his father on iPad moments after graduating from New York University on May 23. Cruz’s father, New York Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Pedro Cruz Jr., is deployed to Kuwait and was unable to attend the ceremony, but he worked with the USO to figure out how he could be the first to congratulate his son. NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering photo by Elena Olivo

Pedro Cruz III watches a video message from his father on iPad moments after graduating from New York University on May 23. Cruz’s father, New York Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Pedro Cruz Jr., is deployed to Kuwait and was unable to attend the ceremony, but he worked with the USO to figure out how he could be the first to congratulate his son. NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering photo by Elena Olivo

USO Helps Deployed Father Send Surprise Message to Son at Graduation 

Pedro Cruz III wasn’t sure why the television cameras were approaching.

A moment earlier, he’d walked across the stage at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York, to receive his construction management degree from the New York University Polytechnic School of Engineering. When he reached the dean, Cruz was handed his diploma along with an iPad Air, a plaque and a folded American flag.

As his classmates streamed across the stage behind him, the camera lights flicked on and reporters encircled the new graduate. Then he looked down at the iPad – queued up to a video of his deployed father – and pressed play.

“Hey son, surprise,” New York Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Pedro Cruz Jr. said in a pre-recorded video. “Right about now you should be on stage picking up your degree. I wanted to be the first to congratulate you on this special day.”

Shortly thereafter, the younger Cruz was talking to his father – like he does almost every day – reliving the moment.

“I think he called me before he even got back to his seat,” Cruz Jr. said in an email exchange with the USO. “I don’t think he could have gotten a better finale for this day.”

The elder Cruz knew when he deployed to Kuwait that he wouldn’t be in New York to see his only son walk across the stage on May 23. After some consideration, he approached USO Camp Buehring’s Jason Lewis about coordinating a graduation surprise to let his son know he was there in spirit. A week later, USO Camp Buehring center manager Tiffany Banks emailed Cruz Jr. and they started to formulate a plan.

“He wanted to do something special for his son, and the first place that he’d gone … was to the USO,” Banks said the day before the ceremony took place. “I’d gotten in contact with the graduation coordinator for NYU to see what we could do.”

One father’s gesture turned into a national story, as Cruz III smiled for the New York media and talked about what it meant to get a message from his dad on one of the biggest days of his young life.

“I was confused and had a feeling it may involve him,” Cruz III said in an email interview with the USO. “It was awesome. I was overjoyed.”

“To see the Joy on his face [in the photos taken at the graduation] is priceless,” Cruz Jr. wrote. “I find myself sometimes still [staring] at the pictures.”

 Volunteers, Sponsors and Celebrities Help the USO Make Dreams Come True for Military Teens

When fashion designer Sherri Hill donated hundreds of thousands of dollars in prom dresses to military teens, volunteers and sponsors from around the nation stepped up to make the event as special as possible. How many exactly?

Fashion designer Sherri Hill, left, “Duck Dynasty” star Sadie Robertson and hundreds of others helped make the USO’s Operation That’s My Dress a huge success for military teens. USO photo by Matthew Ziegler

Fashion designer Sherri Hill, left, “Duck Dynasty” star Sadie Robertson and hundreds of others helped make the USO’s Operation That’s My Dress a huge success for military teens. USO photo by Matthew Ziegler

Two hundred seventy-two volunteers donated 4,294 hours of their time and dozens of sponsors donated goods, services and cash totaling $750,000 to make the New York City version of USO Operation: That’s My Dress a huge success.

Forty-five Miss USA and Miss Teen USA contestants flew into Manhattan on their own dime to model the dresses in a runway show produced by the USO and TAJ Events with music by celebrity DJ Marlon Bizzy. The models also served as stylists, assisting teens in picking out the perfect prom dress and fashion jewelry.

Fourteen celebrities carved time out of their schedules to make appearances, including Sadie and Korie Robertson from “Duck Dynasty” and the reigning Miss USA Erin Brady. A dozen hair stylists and makeup artists from L’Oreal USA and jewelry donations from Fashion Delivers helped the teens glow and glitter.

And of course there was Hill, who has been part of every USO Operation: That’s My Dress to date and has donated more than $1 million in apparel for the events.

“It means a lot to be able to make this many girls happy,” said Hill. “Prom is a special moment for any girl. To be able to help make moments like this for hundreds of military teens is amazing to see – their eyes just light up when they find that perfect dress.”

Show your support for our military members and their families by visiting USOmoments.org.

Coca-Cola and the USO Honor Fallen, Celebrate Service at NASCAR Race

The USO teamed up with NASCAR at the Coca-Cola 600 to unfurl something big over Memorial Day weekend.

“That something big is [our goal] to break the Guinness World Record for the number of signatures on a flag,” said John Falkenbury, President of the USO of North Carolina.

Service members unfurl a section of the USO’s Every Moment Counts flag before the start of the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte, North Carolina, in May. USO photo by Joseph Andrew Lee

Service members unfurl a section of the USO’s Every Moment Counts flag before the start of the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte, North Carolina, in May. USO photo by Joseph Andrew Lee

The USO has a long tradition of working with Charlotte Motor Speedway and Speedway Motorsports, Inc. to bring troops out to the track for the race, which is sponsored by USO Presidents Circle Partner Coca-Cola. All told, more than 1,200 troops and their families were honored at the race. Most received free tickets and the USO of North Carolina helped them travel from their bases to the track for the exciting weekend event.

“This is a time that brings America together,” said Falkenbury. “All walks of life, all colors, all creeds, to do one thing—salute America—because at the end of the day … we are there making every moment count.”

After a free concert by country music star and USO tour veteran Brantley Gilbert, more than 120 service members unfurled the center of the USO’s Every Moment Counts flag on the infield during the national anthem. Earlier, troops, race fans and NASCAR drivers offered their support in the form of a signature on the flag.

“Over the years, Charlotte Motor Speedway has set the standard when it comes to showing our support of the armed forces,” Marcus Smith, president and general manager of Charlotte Motor Speedway,  said in a NASCAR press release. “We want to give all the men and women who have served in the past and who continue to fight for our freedom today a great big bear hug and let them know how much their service means to our country.”

USO and Full Circle Home Pack Surprises for Mother’s Day at VP Residence

The USO and Full Circle Home joined forces in May to pack 2,000 Mother’s Day boxes for military moms, wives and special women in the lives of deployed troops. Dr. Jill Biden, co-founder of Joining Forces and wife of Vice President Joe Biden, welcomed USO volunteers and spouses of congressional and senior military leaders to her home to put the packages together.

“We wanted to make sure that all these brave men and women and their families know that we all recognize the sacrifices they made,” Dr. Biden said.

The boxes, delivered in time for Mother’s Day, were filled with items like lotions, flower seeds and a necklace, in addition to a personalized note from their deployed service member.

“Most of the moms and loved ones who are staying at home are always geared towards sending the care packages to their loved ones wherever they’re deployed around the world,” said USO President and retired Air Force Brig. Gen. John I. Pray, Jr. “It’s really great for them to have an opportunity to get something from their [deployed] loved one.”

Since the inaugural Mother’s Day Service Project in 2012, the USO and Full Circle Home have distributed more than 3,500 gift boxes that create memorable moments for deployed troops and their families.

BIC Honors the USO With $1M Donation

On March 31, BIC Consumer Products USA presented the USO with a $1 million donation during a ceremony at the new USO Warrior and Family Center on Naval Support Activity Bethesda, Maryland, home of the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

BIC’s generous contribution is a result of a 9-cent donation from the sale of each of its “Support the Troops” series lighters and the donation will be applied towards the center’s outdoor grilling area.

“To see that the sales of this special edition series of BIC lighters, whose designs honor America’s troops, have helped to provide an opportunity where our military personnel … can take a moment to relax and enjoy quality time barbequing with their loved ones, is incredibly moving,” noted Chris Mills, President of BIC Consumer Products North America.

In addition to serving active-duty troops, the USO Warrior and Family Center at Bethesda will provide a home away from home where wounded, ill and injured troops can heal with honor.

 Commitment to Service Drives USO’s Matthews

As a former officer in Britain’s Royal Air Force, Jonathan Matthews understands what it means to serve. Since 2006, the former intelligence analyst and pilot has continued serving through his work with the USO.

Jonathan Matthews, the USO’s director of logistics & facilities. USO photo

Jonathan Matthews, the USO’s director of logistics & facilities. USO photo

“Volunteering and working for USO has been the only experience, other than serving in the military, where I’ve been able to instantly witness the results of my efforts improving the lives of others,” said Matthews, who started his USO career as a volunteer at Camp Virginia in Kuwait in 2006.

With professional experience in construction and brick masonry, Matthews helped USO staff members build the Camp Virginia center and was soon compelled to join the organization full time.

“During my volunteerism in Kuwait I was working for a military contractor, delivering the Army’s [morale, welfare and recreation] function, but I was able to have more interaction with and contribute to the welfare of the [troops] through the USO, so I wanted to continue that positive impact.”

In 2007, Matthews was hired as a programs manager at Camp Buehring, Kuwait, and is now the director of logistics & facilities for USO and works at our headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. He’s been fortunate to visit many centers around the world and he’s noticed a common thread shared by each location.

“In my mind, all USO Centers, staff and volunteers worldwide deliver on the same promise but possess their own unique way of supporting deployed and transitioning troops, their families, the wounded, ill, and injured and families of the fallen.”

 

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USO, Jack Daniel’s Team Up to Toast to the Troops

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More than 5,000 Operation USO Care Packages were assembled Thursday by military spouses as part of the 20th “Toast to the Troops” care package assembly event. USO North Carolina volunteers and Jack Daniel’s employees took part in the event at the Fort Bragg fairgrounds. Following the assembly event, country music star and Army veteran Craig Morgan treated more than 3,000 troops, military families and members of the Fort Bragg community to a free concert.

“If it were not for these men and women who are serving, the people we are packing these bags for, we would not live in the country we live in today,” Morgan said.  “And it is imperative that we take care of them.”

The USO and Jack Daniel’s have worked together on these events for eight years. The USO has distributed more than 2.3 million care packages since the program began in 2003.  In addition to providing service men and women with needed items, the care packages serve as a touch of home and a reminder to our troops that America is always by their side.

–Story by USO Story Development

Congressmen Speak Out on Military Suicide Rate

Rep. Jim Moran (D-VA) goes through the line at the Operation USO Care Package assembly event on Sept. 11 in Washington, D.C. USO photo by Mike Theiler

Seventy members of Congress turned out for an Operation USO Care Package (OUCP) assembly event on September 11 in the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, D.C. But putting together the much-appreciated bags of goodness for troops downrange wasn’t the only thing on their minds.

September is Suicide Prevention Month, and with the staggering rise in military suicides in recent years—as of July the Army was on pace for a 200 suicides this year alone—there appears to be an even greater drive to address the issue than ever before. The USO spoke to a few Congressmen who attended the OUCP event about the rising rates of suicide in America’s military ranks. Here are their thoughts:

Rep. Sylvestre Reyes (D-TX), founding co-chair of the USO Congressional Caucus

“I am proud that Fort Bliss is leading the way through mental health screening and counseling in the Army. It’s something we want to keep supporting and pushing forward so that not a single military person feels the desperation to have to contemplate committing suicide. Only then can we as a nation say that we’ve done everything we can to support our men and women in uniform and their families, because the solution is going to be to involve the families so they can have that support system.”

Rep. Jim Moran (D-VA), member of the USO Congressional Caucus

“The main thing is getting them together with their loved ones. A lot of the suicides are over personal relationships that may have deteriorated while [a service member] is overseas. … There’s a whole host of things. Some of it is a direct result of PTSD and traumatic brain injury. I think we have a responsibility to deal with it. They suffer enough and risk enough when they’re in a combat position, that suffering and risk [should] not continue when they get home. They need to be embraced by their families, their loved ones, their communities and this country.”

If you are a service member or veteran dealing with tough times—or are concerned about a member of the military family in this type of situation—visit the Veterans Crisis Line at veterancrisisline.net or call 1-800-273-8255.

— Eric Brandner, USO Director of Story Development 

Clinton and College Students Fill 5,000 USO Care Packages

Former President Bill Clinton joined hundreds of college students from across America and around the world to stuff more than 5,000 USO Care Packages over the weekend.

The service project at Kelly Miller Middle School in Northeast Washington, DC, was the final event of the fifth annual Clinton Global Initiative University.   The former president’s foundation brought together more than 1,000 young people from 300 college and universities for workshops with leaders in business and government.  Students also participated in hands-on volunteer projects.

Chelsea Clinton and several NFL players pitched in to help the students and USO volunteers fill packages with toiletries and treats for our troops overseas.

USO Photos by Joseph Andrew Lee, USO Staff Writer

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USO Boca Java Partnership

We are proud to announce our newest partnership with Boca Java as we work together to lift the spirits of our troops and families!

Boca Java™, a family-owned Colorado Coffee company, is a national provider of over 100 different artisan roast-to-order coffees. In October 2003, a soldier in Iraq contacted Boca Java requesting a coffee donation. The letter went on to explain there were many things the troops have to go without, but a few things, like a good cup of coffee would really be appreciated. Boca Java mailed out several boxes and received a nice email back in November of 2003 that demonstrated how much they appreciated the support.

Since 2005, Boca Java and their customers have donated over 7.6 Million cups of fresh roasted coffee to troops serving honorably overseas. Now, in 2012, the USO has partnered with Boca Java to bring coffee to our troops around the world. Boca Java will match each bag donated by our customers to support the USO2GO program until the end of the year.

Head on over to the official partner site today and for as little at $7.99, you can donate a bag of coffee to the troops and Boca Java will match your donation bag for bag! – Joseph P. Scannell, New Media Intern