Op Thanksgiving Eagle – “Brings A Beat To Our Military Children’s Hearts”

‎”Mrs. Fink–I loved your songs. Your beat is in my heart.” – Sammy, Kindergarten, Wetzel Elementary School, Baumholder. Father is currently deployed and in danger’s way. (The Assistant Principal led Sammy to me after the show so he could share his powerful words with me.)

Operation Thanksgiving Eagle at the USO Warrior Center in Germany

Be still my heart. Sammy and I then hugged, and had a priceless conversation about the power of music. Yes, with a five-year-old. I told him his words were the highlight of my day, and were worth traveling to Germany to hear.

The 450 students at this morning’s two performances at Wetzel ES were stellar. The principal, Ms. Simmons, and her assistant principal lead and educate these children lovingly and enduringly. Their students are 100% Army (so of course we wove the Army anthem into the script!), and over 90% currently have a parent deployed and in harm’s way.

Debbie Fink plays during the Operation Thanksgiving Eagle Tour at Vogelweh

As Ms. Simmons said (I am paraphrasing), “there’s a specialness to these kids. What they are dealing with is beyond the call of duty. They do their best, and are simply–special.” The assistant principal shared how she feels so privileged to work with them, and to help them with all their individual and collective needs. Looking at the upside, she shared that these are happier times right now, because the majority of their deployed parents are coming home before the New Year.

Yet, I wonder, how does it feel inside a child’s heart to see “all” the other parents come trickling home, when yours does not? Don’t we all remember a time when our parent was the very last to pick us up from school, or didn’t pick us up that time at all? Multiply that by a million, and that’s my civilian guess for how it feels. Add to this the possibilities that such a child might feel jealousy, anger, or resentment for the classmates whose parents DO come home. And top that off with those kids who then may feel badly or ashamed or embarrassed that this is how they feel, when they “should” feel happy for their peers’ long-awaited-for family reunions.

It’s comforting to know that these brave Wexler students are in a school environment that understands them, supports them, comforts them, and stands by them. It’s comforting to know that as Sammy holds the beat of our OTE performance’s music and message in his gentle heart, that he is in a space which will one day soon place drumsticks in his hands. May Sammy’s heart continue to sing; may his soul continue to dance; and may his father soon return home safely to swoop Sammy up and swing his son in his strong, heroic arms. – Debbie Fink, Acclaimed Author, Educator, Speaker & Performer

See more updates from the tour at Debbie Fink’s Facebook Page. Note: the child’s real name was changed to Sammy for reasons of confidentiality.

Retroactive Stop Loss Pay: The Army Perspective

By Major Roy Whitley, Program Manager, Army Retroactive Stop Loss Special Pay Program

Image Courtesy of The U.S. Army's Facebook Page

Perhaps the biggest challenges we’ve faced with this program are identifying and notifying Soldiers and veterans eligible for this pay.  Historically, stop loss has been a force management tool and not tied to compensation, so we did not readily maintain lists of those held under stop loss.  Prior to Congress authorizing this pay, the Army took proactive steps to review personnel records spanning a decade to establish who may be eligible.  While the Army has identified 120,000 who qualify, we have consistently asked anyone who may qualify to submit an application.  We’ve expanded our message to the broadest audience, to ensure those whose extended service may not have been captured in our database are still afforded the opportunity to apply for and receive the benefit they have earned.  For that reason, we jump at opportunities like this one presented by the USO.  Like all outreach activities we undertake, I hope this post reaches those yet to hear about the program, while serving as an alert to apply for the pay and to spread the word.

The Army’s Retroactive Stop Loss Program Management Office has been taking and working claims since October 21, 2009.  To date, over 70,000 Soldiers and veterans have at least initiated a claim.  The Army has completed disbursement of almost $200 million.  Currently, we have many cases to work through over the next few months.  However, as the October 21 deadline approaches, we’d like to see more claims in our system.

Image Courtesy of US Army Retroactive Stop Loss Special Pay Facebook Page

Through our work over the past year, we have learned a great deal about stop loss and the mentality of Soldiers and veterans.  Many of those the Army has contacted directly are skeptical about this pay.  This pay is real.  The Army’s average payout is around $4,000.  Many of those who hear about this program from a friend aren’t sure they qualify.  The Army is encouraging everyone who believes they served under stop loss to submit a claim.  Our case management team will review your submission and make a determination.  If you think you qualify, you should apply.  If you know of someone who may qualify, please tell them to apply.

We have read and heard some of the great stories born from this program.  For many Soldiers and veterans, this is money they never expected to receive for their extended service.   Mathew Ecker, whose son SPC Michael Ecker passed away after separating from the Army, received notification from the Army that his son was eligible for retroactive stop loss pay.  As a beneficiary, our office worked closely with Mr. Ecker to ensure his experience was easy and successful.  He wrote to us, “I just wanted to send you a thank you. Each time I contacted your office concerning stop loss, the staff was pleasant to talk with, patient, and knowledgeable. Their help alone made this process flow without any problems. You are free to share my experience, so others might benefit.”  We endeavor to provide the same level of assistance to all claimants, specifically focusing on those who have been wounded and survivors.

I encourage everyone to visit our official Facebook page—US Army Retroactive Stop Loss Special Pay—to read more about other experiences people have had with the program.  To apply for retroactive stop loss pay and learn more about eligibly requirements you can visit the Army’s site directly at https://www.stoplosspay.army.mil

This blog is part of an ongoing series on Rectroactive Stop Loss Pay.  Learn more by visiting the Department of Defense’s Retroactive Stop Loss Pay Special website today.

We’d like thank Major Roy Whitley for his contribution.  The opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of Major Whitley and do not necessarily reflect those of the USO.

Connecting Military Teens Worldwide

By Vernessa Neu, Founder, The Military Teen Network

The Military Teen Network recently launched MiltaryTeenOnline.com, an interactive website specifically designed for military teens.

Many of the approximately 1.4 million active duty members in the U.S. military and an additional 848,000 members of the reserve have teenagers in their household. These teens not only face the pressures of everyday life of adolescence but they face additional stress factors such as deployments, family separation, and new schools. MilitaryTeenOnline.com is an excellent way to connect these teens to other teens in the same or similar situations.

The Military Teen Network founder Vernessa Neu, 2nd from left, worked directly with Yokosuka-based teens (l-r) Dusty-Lynn Keolanui, Kennethia Smith, and Meghan Pomeroy to create MilitaryTeen.com. (Photo courtesy of Vernessa Neu)

MilitaryTeenOnline.com is an easily accessible resource that provides a variety of opportunities for teens to connect, chat, blog, and share their experiences. Other features on the site include a Military Teen’s Guide to Deployment, moving tips, forums, and duty station ratings from a teen’s perspective.

All teens, including those with parents who are active duty, reserve, and guard members are invited to become a part of the network.  You can follow us on facebook.com/militaryteen and twitter.com/militaryteen.


Join The Military Teen Network for our first virtual roundtable discussion!
Date: Tue, Sept 14, 2010 – 8:00pm-8:45pm EST
Topics: Fast & Fatty (in honor of National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month) and Base Teen Programs
Where: Meet in the MilitaryTeenOnline.com chat room at 8pm.
Please join us & help the community learn more about military teens’ needs.  One participant will walk away with a sponsored gift.

Vernessa Neu, is a Navy Veteran, military spouse, mother, and former military teen. She and her family currently reside in Yokosuka, Japan where Vernessa volunteers her time working with youth in the community.  The opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of Vernessa Neu and do not necessarily reflect those of the USO.

Fort Knox Cartoonist Commemorates Memorial Day and D-Day

by Paul Boscacci, the cartoonist behind Fort Knox:

I was told over and over again that working on a daily comic strip would be challenging. So when I launched “Fort Knox” nationwide in October 2009, I was ready for anything, including the never-ending deadlines and the grueling workload. Or so I thought. I quickly learned that – as a creator of a military family comic strip – there were other things I needed to consider.

In December, I received a letter from a military veteran who asked me why I didn’t acknowledge Veterans Day or Pearl Harbor Day in the strip. Having just launched “Fort Knox”, I had a few weeks of strips that introduced the main characters and – unfortunately – they were pretty much set in stone. The letter weighed on me nonetheless, and I did some research online and found a handful of complaints against another military-focused strip that failed to acknowledge these important holidays.

So I decided to recognize as many military holidays as humanly possible. Yes, I’m a bit obsessive.

That said, I planned on doing something special for Memorial Day and D-Day. For the Memorial Day Sunday comic, I wanted to get away from my usual “cartoony” style and work with someone who could help me produce beautiful, realistic art… and I knew just the person. His name is Norman Felchle and he has worked on Superman, Batman and Spiderman comic books and also created the character designs for the celebrated “American McGee’s Alice” and “James Bond” video games for Electronic Arts. If you’re not familiar with his work, I recommend you visit his website at http://www.normanfelchle.com. After considering a few different directions, we decided to portray a scene from the Omaha Beach landing. The special comic will run in newspapers nationwide on Sunday, May 30th. Just for you, though, we’ve included a “sneak peek” within this blog.

As for commemorating D-Day, I decided to have Wesley Knox, the military brat who closely resembles me at seven years-old, learn about the importance of D-Day. In the story, he must write a report about that momentous day and he ends up interviewing General Wickum who lost his uncle on D-Day. These special comic strips will run from Monday, May 31st to Saturday, June 6th and will conclude with a special Sunday comic on D-day, June 6th. You can view all of the strips (past, present and future) at www.gocomics.com/fortknox and please join the rest of our military family fans on Facebook at www.facebook.com/fortknoxcomic

I am excited to help celebrate the bravery of our soldiers and look forward to many more years of providing any support I can. If you have any suggestions for future storylines, please feel free to write me at pboscacci@yahoo.com Take care!

Cartoonist Paul Boscacci is the son of an Army colonel whose tours of duty included Fort Leavenworth, Fort Jackson and Fort Knox, and who, every morning, liked to say to his fellow soldiers, “It’s a great day to be in the Army.” Boscacci was also the creative mind behind the USO’s Holiday Coloring Sheets and The opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of Paul Boscacci and do not necessarily reflect those of the USO.

The USO Dance That Changed His Life

Today we celebrate Military Spouse Appreciation Day.  And our guest blogger tells the kind of tale that we love at the USO, and it seems especially appropriate with Mother’s Day coming up on Sunday.

Earl Ladewig was a young soldier heading into World War II when a chance encounter at the USO changed his life.  This is his story…

Earl and Freda Ladewig on their wedding day, May 18, 1942.

I was drafted into service on Nov 7, 1941 from Harvey, IL.  I was sent to Cheyenne, Wyo for basic training.  On Jan 1, 1942 I was sent to Lowry AFB, Denver, Co.  The greatest impact that Denver had on me was this:  I rode into town on the Colfax streetcar, and as we passed the capitol building and headed downhill to Broadway there was the City & County building of Denver lit up in all its Holiday splendor.  I had never seen a sight like that before. (Never around Chicago, were I grew up)   About two weeks after my arrival in Denver I read a notice, on the bulletin board, that the USO was sponsoring a Square Dance at the University of Colorado campus near Colorado Blvd.  I had been a square dancer for several years and loved it, and I knew that people who square danced were friendly outgoing people.  The dance was scheduled for 17 January.  I decided to go, and go I did.  During the dance I met 3 sisters who were volunteers for the USO trying to do good for the lonely servicemen.  One sister, “Freda” was exceptionally friendly and I danced almost every dance in their square.

During our talking I learned that the girls were also scheduled to attend ballroom dancing at the old Rainbow ballroom (USO sponsored).  I indicated that I would try to be there also.  I went to the dance (18 January 1942, also my 23rd birthday).  Lo and behold two of the sisters were there but Freda was not.  I was disappointed, because it seemed we were very compatible.   However, Freda had told her sisters that if I was there they were to bring me home.  (The sisters didn’t tell me why Freda wasn’t there.)  When they told me Freda asked them to bring me home, I jumped at the chance.  Turns out Freda had a date and skipped the dance.  (Incidentally I had a girl back home whom I had asked to marry me, but she said we needed to wait until I got back from service.)

So to make a long story short, I started visiting with Freda and her family every night, always had supper with them.  Freda and I became very close friends.  After we became extra close while visiting Cheesman park in April 1942, I asked her to marry me.  She hesitated and so I told her I should think about it.  A week later I asked her again and she said yes. (At this point I did not feel I had a commitment to the girl back home, these were two different personalities and Freda’s by far was most compatible to me.)  At about this time I learned that our company, to which I was assigned at Lowry, was going to be shipped out, had no idea where. (Remember WWII started on December 7, 1941)  Freda set the date to be married on May 18, 1942. (Later I learned it was her mother’s birthday.)  It was such that “We would get married on he 18th if I was still here, otherwise we would wait.”  We did get married on the 18th of May 1942 and I shipped out on the 6th of June 1942. I had a 3-day pass and we spent our honeymoon in Colorado Springs. Our company was sent to Fairbanks Alaska.

Freda and I had nine children, seven of whom are still living.  Freda died in 1996. The 54 years we had together was a wonderful loving experience.  I wish every day that Freda was still with us.   And although I know I am forgetful these days, I can not remember Freda and I ever having an argument or saying cross words to one another.

Our children are grown now, and believe me, they are a true blessing to me at age 91. just as their mother was for 54 years.


Pro vs. GI Joe – Doin’ a Little for Those Who Do a Lot

by Addie Zinone, Co-Founder of Pro vs. GI Joe

I have a love-love relationship with the USO. I love the organization as a soldier who benefits greatly from their programs and services, but I also love the USO because, through a unique and mutually beneficial partnership, my husband and I have seen our vision for connecting troops serving around the world through video games become a reality.

I’ve been in the Army Reserve since 2002. I am a Staff Sergeant assigned to the 222d Broadcast Operations Detachment in Los Angeles and I’ve served two tours of duty in Iraq. It is because of my service that my husband (who doesn’t serve) wanted to give back to those of us in uniform. One day in 2007, just a few months before my second tour began, Greg came up with the idea for Pro vs. GI Joe.

Addie Zinone - Co-founder of Pro vs. GI Joe - set up a web cam to help the troops in Baghdad prepare for the next round. (Photo courtesy of Temple University)

Pro vs. GI Joe is a non-profit organization that sets up real-time video game competitions between professional athletes and celebrities and troops serving all over the world via online gaming. In addition to playing games online, we also invite local troops to attend in-person and when possible, we get the friends and families of the troops participating overseas in on the action. Not only do the troops get to compete against their favorite celebrities and athletes but they also get to chat and talk trash via live webcam feed with them and their family members in attendance. It’s a simple idea that produces amazing results.

The reaction to Pro vs. GI Joe events has been nothing short of amazing. From the troops who participate both overseas and stateside, their family and friends, the athletes and celebrities and the USO Centers around the world, everyone seems to have a great experience. We are connecting troops to their heroes on the gridiron and hardwood – despite the thousands of miles that separate them – and we’re doing it through an activity they love – video games.

We are also making history.

Members of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers play Guitar Hero 5 against troops at the USO Center in Qatar, Nov 09. Family members of the troops participating from Qatar are also on hand for the event at Bucs stadium.

Together, Pro vs. GI Joe and the USO brought online gaming to troops serving in the Middle East for the very first time. Prior to this partnership, online gaming wasn’t available in combat zones. And there has never been anything like Pro vs. GI Joe, a concept that connects soldiers to their communities, in real-time through video games and webcams, from wherever they are stationed in the world. None of this would be possible without the USO and their hardworking and dedicated staff and volunteers who dedicate hours to making these events great for the troops all over the world. To date, we’ve held Pro vs. GI Joe events at USO centers in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait, Dubai, Japan, Korea, Qatar, Germany and of course in various centers here in the states. We’ve connected troops with athletes from the NBA, NFL, MLB, NASCAR, UFC and IRL while also attending the biggest sporting events in the world. What these events do is allow troops to relax and enjoy a few hours of fun while connecting with their family members and talking trash to their athletic heroes. They walk away with an experience only they get because they choose to wear the uniform and serve our country.

While the experience is great for the troops and their families, it’s usually greater for the athletes because they’re truly humbled by the experience. They are amazed that something so little can do so much. Seeing the smiles on the faces of the troops via webcam while they’re playing Reggie Bush and Shaquille O’Neal is pretty gratifying but seeing the tears and laughter when the game-play is over and the family reunions begin is priceless. It’s truly the reason we do what we do and it’s a privilege to work alongside the USO, an organization whose work inspires us, to continue creating life-long experiences for our military men and women serving around the world.

Click here to see the latest installment of Pro vs. GI Joe on G4’s “Attack of the Show.”  The opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of Addie Zinone and do not necessarily reflect those of the USO.