A Holiday Gift Guide for Our Troops

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The holidays are here.

If you didn’t see them coming it before this week, a pile of mail with circulars and glossy catalogs probably brought them into focus. By Thanksgiving night, your inbox was stuffed with email sales pitches aimed to get you to do a little Christmas shopping while you’re riding out that turkey coma.

And while we think everyone should treat themselves to that new coat or gadget if they can, we do have one more holiday shopping suggestion. There’s a group of folks out there who protect our freedoms who can’t just decide to buy a plane ticket online and come home for the holidays. And for a little cash, you can give them a gift that can significantly benefit their lives.

Keeping Families Connected

The USO is a home away from home for deployed troops. But what gets lost in that phrase is the connection those troops get back to their families through our centers. Check out this video about a North Carolina couple who connected just in time for one of life’s most precious moments. This holiday season, it’s easy to support the USO’s efforts to keep troops downrange connected with phone calls home or online video connections back home from war zones.

Homecomings

The USO is also there for spouses back at home during deployment. Here is a story of how one spouse — who is also a USO volunteer — coped during her husband’s deployment in part by tapping into the USO community on Fort Drum, New York.

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USO2GO

Not every service member in the field has access to the basics, much less amenities to pass the time. That’s where USO2GO comes in. Service members like Army 1st Lt. Ben Lyman contact the USO directly from their forward operating base or combat outpost and put in an order to receive customized shipments of everything from furniture to snacks to sports equipment, TVs and even video games. You can donate toward great services like that here, or sponsor an entire shipment via USO Wishbook.

Families of the Fallen

Everyone reacts differently when the unthinkable happens. London Bell’s brother — Marine Staff. Sgt. Vincent Bell — died in Afghanistan in 2011. She was heading into what she thought would be a difficult holiday season in 2013 when the USO called, offering her a USO/TAPS getaway to New York City where she could bond with others who’d lost family a military family member.

“I started out on the journey as a lone traveler, but I left meeting several people who were really just like me,” Bell said. “It was a good way for me to bond.” It’s one of several ways the USO helps military families when they need us most.

Fresh off the Plane: USO Fort Drum Volunteers Try to Think of Everything When Welcoming Home Troops

FORT DRUM, N.Y.–After a long flight – and a longer deployment – a little Febreze sounds like a good idea.

While no one is recommending it as a substitute for proper hygiene, it’s a viable – and apparently welcome – quick fix for troops who’ve just returned from their deployment and don’t have the luxury of showering before reuniting with their families.

These are the things USO volunteers George and Alice Barton prepare for when they are among the first civilians to welcome 10th Mountain Division soldiers home.

George Barton receives a certificate of appreciation for his USO volunteerism at welcome home events from Army Brig. Gen. Michael Howard on July 15 in Fort Drum, N.Y. USO photo

George Barton receives a certificate of appreciation for his USO volunteerism at welcome home events from Army Brig. Gen. Michael Howard on July 15 in Fort Drum, N.Y. USO photo

“We tell them ‘OK, arms up for a shower before you see your family.’ And we give them a quick squirt,” a chuckling George Barton said July 15, a few hours before welcoming 293 10th Mountain troops back from an Afghanistan deployment. “They get a kick out of that.”

The Bartons have been greeting returning troops at Fort Drum for more than three years. George – a retired airman who also worked for U.S. Customs and Border Protection – welcomes troops with a hearty handshake the moment they clear customs while Alice helps facilitate the snack table, occasionally weilds the Febreze bottle and trades playful barbs with the men and women who’ve just returned from deployment. A host of other USO volunteers are on hand as well, doing everything from ringing a cowbell and yelling “Welcome home!” on the tarmac as troops stream off the plane to making sure those service members have plenty of distractions, coffee and snacks while they kill time before their official return ceremony.

USO volunteer Alice Barton mans the snack table as troops wait for their welcome home ceremony July 15 in Fort Drum, N.Y. USO photo

USO volunteer Alice Barton mans the snack table as troops wait for their welcome home ceremony July 15 in Fort Drum, N.Y. USO photo

“It’s like being a mother to every one of these kids,” Alice Barton said before the July 15 ceremony. “I’m glad they’re back. It’s wonderful.”

“I appreciate what they’ve done because I know what they’ve done,” George Barton said. “I’ve been over in Iraq and Afghanistan and I know what it’s like over there and I know what they’re going through. I was only over there two, three weeks at a time. They were over there for a full year. So I appreciate when they come home, they’re glad to see green again most of the time.”

The Bartons – who spend their winters in Las Cruces, New Mexico – volunteer at USO El Paso as well, working with the USO Mobile program.

“For me the retirement’s great,” George Barton said. “And working with the service people – you couldn’t be with better people.”

Teeing Up Military Kids for Success: Lockheed Martin Volunteers Help Quicken Loans National Golf Tournament Attendees Build Deployment Kits

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BETHESDA, Md.–When children are faced with a parent’s deployment — or worse, a parent who doesn’t return from deployment — they encounter emotions which may be difficult to express.

Understanding this, volunteers from Lockheed Martin are helping Quicken Loans National spectators at Congressional Country Club — including many military families — assemble hundreds of With You all The Way Deployment Kits for military children this week.

The USO — in partnership with the Trevor Romain Company and the Comfort Crew for Military Kids — uses the With You All the Way program to support children ages 6 to 18 tackling difficult issues unique to growing up in a military family.

The unique kit helps children deal with deployment challenges and even establishes valuable knowledge for the reintegration process.

“This is just a great cause, and it’s so awesome to see kids — a lot of military kids, in fact, but others as well — coming in to pack deployment kits for other kids,” said Laura Stewart of Lockheed Martin. Stewart is one of many Lockheed Martin volunteers staffing the USO deployment kit assembly tent this week at the Quicken Loan National.

The deployment kit is centered around the “With You All the Way! Dealing With Deployment” DVD, which was created as a collaboration between The Comfort Crew and the USO. The Comfort Crew was founded by humorist Trevor Romain, who frequently tours with the USO, sharing life lessons with military children such as how to deal with bullies, facing fears, coping with separation and understanding grief.

“I am a full-on supporter of the USO and what they do for military families,” said Marine Staff Sgt. Tyler Barnes, a military caddy who helped construct a deployment kit Wednesday. “I’ve seen all of the support here at home and downrange. It’s just a great organization and they do a lot of great stuff for the military.”

The deployment kits include:

  • The animated “With You All the Way! Dealing with Deployment” DVD
  • A guided writing journal with prompts, calendar, map, and activities
  • The “With You All The Way! Dealing With Deployment Family Guidebook
  • A set of 10 postcards featuring original artwork by Romain
  • Cuzzie, a plush bear for military kids
  • A pair of imprinted dog tags to share with a deploying parent

Special Spring Moments at the USO

USO Helps 2 Deployed Soldiers Witness Birth of Sons via Skype

AFGHANISTAN–USO Bagram had the special pleasure of helping two soldiers welcome their baby boys into the world this week via Skype!

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Spc. Kaznica and his wife welcomed their 7-pound, 14-ounce baby boy.

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Pfc. McElroy and his wife welcomed their 8 -pound son, Evan.

Spc. Kaznica, left, and his wife welcomed their 7-pound, 14-ounce baby boy and Pfc. McElroy, right, and his wife welcomed their 8-pound son, Evan. Both babies and both moms are doing well and the dads couldn’t be any prouder! The USO congratulates the Kaznica and McElroy families!

 

Mobile USO Deploys, Supplies Refreshments to Air Force Trials

NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. — Wounded warriors came together April 7-11 to compete at the inaugural Air Force trials competition at the Warrior Fitness Center and USO volunteers were there to supply an oasis of refreshments and support.

The trials are an adaptive sports camp used to identify which athletes will be selected as members of the Air Force Warrior Games team and compete against other military branches in September. Athletes competed in seven different events including archery, cycling, track and field, swimming, shooting, wheelchair basketball and seated volleyball.

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USO, Tampa Bay Buccaneers Host game on Nation

On April 18, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the USO hosted Air Force Command Chief Master Sgt. Tommy Mazzone and other high-ranking officials from MacDill Air Force Base for a game on Nation seminar at One Buccaneer Place. The seminar focused on leadership, teamwork and communication. Watch the clip now on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ website. 

Touching Home from Afar: USO Volunteer of the Year Tells How United Through Reading’s Military Program Affects His Family

USO Volunteer of the Year Marine Gunnery Sgt. Jeremiah Johnson spoke to our cameras Oct. 25 at the USO Gala in Washington about the power of United Through Reading’s Military Program.

Johnson – who has deployed throughout the world and has four children and four stepchildren – knows how powerful it can be to send a DVD of himself reading a book back home.

Find out more about how one Navy dad used the program to keep up with his young sons during a deployment at sea.

Never Missing a Moment: USO Programs Help Military Family Connect During Birth of First Child

Chuck and Mel Hubbell. Courtesy photo.

Their first child was just one month out, and everything was going according to plan for Air Force Staff Sergeant Charles (Chuck) Hubbell and his young wife, Melissa (Mel).

They were decorating the nursery in pastels at their home in Rapid City, South Dakota. They knew a little girl was on the way. Her name would be Madelynn Rae Hubbell—Maddy for short—and she was already a daddy’s girl. At night Chuck would read her stories and press gently on Mel’s belly. Maddy would push right back. It was their goodnight exchange.

Then the phone rang. It was the 28th Munitions Squadron—Chuck’s command. He was ordered to drop everything and deploy to the Middle East in just three weeks.

The news was a blow to the young family.  In the four years the Hubbells had known each other, they’d only spent one Christmas together.

“This would be our third deployment as a couple,” said Mel, “so we were used to it. But this time it was different. Our family would be starting off without him.”

Less than a week before the baby was due, Chuck kissed his wife and pressed a soft goodbye on her tummy as he boarded a plane.

While on a layover at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, he stopped at the USO Center and recorded a message to his unborn child using United Through Reading’s Military Program.

The USO’s partnership with United Through Reading® gives active duty troops the opportunity to stay connected with their children. Troops read a book aloud while being recorded on DVD, then send the DVD and book to the child and family back home.

“In the last week before Maddy came along, I missed him so much,” said Mel. “When I couldn’t hear Chuck’s voice, I would play the recording. Maddy recognized his voice too.”

Thanks to a Skype connection, Chuck was there in the delivery room on the day his daughter came into the world last August.  Doctors and nurses passed Chuck’s floating head around the room so the camera on Mel’s laptop could pick up the action.

But that wasn’t the only way Mel planned to share the memory with Chuck. She didn’t tell her husband, but when she received the United Through Reading® DVD in the mail, there was also a coupon inside for a free photo album.

Through a partnership with RocketLife, LLC, the USO Photo Book program gives military families a chance to build and send their loved one a free, soft-cover photo album, small enough to fit in a uniform cargo pocket.

Mel took pictures of everything—from Maddy’s short stay in the Intensive Care Unit to her first bath, first meal and first outfit—all with the USO Photo Book in mind.

“What seems like every day things to us—your child rolling over or trying a new food—aren’t so mundane to a new dad 5,000 miles away from his first born,” said Mel. “Every event is a huge deal. They want to know about these things. They want to be in the loop and show their buddies pictures.”

Mel created the book online in less than an hour. Two weeks later, Chuck was flipping through pictures of the newborn daughter he’d never seen.  He took it with him everywhere. He showed everyone at his base in Qatar.

“Having pictures of my baby girl that I could look at any time… made my time apart from her so much easier to take,” said Chuck. “Technology is great, and while I was excited to be there on Skype with my wife through 15 hours of labor, that photo book put the icing on the cake.”

Staff Sgt. Hubbell returned from deployment in late February and met his daughter in person for the first time. She is now seven months old, and even though he sees her every day, he still carries his picture book with him everywhere he goes. — By Joseph Andrew Lee, USO Staff Writer

Madelynn Rae Hubbell. Photo by Amy Zochol Oyler of Legacy Photo and Design