Operation Enduring Care

From the desk of John Hanson:

“Why is the USO doing this?”  We hear it all the time when we talk about Operation Enduring Care – the USO’s initiative to create programs for wounded warriors and their families.

Mike Augustyn, a Polish soldier injured in Iraq, reacts to a comical charicature created by Tom Richmond, a member of the National Cartoonist Society at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, Oct. 16, 2009, during a USO deployment. (USO photo by Jackie Zettles)

We get it.  People know about the USO, but the one thing they know about most is our outstanding entertainment program.  Why not?  For generations of Americans, Bob Hope was the face of the USO.  And, today celebrities from the stars of Sons of Anarchy to Zac Brown and Toby Keith continue that rich tradition of entertaining troops wherever they serve.

But, truth be told, most service members never see a USO show.  The math doesn’t make that possible.  Most troops and family members know the USO for its network of USO centers – almost 150 today – scattered at military bases and airports across America and around the world.  There are 3 USO centers in Kuwait, 3 in Iraq and we’re about to open our 2nd one in Afghanistan (in Kandahar).  In fact, entertainment is not quite 12 percent of what the USO provides.

The USO delivers its brand of care and support to remote forward operating bases and combat outposts through the USO2Go program.  We ship almost everything from athletic equipment and snacks to laptop computers and video games – hundreds of boxes on dozens of pallets are prepared to order and sent to those troops who know isolation better than any of us can imagine.

The USO makes it possible for parents to record a children’s book onto a DVD.  We then send the DVD and the book to the child, so he or she can read along with Mom or Dad.  So far, 100,000 of those recordings have been made.  In 2010 alone, we hope to provide 100,000 of these valuable connections to home.

The USO is the link between the American public and its military.  Each month more than 200,000 free and very clear phone calls are made  over our satellite-based private telephone network.  Now, that’s a link to home!  That network makes it possible for troops to “be in” delivery rooms when children are born; they can watch early steps by children they haven’t seen in months.  Our donors make all of those things possible.

Who Needs us Most?

Now that I’ve stepped on my lead, it’s time to explain Operation Enduring Care.  The program started a few years ago, when we offered duffels of clothing, toiletries and short term needs to wounded warriors arriving at Landstuhl Medical Center in Germany.  We still do that.

But, today Operation Enduring Care includes our most ambitious effort in more than a generation – maybe in the USO’s history.

We will build 2 Wounded Warrior Family Centers in the Washington, D.C. area.  One will be at Ft. Belvoir, Virginia, near an Army hospital that will be built there.  The other will be at the new Walter Reed medical center in Bethesda, Maryland.

Each will be designed to what we call the “audible gasp” standard.

Each will include areas for families and recovering troops to gather outside the hospital.  There will be children’s play areas, kitchens and dining areas for home-cooked meals.  We envision these as warm and welcoming places that symbolize the public’s support for and recognition of the service and sacrifice of troops and their families.

Members of the National Cartoonist Society take a photo with U.S. Army SPC Ben Brashier of Okolona, Miss., at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany Oct. 16, 2009, after sketching him a number of cartoons and characters during their USO deployment. In addition to visiting many wounded soldiers in Germany, the cartoonists are also scheduled to visit more than a dozen military bases in the combat zone. (USO photo by Jackie Zettles)

Why the USO?

The USO is the most trusted brand when it comes to troop support activities.  When the American public thinks about supporting the troops, the USO comes to mind quickly.

These new centers will not be about the USO.  Their sole focus will be on the needs of troops and families as they prepare for a new and productive future.  Other organizations offer programs the USO would not attempt, and their participation will be encouraged.  The USO does not provide job training or career coaching, but these centers can provide space for that to be delivered – to troops and families.

It strikes me that most Americans have little appreciation for the amount of time many of our wounded warriors spend in the hospital.  After all, we know very few people who are ever hospitalized for more than a few days.  But, amputees might spend 18 months recovering from their injuries.  Many wounded warriors face multiple surgeries over many months.  Their families leave their homes to be with them.  The sacrifice is shared and the reintegration to life after the hospital is critical to every one of them.

Their successful re-entry into our communities will be the responsibility of each of us.  They have received the very best medical care, and teams of doctors, nurses and therapists focused on getting these folks well enough to return home.  Home is where we come in.  Not to pity or coddle them, but to give them the opportunities they earned by their service.  The communities they return to should be communities of support.

There will be more on Operation Enduring Care as we break ground and start construction in the coming months.

At Ft. Hood with Kasey Kahne, Some Pretty Dang Good Country Music and a Budweiser or Two

MG Will Grimsley, Kasey Kahne and Ft. Hood USO director Robin Crouse before Budweiser support event.

From the desk of John Hanson:

Visiting Ft. Hood is always a treat. A humble treat, but a treat.  It’s the Army’s largest base anywhere.  On any day 1/3 of the base is deployed overseas; 1/3 is recovering from deployment and 1/3 is getting ready to deploy.  Thousands of troops and families deal with that math every day.  Today was a crowded day – a good day.

“Whenever there’s a traffic jam, that’s good news,” a first sergeant told me.

So, what was I doing at the base that fills the space between Killeen and Waco, on a pretty nice spring evening?

Budweiser, one of the USO’s stalwart supporters, offered to help us with Operation Enduring Care and our initiative to build 2 new state-of-the-art centers at the new Walter Reed Hospital at Bethesda and the Ft. Belvoir Community Hospital in Virginia.  It’s an ambitious effort, and when a national sponsor steps forward to offer us what might be $250,000, I’m going to show up.

Budweiser and its distributors around the country will be donating proceeds during the summer to help us as we begin the hard work of building the new Wounded Warrior Centers.  Part of their promotion involves their Number 9 racecar, driven by Kasey Kahne, who is, by the way, a genuine supporter of the troops.

Budweiser Number 9 car, driven by Kasey Kahne

Voila! The Car

Budweiser regional representative Henry Dominguez announced the promotion in front of thousands of soldiers and family members gathered in one of the base’s field houses to meet Kahne and to hear country music performer Kevin Fowler (yes THAT Kevin Fowler, whose Beer, Bait and Ammo is one of the best Texas songs I’ve heard in a while).

We’re pretty sure they were there for Kahne and/or Fowler, because when Henry introduced me the plaintive wail, “We want Kasey!” was heard across the room.  Well, I (wisely, I think) cut to the chase, explained why the support from Budweiser was important and got the heck off the stage.

Then, Henry, Kasey and I unveiled the bright, Budweiser red Number 9 car, with the legend “Proud to Serve Those Who Serve” across the hood. Pretty cool.  On Memorial Day and July 4 (the bookends of the USO’s Patriotic 6” the car will feature the USO logo inside, next to Kasey for the world to see when the in-car camera comes on.  Watch for it.

Ft. Hood Matters

Ft. Hood is important to its soldier and family citizens.  Families are raised here, after all.  Military children are educated here.  It’s a really large community with an important focus.

Major Gen. Will Grimsley, the deputy commander of Ft. Hood and III Corps sees what the USO does.  In a presentation to the USO he told his troops that the USO is there where they are, “From Kandahar to Balad, the USO will take care of you.”

That was flattering and rewarding, but we have a special presence at this mammoth installation, and we suffer when they suffer.

The USO was the one NGO that was authorized to operate after the tragic shootings here in November.  Later, the USO helped with the healing when we worked with the base’s Morale, Welfare and Recreation office to produce its Community Strong Day.  Gary Sinise, Chamillionire and others came here to celebrate resilience and sacrifice.

Robin Crouse, the USO’s outstanding center director at Ft. Hood is one of the “go-to” folks the military command depends on.

In the Green Room, where Kahne signed autographs and posed for photos, I talked to some Dominos Pizza representatives.  They told me that 6 years ago Robin asked them to provide some pizzas for troops who had just returned.   “That was 14,000 pizzas ago,” one of them told me.  Great story, I thought, and good call.  Nothing like a little good will to build consumer affinity.  I thanked them for their generosity, and the rep told me, “No thanks needed.  We do it because it matters.  Ft. Hood matters.”

It does.  It matters to the dog handler and his beautiful pooches who’d already done one tour to Iraq and were getting ready to deploy to Afghanistan this summer.  “I’ll be fine,” the handler said.  “She takes care of me.”  God speed.

It matters to the sergeant who’d just recently returned from Afghanistan.  He stood with his wife and Kahne for a photo.  The wife was beaming, but he had that look we see so often from these folks.  Simple act of kindness on Kasey’s part, but sacrifice was written all over the faces of this military couple who looked years older than .

I love this job, because whenever I get a bit cynical or wrapped up in my own nonsense, I meet people who make my life worthwhile.

Ft. Hood matters.  THEY matter.  They’re why we do what we do.

A Military Blogging Community

From the desk of Em Hall, Web Communications Manager for the USO:

If you would have asked me a year ago about the MilBlogging community, I would have asked, what community?  Being new to the world of military nonprofits, I was just beginning to learn about the vast online community that is comprised of and supports the military.  With the recent Department of Defense memorandum issued on the use of social media (officially known as DTM 09-026 Responsible and Effective use of Internet-based Capabilities) and the relaxing of rules governing its usage thereof, the internet has seen a proliferation of Facebook fan pages, Twitter feeds, and blogs related to the military.  I think this is a good thing.

One of the distinct advantages of online-based forms of communication is their ability to provide transparency – to the extent that it’s appropriate and maintains the safety of the Troops - and to react immediately to news and events.  In an age where the average American is probably quite disconnected with the realities of war, providing digital information, images, and videos is essential to remind folks what our men and women in uniform are doing to defend this country.

USO tour veterans Saving Abel performed at the 5th Annual MilBlogging conference. Here they pose with blogger Maja Stevanovich - far right - who won the MilBloggie award for best U.S. Military Supporter blog.

Of course the rules are different for active duty military, veterans, and non-military folks like me, who may or may not work for a military-related organization or company.  But I believe there’s one essential theme that permeates all of these blogs, and that’s the idea that war is complicated and messy, but the people who serve are worthy of our respect.  There’s an air of positivity and supportiveness, even when bloggers are criticizing policy, tactics, or individuals.

I have just now hit the year mark for working at the USO and managing our presence on social media and the web.  I must say it’s a humbling experience, and an honor to do what I do.  With this blog, we aim to provide information on the multi-faceted nature of an organization that lifts the morale of the Troops and their families in nearly 150 locations around the globe.  We can’t tell every USO story, but we can do our best to let you know what we’re up to and how your support makes a difference.

We’re going to keep using new forms of technology and media to communicate with our diverse audiences.  From comments on our photo essays from parents who spot their “kids” serving overseas; to the reflections of veterans, some of whom have been supporting the USO since our very first days; to folks who find us and want nothing more than to support the Troops, whether they personally have any connection to the military: all of these people – and more – are able to engage with the USO in ways that weren’t possible five years ago.

So keep the comments coming on Facebook and this blog, keep Tweeting to us (don’t forget that today is #MilitaryMon), and don’t ever hesitate to be honest and open about the programs and services we’re offering our Troops.  Even if it’s negative feedback, we use it to improve what we’re doing here at the USO.  We’re constantly seeking to improve the ways we tell the USO story.  Until every one comes home.

Register your military blog!

Add yourself to the MilBlogging map!

The Power of One Vote

From the Desk of John Hanson, SVP of Communications a the USO:

Don’t worry … this isn’t a civics lesson encouraging you to vote in every election (you really should, though).

Sometime this summer, the world will not celebrate the 66th anniversary of a piece of landmark legislation.  Not because it’s bad legislation, but because 66 years isn’t as much fun as, say, 65 or 70.

In 1944, a group of World War I veterans figured out that World War II was going to be ending at some foreseeable time.  The allies were advancing in every theater.

These men had come home after their war and learned some important lessons.  One was that there had to be a way to assimilate millions of veterans back into an economy that was not going to be as robust after the war as it was during the war.

And, these folks had seen what happened when bonuses promised to World War I veterans were not paid.  The bonus marchers’ riots in 1932 in Washington left a lasting impression and a bitter taste.

The result of their conversations was the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944.

GI Bill Signing

President Franklin D. Roosevelt signing the G.I. Bill into law on June 22, 1944

It was ambitious.  The plan included months of unemployment compensation, guaranteed home loans, and, remarkably, education benefits at colleges, universities and trade schools.  The cost was going to be huge.

There was some consternation from the Congress.  “This is far too expensive,” some said.  “We can’t afford to do this.”  Some called it socialistic or even communistic.  There are reports that it was too big for even President Roosevelt.  University leaders were worried about opening the doors of higher education to the hoi polloi.

But, a few veterans’ groups and interested citizens insisted, and the legislation moved forward, back and forth until the House and Senate versions had to be meshed. That shouldn’t have been a problem.  Each house’s version passed unanimously.  But, we’re talking about Congress, here.  There were 7 members of the joint committee.  One was going to be out of town when the vote was to be taken, and he left his proxy with the chairman.  The chair decided not to vote the proxy, so the absent member, from Georgia, John Gibson, had to be found at his home, driven to an airport and flown back to Washington to cast the final vote that freed the bill for consideration.

A tie vote could have killed the bill.  A desperate measure saved it.

You might recognize the Readjustment Act (a great name by the way) as its more popular title – the GI Bill of Rights.  It changed the course for millions of veterans and their families.  It created the American middle class. It created the America we take for granted today.  By a one vote margin.

[ed. note – more information on the GI Bill is available online from the American Legion]

Bottom Line Up Front

From the desk of John Hanson, SVP of Communications at the USO:

Okay, Patrick Kennedy got my attention.  Not because of the screaming – more because of what he said.  Fact is, he probably SHOULD have been shouting.  The media (and the public’s) failure to address two wars – and a larger, arguably global extension of that war – is disturbing.

Reflections on a Magic 8 Ball

A few months ago I watched a video of a focus group in a mid-size city (for focus group mavens, it “tests larger”).  At first, I thought the group was a bit skewed in its political views, but when asked how many liked/disliked the president, the split was just about even.  That might not mean anything, but at least the playing field was somewhat even.

Answers to questions about the wars we’re in were, well, interesting.  “This isn’t MY war,” one said.  “Doesn’t affect me at all.”

Edward "Babe" Hefron (L) and William "Wild Bill" Guarnere (C) two of the World War II veterans that inspired the book and HBO miniseries "Band of Brothers" greets US Army csm Keith West during one of the Persian Gulf stops of the USO/Armed Forces Entertainment "Band of Brothers" tour on September 17, 2008. (USO Photo by Fred Greaves)

For almost 30 years I’ve either advocated on behalf of veterans, worked at a policy level to ensure they got benefits or worked to lift the spirits of active duty troops and families, honoring their service and sacrifice.  “Doesn’t affect me at all” isn’t the right answer in my mind.  I’ve seen what these troops and families go through, and, believe me, it affects us all.  All that John Donne stuff you might not have read lately.  Or at all.

But, as I’ve mentioned in an earlier blog, I recently had a revelation.

Bear With Me.  This isn’t sociology

My father was born the year the U.S. entered World War I.  My brother was born a week or so after Pearl Harbor (my mother said the attack distracted her until the baby got her attention again).  I was born the year the Korean War started, and THAT year was just 34 years removed from the start of World War I in Europe, and about 4 years before the last draftees were born.  I was reared in a town of around 50,000, and I think every one of those people had some close connection to the military.

That means that my parents, my brother and I – and those we knew – knew someone touched by wars going back at least to the Spanish American War, and I’d bet my father might have met a Civil War veteran at some point in his life.

From my perspective, every person I grew up with was affected by military service in one way or another.  Parents or friends either served, were killed or wounded or maybe even just disappeared in the service of their country.  The woman who ran the cafeteria at Alberta Elementary lost a son on D-Day.  He just vanished.  The father of one of my buddies lost his leg in the Korean War.  That means my friend had faint memories of his dad having both legs, and then had to deal with his return as a changed man.  One of my best friends had parents who were both attorneys (this was unusual in the 1950s in Alabama.  Trust me).  His father had been a Marine in World War II.  He came back blinded by a grenade blast somewhere in the Pacific.  My friend would bring his dad’s old wristwatch to show and tell, and demonstrate how the crystal could be raised so you could tell time by touching the watch face.  There were children of Army cooks, quartermaster corps veterans and Air Corps tail gunners.  There were former officers and enlisted folks … and they were all heroes.  Those who returned, put away their uniforms, went to school, got jobs and started families.  They were our politicians, our cops and our PTA leaders.

Everyone I met knew war stories.  Every one had some skin in the game.  Sometimes it led them to join veterans groups.  Sometimes it led them to work for peace.   For all the awfulness for some in the country, there was a common thread that linked us – military service.

Hang in there, this might actually go somewhere.

The disconnect begins

Living through the Vietnam years wasn’t great.  Simply living through them was not as bad as actually fighting in Vietnam, though.

While troops were fighting in Vietnam, many of their contemporaries were delaying service by going to college. I was one of those for a while, but when I was a junior at the University of Alabama, I enlisted in the Air Force.  It was one of my better decisions, but it had some practicality.  I figured that I’d go to Europe or stay stateside, but come nowhere near Southeast Asia or the war.

So, after I got to Thailand, where I worked as a B-52 mechanic, I discovered that the draft was over.  A friend mailed a note (we did that then) with an article about the end of compulsory service.  The note said, “I think you made your move too soon.”  He was a big blues fan.

In those days, whenever service members traveled commercially, we didn’t wear our uniforms (Marines did, but that’s always a different story).  We tried to blend in.  But, we could grow our hair only so much, so the results were mixed.  The point is, it was important to blend in, because there was a great deal of animosity and scorn toward the military.  That came not just from the flag burning bomb throwers, but also from fine, upstanding generally conservative folks, who looked at us as if we were the chumps.  If you were there, you know it was a strange time.

I went back to college, got that behind me and started working.  Except for a short time working for a really great governor and then the National Governors’ Association, 80 percent of my work life has been focused on troops, families and veterans. I’ve been inside the bubble, so any notion that these issues were not on the minds of most Americans would have been dissonant.

But, now it makes sense.  People are focused on their jobs, their families and their lives.  Unless any of those happen to cross with the military, nothing could have been farther from their minds.

Finally, at the USO we talk a lot about the difference between the price and the cost of war.  Discussions by the wise people in the media almost always focus on the price.  “Can we afford this?” “It’s driving up our deficit.”  “If it weren’t for the war, we’d be in better economic shape now.”

And other blah, blah, from the right and the left.

War has a price, and we can decide to pay it or not.  But, military service – especially war service – has a cost that goes on and on.  It’s a cost in human lives and suffering; it’s a price in rehabilitation from serious injuries that would not have been survived in earlier conflicts.  It’s also a cost in human – especially American – decency.  Our vocabulary is filled with trite over-worn quotes about honoring military service.  They’re often attributed to people who didn’t serve, but didn’t mind sending someone else to serve.

As far as I know, George Santayana never served in anyone’s military, but he left us with an important thought: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

I lied earlier, there’s no real point here.  The struggle is in getting the message out that there are several hundred thousand of our neighbors doing some pretty tough work on our behalf.  Thinking that each of us does not have a stake in their wellbeing or in their successful return to our communities is worse than shortsighted…it’s potentially dangerous.

Because, Santayana also told us, “Only the dead have seen the end of war.”

A Reality Check

From the Desk of John Hanson, SVP of Communications at the USO:

Oscar-nominated actor Jeremy Renner and TAPS founder Bonnie Carroll at the TAPS screening of The Hurt Locker in August 2009.

Okay.  Maybe it’s time to take a breath about The Hurt Locker. [Ed. note: take a moment to read an interview with the film’s Anthony Mackie and see how he supports the troops.] Some vets are offended that it wasn’t completely accurate.  Fair enough.   It wasn’t a documentary.  Films about, say journalists (All the President’s Men, or Broadcast News, for example) aren’t, either, but they’re entertaining and provide SOME insight.  I’m not all that sure Wall Street was completely accurate, but it was educational in a way.

So, Hurt Locker, didn’t provide absolute accuracy.  The explosions were too pretty for my taste, but it was a feature film.  What can we take from it?

There’s a feeling across the land that Americans aren’t engaged in Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom.  Americans feel it, veterans sense it, and that might be what we should expect.

There’s no draft.  Until the 70s, if there was an 18-year-old male in a household, there was at least a reasonable chance that he’d be in the military.  Today, that isn’t the case.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not arguing for a draft.  Today’s military is too good to go back to that model.  But, as great and talented and committed as our troops are, they’re a really small part of the population.  When they get out of the military, they tend to do what every generation of veterans does – go to school, get jobs, raise families and be extremely valuable parts of their communities.

Few wear their decorations on their suits.  Very few even let you know they served, unless you ask them.  They just become the strongest threads of the fabric of this country.

Part of me would like welcome home parades and all that kind of thing.  A big part of me would love for the country to take a moment – it can even be a random moment – to thank troops and their families for their service and sacrifice.  Not because those of us who served a generation ago didn’t get that, but because it would be a proper and polite thing to do.  It’s about more than thanking a service member in an airport.  It’s about more than misting up on Memorial Day.  It’s about recognizing that service and sacrifice are responsibilities each of us bears in different ways.  Some just run the risk of paying a higher price.

And, understand the stress of one deployment to Afghanistan to Iraq can be debilitating in some ways.  Never mind 3 or 4 deployments.  These troops and vets need our support and understanding.  Our wounded warriors shouldn’t be ignored, either.

So, maybe this Best Picture Academy Award® (I love trademarks) winner deserves something more from us.  Maybe it requires that we look at it as a learning opportunity.  In our communities there are OIF/OEF vets quietly putting their lives back together, and they are doing their part to making our lives better.

Let’s return the favor.