Your USO at Work: November 2014 — USO, Sesame Street Celebrate 500,000 Smiles

The Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families celebrated a major milestone with families at Fort Benning, Georgia, on October 3 when the tour entertained its 500,000th military family member. USO photo by Dave Gatley

The Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families celebrated a major milestone with families at Fort Benning, Georgia, on October 3 when the tour entertained its 500,000th military family member. USO photo by Dave Gatley

Sesame Street/USO Experience Reaches 500K Milestone

It’s always a sunny day on Sesame Street, but Elmo, Cookie Monster and the Muppets had an extra special reason to sing and dance with all their friends last month. The Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families entertained its 500,000th military family member.

“The fact that we hit that particular number is a giant milestone for us,” said Nicole McClendon, tour manager for the USO/Sesame Street Experience for Military Families.

The Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families has toured since July 2008 and has taken its message of facing fears and embracing change to more than 500,000 troops and military families. With help from Katie, a military child who is moving to a new place, and all of her friends, the tour has performed more than 893 shows on 147 military installations in 33 states and 11 countries.

“Five hundred thousand represents the number of smiles Elmo and Katie have brought to military kids and their families … as the tour has traveled around the world,” USO President and CEO Dr. J.D. Crouch II said in a release. “We thank our friends at Sesame Street for helping to make this possible and we look forward to seeing many more smiling faces as the tour continues its journey.”

USO’s Every Moment Counts Flag Breaks World Record

The USO's Every Moment Counts flag is displayed at The Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati on Sept. 11. USO photo by Mike Theiler

The USO’s Every Moment Counts flag is displayed at The Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati on Sept. 11. USO photo by Mike Theiler

With signatures gathered from all 50 states and seven countries, USO announced in September that it broke the Guinness World Records title for most signatures on a flag with 115,405 gathered digitally and in-person around the world. The USO shattered the current record set in 2012 by more than 82,132 signatures.

As part of its Every Moment Counts campaign, the USO rallied Americans to show support for troops and their families through the simple act of saying thank you with their signature.

“Every signature on the Every Moment Counts flag is a symbol of a grateful nation’s appreciation for all that our men and women in uniform and their families do for us on a daily basis,” said J.D. Crouch II, USO President and CEO.

Go to USOmoments.org to show your appreciation for our troops and their families.

Al Roker Sets Weather Forecast Record in Support of the USO

With six minutes to go in #Rokerthon, the expression momentarily drained from Al Roker’s face as his co-anchors piled into his small New York City studio.

NBC's Al Roker headlined the "Today"/USO Comedy Tour in Afghanistan in October. USO photo by Fred Greaves

NBC’s Al Roker headlined the “Today”/USO Comedy Tour in Afghanistan in October. USO photo by Fred Greaves

“I don’t think there are enough people in here,” Roker deadpanned. More than 33 hours  — and despite several jokes suggesting the contrary — he was still lucid.

And then he delivered more temperatures.

Roker, a USO tour veteran, set a Guinness World Record on Nov. 14 for the longest continuous televised weather forecast at 34 hours. He did it to raise awareness for the USO, asking a national audience, a litany of NBC affiliates and livestream viewers to visit his still-active Crowdrise page, where he raised more than $75,000 for the organization by the time he went off the air.

He had a lot of help while he was on the air, too. #Rokerthon was often the No. 1 trending topic on Twitter, with thousands of viewers (including USO centers around the world) tweeting in questions about the weather to keep Roker’s forecasting streak alive.

USO, Renovating Hope and Gary Sinise Foundation Repair Home of Wounded Vet

After returning from Afghanistan with PTSD and a traumatic brain injury, medically retired Army Nurse Corps officer Jim Gardon came home to a surprise.

Unfortunately it wasn’t the good kind.

“When Jim was deployed to Afghanistan, I hired a contractor to remodel the back two rooms of the house,” said his wife Cece Gardon. “He came in, pulled out the electricity, did a haphazard job of sheet rocking and left and never came back.”

Stuck with a huge bill for incomplete work, they didn’t have the money to invest in the project a second time. The USO introduced the Gardons to Paul Hoffecker, the CEO of Renovating Hope, after Cece attended a USO Caregivers Conference. Renovating Hope secured grants from the USO and the Gary Sinise Foundation to make sure the job could be completed once and for all.

“The USO has been better than the 15 different medications the VA has tried to improve my attitude,” Jim Gardon said. “This is something that actually physically, emotionally and socially helps the soldier.”

Visit USO.org/donate to learn how you can support our healing heroes and their families.

USO Supports Fort Drum Spouse Through Deployment – and Homecoming

Ashley Sandgren

Ashley Sandgren

Ashley Sandgren’s smiles said as much as her words. Sometimes anxious. Other times confident.

Either way, she knew her wait was almost over.

Just 24 hours away from reuniting with her husband, Army Sgt. Jeremy Sandgren, after his nine-month deployment to Afghanistan, the Virginia native talked through the emotions of what it was like to wait out the couple’s first overseas deployment.

“I think putting it out of your mind is helpful in some sense, but you shouldn’t live your life in denial that they’re in danger, because they are,” she said.

Not that she didn’t have plenty to do. A trained cosmetologist, Sandgren balanced her work with coordinating a family readiness group at Fort Drum, N.Y., and volunteering with the USO, where many Fort Drum spouses have found a home away from home while their significant others were deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade.

“I think this USO has such a huge heart,” Sandgren said. “I think it’s extremely important to have the community and the different groups to lean on when your soldier’s deployed. It helps in the sense that you realize that you’re not alone.”

BNSF Helps the USO Support Transitioning Veterans with a Landmark Donation

Job searches are never easy. The task can be even more daunting for veterans looking to land their first civilian position.

That’s where the USO and supporters like the BNSF Railway Foundation step in.

On July 24, the BNSF Railway Foundation announced a $3 million pledge to support USO Warrior and Family Care employment programs for active-duty troops transitioning out of the military. The first-of-its-kind, three-year pledge will fund USO programs designed to assist transitioning troops – including those who are wounded, ill or injured – entering the civilian workforce.

Former Army Officer Makes a Difference for USO, Troops

USO Houston Center Director Liz Vallette

USO Houston Center Director Liz Vallette

USO Houston Center Director Liz Vallette understands what it’s like to be far from home.

With a tour in South Korea and a deployment to Iraq, the former Army officer and West Point graduate also knows that the USO is able to deliver a piece of home to deployed troops around the world.

“I was eager to join an organization that I had directly benefited from during my service, from relaxing in airport USO centers … to enjoying a touch of home from entertainers,” said Vallette, who started with the organization in 2011.

She arrived at USO Houston after serving six years in the Army and another two working with an economic development group in Afghanistan. Having daily opportunities to positively impact the lives of troops and their families was a driving factor in her decision and working with outstanding, motivated colleagues is an added benefit, she said.

Under Vallette’s leadership, USO Houston is piloting innovative programs that connect transitioning troops and their families with high-profile companies in the city’s booming industries. Oil and Gas 101 – a free, two-day orientation to the oil and gas industry – helped troops network directly with Houston-area hiring managers. Vallette and her team are planning another session for 2015 and hope to help more troops prepare for life after the military.

Go to USO.org/donate to support our nation’s transitioning troops and their families.

Our Youngest Donor Ever? 1-Year-Old’s Birthday Celebration Raises Funds to Buy In-Kind Snacks for Troops at USO Osan

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A birthday is a great reason to celebrate — and give back.

That’s exactly why Cherie and Air Force Capt. James Bell, parents of Collette Cruz Bell, decided to ask for donations to USO Osan in lieu of presents at their daughter’s first birthday. The Bells, who live on Osan Air Base, South Korea, raised nearly $100 to donate in Collette’s name, making her one of the youngest USO donors ever.

“My husband and I feel very blessed in that we are able to adequately feed and clothe our daughter,” Cherie Bell wrote in an email interview. “Consequently we thought that donations to the USO would be much better utilized than gifts for her first birthday.”

“We also wanted her to be able to have the memory later on of doing some great for others so that she will hopefully learn the joy in giving.”

Collette’s parents took the money and made an in-kind donation to USO Osan in the form of snacks, drinks and food for troops and their families to enjoy — something the Bell family knows will be appreciated.

“My husband and I have spent countless hours enjoying USO locations in airports and military installations,” Bell wrote. “Donating to the USO was our way of expressing gratitude to an organization that has always been there for us while also teaching our daughter a valuable lesson about giving.”

In addition to asking for donations to the USO for their daughter’s big day, the Bells threw a “Despicable Me”-themed barbecue for their friends, complete with a special banana-and-applesauce cake for Collette. The Bells also made a family trip to the beach as part of the birthday festivities.

Quiz: Can You Answer These Five Questions About the USO?

Think you know your USO and military history? Take this week’s USO quiz. (Answers at the bottom.)

1. The USO had an official mascot at one point during World War II. What was it?
A. a service dog
B. a mongoose
C. a fruit fly
D. a bugler

Library of Congress photo

Bob Hope. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

2. Bob Hope first performed for a military audience at what location?
A. Nome, Alaska
B. March Field, California
C. Love Field, California
D. Hickam Field, Hawaii

3. USO shows today are free to all service members. But that wasn’t always the case. How much did it cost in 1942 for Army and Navy troops to get into a USO Camp Show?
A. 1 to 5 cents
B. 10 cents
C. 15 to 20 cents
D. 25 cents

4. Which former Apollo Astronaut was once a member of the USO Board of Governors?
A. Neil Armstrong
B. John Glenn
C. Michael Collins
D. Frank Boreman

5. In 1982, then-USO President William G. Whyte personally accepted a $10,000 contribution to the USO from which of these celebrities?
A. Woody Allen
B. Reggie Jackson
C. E.T.
D. Shamu the Killer Whale

Highlight the line below to see the answers:
1. B; 2. B; 3. C; 4. C; 5. D

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.”

 

Supporter Spotlight: General Federation of Women’s Clubs

GFWC_150x150The General Federation of Women’s Clubs has been there for the USO. Last May, the Statesville (N.C.) Women’s Club hosted the first ever USO Barbecue for the Troops. All told, the GFWC raised more than $20,000 in 2013 for the USO, helping our organization to do the following for America’s troops and families:

The USO thanks the General Federation of Women’s Clubs for their support.

And if your club or organization would like to support America’s troops though the USO, click here.

A Critical 4th of July Mission

I need your help in a critical mission: equipping and supplying our USO Warrior and Family Center at Walter Reed Military Medical Center that’s currently under construction.

The brave troops who will use this wonderful, new center sacrificed so much for our country. We need to make sure they have everything they need to live comfortably during their recovery.

We only have until Ju‌ly 4‌th to raise the funds needed to bring this 16,217-square-foot center to life. I know we can get there but we need you to step up and lead today.

Give back to our wounded troops who’ve given so much to serve our nation. Make your “At One With The Wounded” donation today.

callout-large-v43Thousands of our young men and women are returning from war wounded, ill or injured, and you and the USO are there to comfort them from the moment they’re rushed to a field hospital and through every step of recovery as they prepare for the future.

For our wounded, their families and caregivers, our new center will be a place of healing and recuperation. It will offer every comfort they need, from comforting rest areas and recreation rooms to education centers designed specifically to be springboards to get our troops back to a full and rewarding life, which will help them face the challenges of recovery.

But as you can imagine, it takes a lot to get a state-of-the-art facility of this magnitude up and running. That’s why your participation in our “At One With The Wounded” campaign is absolutely vital.

Click here to make your “At One With The Wounded” donation right now.

Our wounded troops have laid it all on the line for our country. With Ju‌ly 4th fast approaching, I’m hoping you will show your respect for their sacrifices by making a matching gift to this very special effort.

- General Richard B. Myers, USAF (Ret.), Chairman of the Board, USO