From the desk of John Hanson, Senior Vice President of Communications for the USO:

First of all, I love this country.  You’re waiting for a conjunction, aren’t you? Nope.  I just wanted that on the table.

U.S Soldiers with Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment raise an American flag on a roof being used as a lookout point during Operation Helmand Spider in Badula Qulp, Helmand province, Afghanistan, Feb. 10, 2010. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Efren Lopez/Released)

Lately, I’ve been thinking about saluting the flag.  Last year, Congress made it acceptable for veterans and military members not in uniform to render the traditional hand salute (right hand to the right eyebrow) when the colors of the nation are formally presented.  I understand why that might be important to some people, but I have to wonder what’s wrong with the other traditional method of honoring the flag (right hand over heart).

First, please understand, honoring the flag is something far too few Americans do; and often when they do, it’s a clumsy exercise in what seems to be embarrassed under achievement.  You can almost see people asking, “Am I doing this right? How long do I do it? Is anyone watching me?”

But, I’ve also noticed that over the past few years, more and more people are making the effort to respect the flag, and even the clumsiest efforts will eventually become easy.  I take that as good news.  (Reading the very brief and easily understood U.S. Flag Code is also a good idea)

A few months ago, I was at an indoor event.  The Master of Ceremonies urged all veterans and military members out of uniform to render the traditional hand salute to honor the flag as the Color Guard made its way forward.  On the one hand (no puns here, really) it was quite a sight, seeing people in suits standing and saluting proudly.  I stood there, with my hand over my heart (I’m a veteran and proud of it) wondering:

–Are these folks all veterans?  How do we know?

–Aren’t we inside?  Do people salute inside these days?

–Shouldn’t there be some kind of headwear?

Okay, I didn’t wonder all that until the colors were presented, the National Anthem performed and the Color Guard left the room.

I’m not sure when this saluting as a civilian behavior started.  When I was a kid, I don’t remember seeing President Eisenhower salute the Marines at the White House or when he left Air Force One.  I remember his nodding and going about his business.  Maybe I’m wrong, but if HE could get away with not saluting, can’t other Presidents?  I could be over thinking this, but one of the great principles that makes the United States unique is that the military is under the ultimate control of a civilian leader – the President.  In many ways, that’s been a comfort.  The public’s requirement that a president salute makes me uncomfortable, somehow.  That’s not a partisan statement, it’s just a statement. I remember one of my ROTC instructors explaining the salute as a way to “Say Hello.”  Isn’t that what the wave of a hand does?

What’s also unique about this country is how many people will tell me I’m wrong, rather than simply telling me they disagree with me.  The quickest way to kill a conversation is to turn it off with one of those “right-wrong” or “right-left” exchanges.   So it goes.

Look, I don’t care if you want to salute.  What was seen as a tremendous hassle to those of us when we were in the lower enlisted ranks seems to be something else today.

So, go ahead.  Hold that salute for the Colors to come in and for the National Anthem.  Just don’t sing while you’re doing it.  That, it seems to me, is a real break in saluting protocol.

Me?  I’m proud to place my hand over my heart, like my Daddy taught me.

Operation Denali’s Marc Hoffmeister named “Adventurer of the Year”

From the desk of Jeremy Borden, USO Staff Writer:

Army Lieutenant Colonel Marc Hoffmeister says his whole experience with National Geographic has been one surprise after the other. But none was bigger than learning that he’d tied for first place as the organization’s Adventurer of the Year.

Hoffmeister, who was wounded in a roadside blast in Iraq in 2007, organized a group of wounded warriors to climb Mount McKinley, also known as Denali, the highest mountain peak in North America in June 2009.

Lieutenant Colonel Marc Hoffmeister summits Denali. DoD photo.

He said he was more than a little shocked to be named one of the magazine’s Adventurers of the Year. “I frankly was pretty surprised to even be ranked amongst them,” he said from his home in Eagle River, Alaska.

It also shocked him that readers honored him as their Readers’ Choice Adventurer of the Year on Thursday.

He credits his team — the accomplishment is a group one, he says — but can’t put his finger on what put his story above the rest. “I don’t know what singled us out at all,” he said.

Hoffmeister went up against accomplished adventurers, like the astronaut known as “the Hubble repairman,” and tied for first place in the readers’ choice contest with Albert Yu-Min Lin, who organized a treacherous expedition into Mongolia to search for the lost tomb of Genghis Khan.

As Hoffmeister and Lin pulled away from the pack in the competition’s last weeks, the soldier wondered what his chances were.

“It’s the modern age of technology. You ‘Google’ the competition,” Hoffmeister said.

When he found out about Lin’s University of California-San Diego connections, he joked he was worried that “[Lin’s] got the whole school at his disposal. Can’t you just [take students] to the computer lab every other day and vote?”

Despite what he considered steep odds, Hoffmeister organized and assembled his own social network. Army officials and even senators gravitated to his story, helping put the word out through e-mail chains, news stories and social media Web sites. Hoffmeister knew it was working when he started hearing from long lost friends.

But it was Hoffmeister’s story of four wounded warriors training for a year and spending a month summiting a treacherous peak that resonated around the country. When Hoffmeister was beginning his own recovery, he knew the mountain climb could change wounded warriors’ lives. But first, he had his own burdens to over come…Read the full blog post from “On the Frontlines” and see Army Lieutenant Colonel Marc Hoffmeister’s full story online at ON★PATROL, the magazine of the USO.

USO and Wounded Warrior Project Team Up and to Show Troops “Anything Is Possible”

From the desk of Kevin Wensing, VP of Executive Office at the USO:

“Anything is Possible,” was the message of the USO’s own, Giovanni Livera, who inspired and motivated a class of wounded warriors last month at the Wounded Warrior Project’s TRACK course in Jacksonville, FL.

The USO and the Wounded Warrior Project partnered to bring the renowned magician, teacher and motivator’s inspirational message that indeed anything is possible. Giovanni also introduced the class to his successful life navigation course, which he guided the troops and their spouses through during the day, helping them chart their own personal goals for the future.

The USO's Giovanni Livera (center, front) WOWs participants in the Wounded Warrior Projects TRACK program in Jacksonville, FL - Jan 2010.

The Wounded Warrior Project’s Dean of Students, Chris Rick, himself a retired Navy Master Chief, said “Giovanni was phenomenal.”   Rick added that Giovanni’s presentation was “powerful” and that “He was able to capture everyone’s attention from the beginning and held it though-out.”    Rick noted, “

Giovanni was able to include our TRACK program principles and core values into his presentation, thereby reinforcing them to our warriors.”

The USO has partnered with the Wounded Warrior Project and other effective organizations to help bring the best possible services to our troops and their families and aid in their healing and reintegration into their new lives.

August 2008, the Wounded Warrior Project launched TRACK to offer wounded warriors an integrated approach to address long-term needs for education and training, advocacy, and secondary rehabilitative care for the MIND, BODY and SPIRIT.  This unique program offers participants a range of college preparatory classes and services customized to their needs, helping them build career skills, train in veterans’ advocacy, and continue recovery toward a more independent life. The wounded warriors attend college classes as a group, with the ability to draw from their shared experiences. TRACK has three state-of-the art classrooms, as well as a gym, and individual workspaces for the warriors and instructors. The USO offered to have Giovanni Livera assist the TRACK program and his support was very well received. Jennifer Silva, Director of the TRACK program gave Giovanni high marks saying, “Tell the USO he was a hit for the warriors!”

Have a Coke and a Smile

From the Desk of John Hanson, Senior Vice President of Communications at the USO:

“The USO’s been long enough to touch the lives of troops and families from World War II though the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We hear stories almost everywhere we go. It’s like joining an ongoing conversation friends have over a cup of coffee.

This afternoon someone came to our office to thank us. It seems he was in the neighborhood, visiting a client when he saw our name on the sign outside the building here in Arlington.

He told us he was a young Marine officer in Somalia in the early 1990s. It was awful duty. One day he ran across a small USO canteen on his base. “I was able to get a warm Coke,” he said. “Best Coke I ever had.”

A can of Coca-Cola continues to be a part of Troops' lives, as evidenced by this recent bar-b-que at Camp Virginia in Kuwait.

He almost apologized for being a “small donor.” I told him there was no such thing, and showed him around the office. We have a large photo of Toby Keith and one of his guitarists entertaining troops at a very remote forward operating base in Afghanistan. “People ask me what Afghanistan is like,” I told him. “I steer them to this photo. That’s Afghanistan – not very lush, very desolate in places.”

“Yeah,” he said. “When I was in Somalia you guys sent Garth Brooks. I stayed in back so my Marines could see him. I was more interested in the warm Coke.”

It was one of those profoundly simple meetings that illustrated the good our donors cause to happen. Just a passing kindness from one stranger to another stranger in a very strange and remote place that is for most of us a dot on a map we don’t pay much attention to.”

Happy Anniversary, USO! And Thank You to All Who Make it Possible…

From the Desk of John Hanson, Senior Vice President of Communications at the USO:

“February 4 is the USO’s 69th birthday.  That’s not a meaningful milestone in itself (unless you’re 68), but it reminds me that in parts of 8 decades, this organization continues to deliver support for troops and families with compassion and relevance.

I’m also reminded that our corps of staff and volunteers around the world show up each day at large and small locations and they solve problems.  When a young soldier appears at the USO at Dallas-Ft Worth Airport after missing his flight, he’s told to relax, get a cup of coffee, it’ll be all right.  Sure enough, the USO volunteer at the desk arranges for the next flight and calls the troop’s next base to explain what happened.

From Chicago to Kuwait, the desk where staff and volunteers sit and greet Troops serves as the nerve center of any USO. (USO Photos by Dave Gatley)

I once saw a recent graduate of the Navy’s boot camp at Great Lakes walk into the USO at O’Hare Airport with her orders and ask what she was supposed to do when she arrived at her first real duty station.  It seems that step was omitted in her out-processing briefing, and it occurred to her on the way to the airport that she was taking the second airplane flight of her life to a place she’d never been and into an environment with which she was totally unfamiliar.  The former sailor behind the counter looked at her orders, looked up the location of the personnel office at the next stop and gave her specific instructions about how to report for duty.

I accompanied a USO entertainment tour through Qatar, Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan a few years ago.  On the way home we stopped to put on a show in Italy.  I met one of our employees of our USO in Vicenza there.  She told me how important the shows were to the troops wherever we went, and she wanted to thank us for stopping in her country.  She went on to tell me that a deployment from Vicenza to Afghanistan just ended, and she mourned as she told me about her “boys” who didn’t return.  “It’s tough on everybody,” she said.  “The families, of course, but also the extended families – the troops who knew them.  It’s really hard on all of us.”

Volunteers at the DFW USO celebrate a USO Birthday with - what else? - a delicious cake in 2009.

She went on to tell me that one day she went into the kitchen at the USO to make a cake.  Soon, troops started coming into the kitchen to “help” her.  There they were, some of the finest soldiers in the Army licking spoons and beaters, helping out as they would back home.

She went on to make more cakes, but she only did it when the USO was busy.  She knew she’d get more help.  “After all,” she said, “it’s not about the cakes.  It’s about MAKING the cakes.”  It was about being with Mom in the kitchen.

In 69 years we’ve moved from providing letter-writing stations to providing free Internet connections.  Films projected onto sheets have become videos on large screen TVs.  There’s still coffee and magazines and comfortable furniture.  There’s still the respite from hard duty.  And, there’s still Mom in the kitchen making a cake.

It’s just like home.”

Some Reflections For Our Anniversary

From the Desk of John Hanson, Senior Vice President of Communications at the USO:

“First, a statement for the record – or at least that part of the record that includes social media. The president’s announcement that the last combat troops would leave Iraq in August could not have come soon enough. No one wants troops home more than my colleagues and I do. We’ve got friends who have served there, and who have been injured there. And, who have died there. Every day someone here sees what war does to the warriors.

But, there should also be a reminder that tens of thousands of troops will still be in the region – not to mention Afghanistan. Please don’t forget that troops around the world are serving around the world – away from friends and families. They’re missing birthdays and anniversaries and the births of children. Many aren’t in combat, but they’re just as likely to be in lonely isolated places, defending us. Their service counts and it’s important. My father is a World War II veteran who never got closer to overseas than San Francisco. I’m counted as a Vietnam veteran, but I repaired aircraft in Guam and Thailand. I am as proud of my service as my father was of his.

On February 4, the USO will enter the last year of its 7th decade (just a few months before I enter the first year of mine. But, this isn’t about me. At least not ALL about me). The USO’s focus from the beginning was on the simple notion of providing morale services for members of the U.S. military. We do that well, by the way.

Over the years, we’ve seen waves of support during times of war, and just the opposite in times of peace. Our challenge is to ensure that we continue to support troops around the world every day of every year – in times of war or peace.

The current conflicts this country is engaged in are complicated. My guess is that we will be involved in one way or another for the foreseeable future. As a veteran of our last long war, I’ve seen how the public’s patience can cause it to focus its discontent on troops, rather than the government. So far, that hasn’t happened. Regardless of how people view our foreign policy, support for the troops and for the USO remains strong. Maybe it’s because my generation realizes how we lost focus more than a generation ago. I hope so.

Wayne Newton entertains Troops on the first USO Celebrity Entertainment Tour in Afghanistan, December 2001.

One more thing. Earlier this week, I saw a brief mention of an attack at the US base at Camp Phoenix, near Kabul, Afghanistan. I paid attention because I’ve been there a few times. The 5-minute drive from Kabul to Phoenix is an exercise in breath holding. The distance is short, but the atmosphere is extremely tense. I hate to talk about being worried, because when we’re there it’s only for a few days. Our troops do this day in and day out for months at a time.

The report underscored what we already know. The U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan are facing difficulties we can hardly imagine. We can’t forget their service and their sacrifice – or that of their families.”