News & Notes from Around the World: Memorial Day Edition

Sather Air Base is a memorial itself, named for Scott Sather who was the first Airman to be killed in action in OIF. The Scott Sather memorial was dedicated last year and this was the first Memorial Day to further honor him and everyone else who has served with the same distinction as Scott Sather.

Baghdad, Iraq – While millions of Americans take a day of from work to reflect and enjoy each others company, the aerial port of Baghdad and the USO, that serves the 1000 passengers a day, were working at full speed. “Mission Critical” is when important work takes priority above all else, but the meaning of this day is too important to over look.

USO Duty Manager, Courtney Haueter, lead the National Moment of Remembrance and the entire aerial port staff, passengers and visitors paused for a full minute at 3:00pm local time. USO customers ceased all calls, IMs, games and movies while the military crew of Sather Air Base paused operations during that time.

Commanding Officer of the 447th, Col Bruce Taylor USAF, led the Memorial Day ceremony and spoke of heroes gone and not forgotten.  Honor Guard for both the Air Force and Army took part in the remembrance and did outstanding work in saluting their brothers in arms.

An essay by Theater of War‘s Bryan Doerries in today’s Washington Post – After a reading of Sophocles’ “Ajax” and “Philoctetes” for members of the Warrior Transition Unit at Fort Stewart, Ga., a soldier approached me. His hands were trembling and he was fighting back tears.

“For a while now, I have been separated from my unit, the guys I fought alongside downrange. Being separated from your unit is like being stripped of your humanity. I think Sophocles wrote these plays to bring soldiers together to restore their humanity.” He leaned closer, his eyes locking with mine. “Without our humanity, none of this means anything.”

I held the soldier’s gaze and shook his hand, thanking him for his comment, which I promised to share with military audiences at performances throughout the United States…

Watching the soldier at Fort Stewart exit the auditorium last month, it suddenly seemed un-coincidental to me that the ancient plays that we were performing for the U.S. military during the ninth year of the war in Afghanistan and so many years into Iraq depicted what happened to the Greek armed forces during the ninth year of the Trojan War. Brig. Gen. Loree Sutton, the visionary leader who made our project possible, has said repeatedly of today’s armed forces: “Never has so great a burden been placed upon the shoulders of so few on behalf of so many for so long.”

We are not a nation at war. We are a nation with a volunteer army at war… Click here to read the full essay.

From Snag Film’s Rick Allen – “For 99% of Americans, Memorial Day is a chance to circle a barbeque grill; for us, it’s about gathering together in a cemetery.” Probably nothing captures the enormous gulf between how veterans and civilians treat Monday’s national holiday than that quick but pointed reminder I heard Wednesday from Paul Rieckhoff.  Paul is the charismatic founder of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) and author of the acclaimed book Chasing Ghosts, about his tour of duty in Iraq.  As most of us celebrate the “official” start of summer this weekend, hopefully the words of Paul Rieckhoff, or the roar of Rolling Thunder, or the quiet comfort that the USO brings every day to service families, will break through our routine.

My generation was the first beneficiary of our modern volunteer armed service, in the sense that no longer would all able-bodied men be expected to spend time in uniform.  The ability to outsource our service keeps us personally untouched by combat, but raises societal issues and comes with countervailing personal trade-offs. Sebastian Junger’s new book War and his companion film Restrepo vividly detail the depth of camaraderie that come from absolute commitment to the safety of your fellow squad members.  Those of us around our family barbeques can instinctively appreciate how common mortal danger binds brothers and sisters-in-arms; our challenge now is to find better ways to hold our veterans close to the whole community and to demonstrate our appreciation for what they’ve given for our freedoms.

IAVA joins many other governmental and non-profit organizations in working on the full range of issues facing today’s returning warriors. At a time when our economy struggles to produce new jobs, an estimated 30% of veterans of our current conflicts are out of work.  The Veterans Administration is more invigorated under Secretary Shinseki than it has been in many decades – but a huge number of vets, particularly the young ones, will never willingly walk into a VA hospital or ask for government help, despite what may be significant need.

Many organizations are hard at work to bridge these gaps. The USO assists service members and their families around the world. IAVA has created an incredible online community of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan operations, and advocates for federal action on jobs, health, education and other pressing vet issues. There are various levels of government that deliver services as well as recreational opportunities to active duty warriors and their families, and veterans.  But more is needed, from our society collectively and each of us individually.

Leon Cooper will be on CNN Monday morning. Leon is 90, a WWII vet living in Los Angeles and working with a consistency and energy of someone in his 20s. That’s how old he was at Tarawa, one of the bloodiest battles in Marine Corps history. Leon returned to that atoll when he learned that the beach that held the bones of his fallen comrades was now a garbage dump for islanders without arable land for alternatives.  His final campaign is captured in the film Return to Tarawa, which you can watch here.  Thanks to Leon’s indomitability, the power of the film, and the tools of SnagFilms, Congress last year directed the Department of Defense to identify the remains on Red Beach and bring them home.  In two months, the DOD teams will wing west to begin a task of memory and responsibility we have deferred for nearly 7 decades.

Kyle Maynard spends significant time working with wounded warriors.  An exceptional athlete honored with an ESPY and a shelf of other awards, best-selling author and motivational speaker, Kyle was born without complete limbs.  His motto, “No Excuses”, completely encapsulates how he lives his life. (A new film about Kyle will air on ESPN in November and you can learn more here.) Not long ago, I spent an afternoon at Ft. Myer, Virginia, with Kyle and a group of Iraq and Afghanistan vets with serious physical injuries resulting from their service.  We gathered around an exercise mat, and Kyle put the six men and one woman through a daunting workout – but from my fly-on-the-wall vantage point, the greatest outcome of the day came from the conversation among the participants.  The service members joining Kyle knew he only had a civilian’s perspective … but they also knew that his physical challenges had been life-long. They had in common much more than what they lacked; each was working every minute to turn loss into motivation, not cause for withdrawal.

We too need to make an effort, each in our own way. Memorial Day provides many such opportunities.  At the very least, it provides the chance for reflection and appreciation. Our founder, Ted Leonsis, coined the term “filmanthropy” to combine the communication power of film with the interactivity of the web, and allow an engaged audience new ways to start a conversation or take an action. We’ve pulled 11 films together from different conflicts and perspectives for Memorial Day – you can watch them from the widget below, or at http://bit.ly/SnagMemorialDay .  Enjoy them alone or with others. And make your Memorial Day into something to remember.

Take Time to Honor the Living, As Well

Center Managers across the Southwest Asia (SWA) region were tasked to come up with unique way of saying thank you to USO Sponsors as part of Operation Thank You. Joe Bowman, Camp LSA Duty Manager, had the idea to create an American flag made of uniforms, soldiers’ patches, and flak jacket material that represents all the service men and women stationed in the SWA region. USO staff, volunteers, and Troops proudly stand with the finished product in December 2009.

by Sloan Gibson, President and CEO of the USO:

Each Memorial Day, American flags around the world are lowered to half-staff. It’s a quiet gesture that reminds us of those former defenders who are no longer with us.

At noon, though, the flags are returned to the top of their poles, symbolizing the continuity of this nation. That gesture is an affirmation that the nation lives on, and is not in mourning.

Symbolism aside, the last Monday in May is the most solemn holiday for most American veterans. The day is celebrated at cemeteries and town squares – at barbecues and baseball games. It is an opportunity to pause for a moment to reflect on the service and sacrifice of millions of Americans who risked their lives to ensure our freedoms. It’s a time for us to issue one more “Thank You” to those who cannot celebrate with us.
Since the last quarter of the 19th Century, that has been the case. Graves are made tidy, and veterans tell their stories to their grandchildren, and the cycle continues in times of war and peace.

For nearly nine years this generation’s service men and women have been going into combat, with predictable costs — many deaths and an astonishing number of life altering injuries that would likely have been fatal just a generation ago. So, I propose that this year as we remember those who have died, we pay additional attention to those who return changed forever.

Of course, I mean no disrespect to those, like my father, we honor on Memorial Day, but each day, I am reminded about the other casualties of combat. When I visit a military hospital, I see young men and women who are facing a life they could not anticipate. I see their wounds and witness their limitless spirit as they work to recover. And, I wonder.

I wonder what will happen when the sergeant leaves the service and security of his surroundings wherever he is recovering, and goes back to a town he left years before. It is very likely that the people in his community haven’t been thinking about Iraq or Afghanistan or the men and women who serve there. How will he be welcomed back?

I wonder about the former helicopter pilot who was shot down and has been learning how to walk again. Does the community she left remember her? Will she be welcomed home not only as a hero, but also as a productive citizen?

This nation has gone through radical changes since the 1960s and 1970s, particularly in how it responds to its troops. For whatever reason, our troops today are accorded the respect they have earned, and do not face the antipathy many Vietnam veterans experienced. That’s a good thing, and it reflects well on Americans.

But one thing is apparent to those of us who deal with our service men and women nearly everywhere they serve. This nation has not come to grips with the fact that hundreds of thousands of their fellow citizens are serving in harm’s way, and sometimes they become a casualty of war.

Those who serve ask little of us. A simple expression of thanks and to be accepted and given the chance to prove their worth is often more than enough. They want to continue to contribute.

So, on this Memorial Day, we honor those no longer with us. But, let’s also take a moment and thank those who do return and offer them our gratitude and the opportunity to have full and productive lives.

This essay is also available online from The Hill.

The Patriotic Six is Back!

It’s that special time of year again when we at the USO salute our men and women in uniform – and all who have served – by celebrating the six weeks (or thereabouts) between Memorial Day and July 4th.  We call it “The Patriotic Six” and this year we have so many ways that YOU can show your support!

  • Check out the website – it’s your one-stop shop for all things Patriotic Six.
  • Grab the widget – get a new patriotic fact every day and share it on all of your social networking sites; there’s even an iPhone App!
  • Add the Twibbon to your Twitter avatar – create a free account and you can position the Patriotic Six logo wherever you like
  • Change your desktop wallpaper – add one of our customized camo backgrounds for work or home computers
  • Fan us on Facebook – we’re looking to reach “60 in 6″ – 60,000 fans in six weeks, that is!  It’s a big goal, but we know we can reach it and show the world how much support the USO has on Facebook!

Finally, we want to let you know that each week during the Patriotic Six we have a fantastic giveaway!  Today we have the DVD of Dear John – just released today – along with USO-branded goodies for one lucky blog reader.  [Please note: this contest has already ended, but we’ll have another great one next week!]

To enter the contest, just leave a comment on today’s blog letting us know how YOU plan to celebrate during the Patriotic Six.  One comment will be selected at random to receive the gift pack.  Sorry, but USO employees and their families are not eligible.

We have many more exiting things in store for your during the next six weeks.  Be sure to bookmark the blog or add it to your RSS feed for all the latest Patriotic Six happenings.

UPDATE: We’ve added the trailer!  There’s still time to comment; we’ll draw the winner on Thursday at Noon EST.
Channing Tatum stars in ‘Dear John,’ a romantic drama about a soldier who falls in love with a conservative college student. Based on the novel by Nicholas Sparks.

more about “dear john“, posted with vodpod

Catch this Sunday’s “Army Wives” Episodes Featuring a USO Concert!

Country music superstar Wynonna Judd has supported the USO for years, including this concert for Troops and their families in 2004. (Photo property of USO Archives)

Happy Armed Forces Day!

It’s a great weekend to celebrate the military and do we have a special treat for you.  Tomorrow night the series “Army Wives” features… a USO concert! From the Army Wives Episode Guide: “Ft. Marshall is buzzing with anticipation of the upcoming USO concert featuring Wynona Judd and Five for Fighting. Pamela throws herself into helping Claudia Joy organize the concert in order to avoid thinking about Chase’s upcoming return. Meanwhile, in Iraq, Joan struggles to keep morale up amongst her troops. The tribe comes together to support and encourage fellow Army Wife Marisol (guest-star Gina Rodriquez) to be honest about her husband’s abusive actions.”

Awesome!  We can’t wait for tomorrow night.  Be sure to tune in on Lifetime at 10 pm et/pt.  Check out a sneak preview below…

Cinco de Mayo in Style!

The USO Center at Fort Belvoir celebrated Cinco De Mayo in style, hosting a lunchtime Cinco De Mayo party. Active duty soldiers, Marines and family members living at Fort Belvoir came by for the festivities. USO staff served up tacos, chips and salsa, and Pina Colada flavored Cotton Candy! The fiesta was complete with piñatas and sombreros!

USO Fort Belvoir Center coordinator, EmilyJane McLoughlin, readies a military child for her shot at the piñata. (USO Photo by Lauren Ross)

Soldiers and marines came out to USO’s Cinco De Mayo party on Fort Belvoir. The food was terrific! (USO Photo by Lauren Ross)

Mother’s Day Across the Miles

The good folks at Baghdad USO have forged a great relationship with Operation Write Home, a volunteer organization that has approximately 2,500 talented crafters across the USA making unique greeting cards for the service members at Sather Air Base in Baghdad.  OWH supplies cards for every occasion, whether Birthday, Anniversary, Miss You – or holidays including Easter, Mother’s Day and St. Patrick’s Day.  Sather AB has received over 600 Valentine’s Day cards and every single one was used!  They were also very fortunate to have one of their volunteers, who happens to be a master woodworker, make a beautiful card rack to display the cards in the reception area.

To commemorate Mother’s Day, Operation Write Home asked Baghdad USO to take pictures of our wonderful troops for their website.  They hope to ensure that all Mothers will receive a card from their service members who are passing through Sather AB.  USO Baghdad recently provided photos that are included in Operation Write Home’s video tribute to Moms everywhere, shown below.

Happy (early) Mother’s Day…we hope you enjoy!