8 Ways the USO Connects Troops To Home

A service member uses the internet at the USO.

From the moment they step into boot camp to the time when they transition to civilian life, troops rely on the USO to help them stay connected to their to friends and family. Here’s eight of the ways the USO does it.

1. Getting troops online: Free Internet access is one of the most popular services at USO centers today. While some USO centers offer computers for troops to use, nearly all of them offer free WiFi for people who bring their own devices. Even our Mobile USO units, like the ones we sent to Brooklyn to comfort troops cleaning up after Superstorm Sandy, are WiFi-enabled so troops serving in remote locations can get online.

2. Skyping into the delivery room: Did you know that the USO helps expecting military dads Skype into the delivery room for their baby’s birth, even if they’re abroad? Marine Capt. Nick Whitefield experienced this USO service first-hand when he watched his wife Laura deliver the couples’ second child, Ethan Whitefield, via a USO-provided Skype connection at Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan.

“The fact that I could be there, electronically, over Skype was huge,” Nick said. “It was great. It was a phenomenal experience.”

A troop makes a call from the USO in Bagram, Afghanistan. USO photo by Dave Gatley

3. Free phone calls home: In 2003, the USO launched Operation Phone Home to provide troops with free phone cards so they can call their loved ones at no cost — even when they’re in remote locations. Some USO centers abroad also offer troops access to a private phone network so they can call home on a safe, secure and reliable line inside the center.

One of these free phone calls even helped a new dad hear his baby girl’s first cries in 2006.

“The USO made that call possible for me,” said former Marine Alexander Carpenter. “And to this day I have never said thank you. … Thank you USO.”

4. Keeping story time alive: Thanks to the USO partnership with United Through Reading, deployed troops can record themselves reading a storybook at a USO center and send the DVD recording back home for their children to watch and digitally connect with them in their absence.

Navy Lt. Matthew Stroup records himself reading a book to his children during a United Through Reading event in Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of Matthew Stroup

Navy Lt. Matthew Stroup records himself reading a book to his children. Photo courtesy of Matthew Stroup

While preparing for a deployment form Japan to the Middle East in 2012, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Victor Glover told his squad about the United Through Reading program and received an overwhelming number of requests to participate. He even recorded stories for his own children.

“It was important. They really got a kick out of being able to see me,” Glover said. “At the end of the recordings, I said a message to them. I used each of their names and I said something to the effect of ‘I love you, be good, be supportive to your mom and goodnight’ because I imagined they’d do the books right before bedtime.”

5. Giving the gift of gaming: Video games are one of our younger service members’ favorite ways to unwind. That’s why most USO centers have gaming stations featuring popular video games like “Call of Duty” and “Halo.” At some centers, service members can even play the games against friends and family around the globe online in real time.

But troops aren’t always stationed near brick-and-mortar USO centers. With that in mind, the USO developed the Mobile Entertainment Gaming System (MEGS) so service members can enjoy video games no matter their location.

6. Serving up comfort foods from home: Sometimes, all it takes to make service members feel connected to home is taste of their favorite foods. That’s why USO patrons can always find a variety of snack, drink and meal options at centers around the world. Some centers, like USO Great Lakes, provide a free, home-cooked meals for troops, while others, like many Southwest Asia centers, always seem to be churning out comforting sweet treats, like homemade ice cream.

A Halloween/Thanksgiving USO Holiday Box from 2011.

A Halloween/Thanksgiving USO Holiday Box from 2011.

7. Bringing the holidays to troops abroad: Being deployed during a special holiday can make troops feel even further from home. That’s why many USO centers host a number special parties and events around those red calendar days.

Troops in remote areas far from a USO center can even get in on the fun, too, thanks to the USO Holiday Boxes program. These special seasonal boxes, filled with games, decorations and other festive supplies are designed to help service members celebrate the year’s special days in any location. There are four seasonal boxes units can request throughout the year, including a Halloween/Thanksgiving box that helped a handful of service members have a spooky Halloween back in 2011.

8. Welcoming troops home: Even though a homecoming is already a joyful occasion for military families, the USO has a history of stepping in to make the day even more memorable. From helping arriving troops freshen up before reuniting with their loved ones to coordinating surprise homecomings like this, this, and this, the USO there to celebrate military families finally reconnecting after a long deployment apart.

USO Operation: That’s My Dress! and Sherri Hill Create Cinderella Moments for Jacksonville Military Teens

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JACKSONVILLE, Florida–It was an afternoon filled with fairytale moments and Cinderella transformations.

Just in time for the holidays, USO Operation: That’s My Dress! gave 400 Jacksonville-area military teens day filled with glamour, pampering and fun while they each selected a formal dress designed by Sherri Hill.

“We hope they’re thrilled,” Hill said. “Some girls have never tried on a dress like this. So it’s almost like playing dress-up”

In addition to leaving with a new gown, teens also received Stella & Dot jewelry, L’Oreal make-up and hair products and other beauty items to complete their outfit. Teens could even get their hair and make-up done as well as consult with celebrity stylists and pageant contestants about their new look.

“My biggest wish is that these women leave feeling empowered, that they feel like they can do anything and accomplish anything they want to,” said Ray Kennedy, Vice President of Programs for USO of Metropolitan New York. “I want them to feel like they are rock stars and whatever dream they have, it can be attained.”

Before the beautification process, teens also enjoyed a fashion show featuring Miss USA and Miss Teen USA state titleholders, as well as a performance by the USO Show Troupe.

But that’s not all.

To help the entire family get in on the fun, the Greater Jacksonville Area USO expanded USO Operation: That’s My Dress! to include the entire family Homecoming Football Party, including a tailgate, a football game viewing and giveaways for the whole family courtesy of the Jacksonville Jaguars, ESPN and L’Oreal.

Why I Volunteer: Suzy Hicks – USO Fort Drum, N.Y.

The USO is highlighting its volunteers from around the world to mark National Volunteer Week, which runs April 21-27. We asked a few of them to tell us why they give their time to the USO. Here is a reply from Suzy Hicks, a former service member, combat veteran and the current USO Volunteer of the Quarter for the Continental United States Region:

Volunteering with the USO Fort Drum is a fun and enjoyable way to give back to our service members who give so much of themselves every day.

VolBlog_FortDrum

USO Fort Drum volunteer Suzy Hicks, center, is a former soldier who did four combat deployments. USO photo

As a prior service member, I know firsthand the value that the USO has to the troops. From a comfortable place to grab a snack or a cup of coffee on base, at an airport, or even in deployed locations, the USO volunteers can be counted on for a smile and a friendly hello. Our mission is to lift the spirit of America’s troops and their families, and that is exactly what we do at the USO Fort Drum.

The family of volunteers at USO Fort Drum is made up of civilians, family members, veterans and even soldiers who work together to keep the center running smoothly six days a week while operating numerous other events we have going at any given time. I enjoy working with my fellow volunteers towards our goal of putting a smile on our soldiers’ faces. We have so many volunteers who selflessly give hours of their time each week to be there for our troops and their families.

Perhaps the most rewarding mission that I have had the opportunity to be a part of is Here When They Land. As a USO volunteer, I am able to be one of the first people to welcome our brave heroes back from deployment. After a long journey back to the states, these soldiers are always happy to see us with our fresh hot coffee and snacks. It is an honor to personally welcome home and thank our troops for a job well done. I can’t think of a better organization to be a part of!

–Suzy Hicks, USO Fort Drum volunteer

Fort Drum 3rd BCT Homecoming

On Jan. 21, 2010, the USO welcomed home Fort Drum’s 3rd BCT in style after a yearlong deployment to Afghanistan.  Nearly 800 soldiers and their loved ones were treated to an evening of food, entertainment and a special performance by the Fort Drum Army band.  Comedians Steve Burr and Dan Liberto brought laughs and smiles, with Johnny Spezzano of The Border 106.7 (WBDR-FM) and Whirlin’ Disc DJ’s keeping people on their feet.  The event was made possible by Alfred Weissman, longtime USO supporter and New York businessman.  Welcome home!

Soldiers relax upon returning home (USO Photo by Jason B. Cutshaw)

Soldiers relax upon returning home (USO Photo by Jason B. Cutshaw)

A Fort Drum Band drummer entertains during the event (USO Photo by Jason B. Cutshaw)

Delicious food made homecoming extra special for those returning from deployment (USO Photo by Jason B. Cutshaw)

Comedian Dan Liberto cracks 'em up during dinner (USO Photo by Jason B. Cutshaw)

There to show support were Col. David B. Haight, 3rd BCT commander, with Mr. and Mrs. Weissman, Karen Clark and Lt. Col. Jeffrey Abbott (USO Photo by Jason B. Cutshaw)

A 3rd BCT Soldier cuts loose on the dance floor with his son (USO Photo by Jason B. Cutshaw)

Comedian Steve Burr takes the stage and the laughs continue (USO Photo by Jason B. Cutshaw)

The Weissmans with the Haights and Karen Clark - thanks for making this possible! (USO Photo by Jason B. Rickshaw)