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.

Texans’ J.J. Watt Helps Military Families Score The Ultimate Game Day Experience Through the USO

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Attending a Texans game isn’t cheap. From paying for tickets and parking, to making sure the whole family has enough to eat and drink, a trip to watch the Texans play costs the typical family hundreds of dollars. It’s a bill many Houston-area military families can’t foot.

That’s where Texans defensive end J.J. Watt, the Texans All Community Team (TACT) program and USO Houston come in.

Thanks to the TACT program, military families that might not have extra cash for Texans tickets have the opportunity to enjoy a game for free.

Texans players can purchase tickets for a charity of their choice via the TACT program. For the past three years, Watt, whose grandfather served in the Korean War, has chosen USO Houston as his TACT charity, helping to create memorable moments for over 100 military families.

TACT participants from USO Houston watch the Texans run through the tunnel onto the field. USO photo

TACT participants from USO Houston watch the Texans run through the tunnel onto the field. USO photo

“It’s a simple thing for me, but I realize it can have an impact,” Watt said. “It’s a way to reach out and help these people and do something nice for them while we’re in season.

“It’s all because of how appreciative I am for what they’ve done for us and what they continue to do and the sacrifices that they make.”

Troops and their families who win TACT program tickets through a USO Houston raffle enjoy an all-inclusive Texans experience, from receiving commemorative Watt TACT T-shirts to getting to watch the players run through the tunnel onto the field.

“Plus, they get a parking pass and they get a hot dog and Coke,” said USO Houston Programs Manager Anna Rzendzian.

Military families that win the USO Houston raffle are also invited to attend a special pregame tailgate where they can create signs thanking Watt for the chance to watch a game at NRG Stadium. Watt says families will sometimes send him photographs of themselves from the game holding up the signs they made.

The view from the USO Houston pre game tailgate. USO photo

The view from the USO Houston pre game tailgate. USO photo

“Just to see those photos and to see moms and dads with their kids at the games is really special and some of the signs they make are really cool,” Watt said. “One of my favorite signs is ‘The Army sent daddy to Iraq, J.J. sent us to this game.’ So, that was pretty cool.”

Beyond the TACT program, the Texans also donate a variety of tickets to be distributed to Houston-area troops and their families through the USO.

According to Rzendzian, these extra tickets, which are donated by season ticket holders through the Texans’ Cheering Children program, can range from 700-level seats to exclusive private suites. However, as Rzendian notes, the most requested tickets by military families are still the TACT seats donated by Watt.

“It’s interesting to see how many people will forgo the club seats because they want tickets that were bought by J.J. Watt. And those tickets are actually in the nosebleed section,” she said. “But they don’t care. Because J.J. Watt bought them those tickets. It’s really hilarious.”

Watt, a 2012 USO tour veteran, hopes that giving military families — especially ones with children — the chance to attend a Texans game will brighten their day.

“Kids who have a parent overseas are going through something that is difficult, you know,” Watt said. “Your parents are overseas fighting for our country, so I feel like if we can put a smile on your face for a few hours on Sunday, I bring them to a game, I think that’s a pretty cool experience.”

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.

Making the Perfect Care Package: How You Can Help USO Bagram Stock Up for Troops

A group of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington-based airmen  help the USO distribute Girl Scout Cookies. Photo courtesy of the Department of Defense

A group of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington-based airmen help the USO distribute Girl Scout Cookies. Photo courtesy of the Department of Defense

It’s easy to take the little things for granted. For most Americans, stocking up on snacks, baby wipes and Kleenex is as simple as heading to their local convenience store.

But for troops stationed an ocean away at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, stocking up on every day commodities can mean waiting on, or rationing from, care packages shipped from the United States. However, even the most thoughtful — and jam-packed — of care packages eventually runs empty.

Luckily, USO Bagram is there to help.

Thanks to the generous donations of supporters from around the world who provide USO Bagram with food, toiletries, and other personal care items, troops can head to the USO pantry to stock up on every day items they might need. In order to provide the troops with the supplies they need, the USO Bagram relies heavily on donations of food and personal care items sent to the center from USO supporters back at home.

Right now, USO Bagram is hosting a care package drive to stock up on snacks and toiletries to hand out to troops over the coming months. The USO Bagram staff has even created a wish list of their most needed supplies to help anyone who wants to create the ultimate box of goodies for the troops. Remember, even just one package worth of supplies can brighten a service member’s day!

USO Bagram Care Package Wish List

  • Healthy snacks: Jerky, trail mixes, granola bars and fruit snacks
  • Drink mix packets: Gatorade, lemonade, iced tea and crystal light packets
  • Microwavable food: Easy Mac, popcorn, Cup O’Noodles, Chef Boyardee, oatmeal and other snacks that come in their own bowl (dining ware is scarce in Afghanistan)
  • Non-perishable food: Tuna cans or packets, fruit cups, peanut butter, Nutella, soups and other canned foods
  • Chocolate: Wait until the winter months to send chocolate, as it will melt in the mail if sent now
  • Toiletries: Travel-size shampoo, conditioner, body lotion, body wash, wet wipes and hand sanitizer (Please send these in separate boxes from food — no one likes shampoo-flavored oatmeal!)

Please send all care packages to the following address:

USO Bagram
Pat Tillman Memorial Center
APO, AE 09354

Pennsylvania AFSCME Members Support Military Families Through USO

The American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 13’s Next Wave committee, made up of AFSCME leaders under the age of 35, held a book and donation drive at the AFSCME Council 13 convention in Hershey, PA in April to support the USO and United Through Reading’s Military Program. No one knew what to expect, but support came out in full force –  the event raised $5,000 and 400 children’s’ books were donated to help connect military families!

The USO partnership with United Through Reading allows our deployed troops the ability to read their kids a bedtime book and virtually be there, even when they can’t be there in-person. Whether troops are stationed at a forward operating base in Afghanistan or deploying overseas, they can visit their participating USO center to read a story aloud to their child. Mom or Dad’s special storytime is recorded on camera, and the USO mails this priceless DVD and book home. Children can watch and listen to their parent at bedtime, naptime or anytime.

“You can always count on Council 13 members to do all they can for our military. Our delegation in April was truly moved to hear about the overwhelming success of the USO’s United Through Reading program, and I couldn’t be more proud of the efforts put forth by our membership to bring deployed troops and their families just a little bit closer,” said David Fillman, Executive Director of AFSCME Council 13.  With the aid of many members and locals from across the state, AFSCME Council 13’s donation will help 900 military children “see” their deployed mom or dad and help to lift the spirits of our nation’s youngest heroes.

What’s your favorite bedtime story?

Wonder Bread Partners With the USO to Honor American Heroes

For a second year, Wonder® bread is partnering with us to celebrate ordinary Americans making extraordinary contributions to their families, communities and country with the 2012 Wonder Bread Heroes program. Wonder is inviting families across the country to join the celebration and nominate American heroes in their lives for a chance to have $50,000 donated to the USO in the winning hero’s name. The Wonder Bread Hero winner will also receive $2,500 and a year’s supply of Wonder to enjoy with his or her family!

“The USO and Wonder bread are two great American classics,” Tameika Miller, Wonder brand manager, says. “For more than 70 years, the USO has been making a difference in the lives of our American troops and their families. And for more than 90 years, Wonder bread has been a staple in American households and a family favorite. The Wonder Bread Heroes campaign gives us a chance to honor Americans making a difference in the lives of those around them while supporting the USO’s mission and the creative programs it offers.”

Know someone who deserves to win? Nominate them at www.wonderbreadheroes.com today!