Stockings in Southwest Asia

By John Hanson, Senior Vice President, USO

Every year, the USO’s direct mail campaign includes an appeal that carries the message, “There are no stockings in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Well, of course, there probably ARE stockings there. I can report to you that there are inflatable Santa-in-a-Sleigh yard decorations there. Today’s troops do what American troops at war have always done. They do their best to make their situations as home like as possible.

But, they aren’t home.

These brave men and women are anywhere BUT home, working over every holiday to keep us safe and to secure a nation half way around the world. And, Americans send them things to let them know we honor that sacrifice. They’ll get cakes and candy and the kinds of things we put in stockings, even if the troops don’t have a stocking handy.

Several years ago, I was on a USO holiday tour hosted by the Sergeant Major of the Army. The tour lasted ten days or so, and we were going to arrive home on Christmas Eve. The tour was exhausting. We stopped at Balad, Iraq, and when we walked backstage during the sound check, we noticed that there were small stockings on the wall. Nurses at the military hospital there bought the stockings, wrote the performers’ names in glue and glitter and put a single candy cane in each one. I will never forget the looks on the faces of each person, nor will I forget the glee and wonder each expressed at the thought of someone taking the time to say, “Merry Christmas” in that way. Stockings have power.

New Rules for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

From the desk of John Hanson:

For more than a generation, combat veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder often found themselves arguing with the Department of Veterans Affairs about the existence of their very real disability.  It was often a case of both sides having the facts right, but arguing with an enormous bureaucracy doesn’t always go well.

The VA is mandated to rate disabilities and compensate veterans for them.  Sometimes it’s easy – a veteran shows up with a missing limb and a Purple Heart, the case is pretty easy to make.  However, some wounds are not so obvious.

For decades, veterans have had difficulty connecting the dots between exposure to a combat trauma and their disabilities.  This is not an example of a standoff between a deserving claimant and hide-bound government workers.  Sometimes VA just gets it wrong, but much of the time there’s a problem with a veterans military records.

Korean War veterans salute the American flag during a ceremony at the Pentagon marking the 60th anniversary of the start of the Korean War, June 24, 2010. (Army photo by D. Myles Cullen)

There have been efforts in the past to make the connection easier.  For example, the receipt of a Purple Heart or a valor ribbon or a combat action badge and its equivalents help to make the case between exposure to combat and trauma.

But, the older the case, the harder it is to justify.  If a veteran’s service didn’t include direct combat, but the horror of its aftermath, proving a claim for PTSD can be a challenge.  At times, it seems that having to deal with the paperwork might drive people closer to the brink than the actual stressors they were exposed to.  That caused delays  — sometimes decades-long delays.  For PTSD and traumatic brain injury, justice delayed really can be justice denied.

It is not uncommon for these veterans to lose their jobs or their families.  They might resort to self-medicating with drugs and alcohol.  Those results might well have been different if the process were easier.

The military has attempted to make it easier for these “invisible” injuries to be documented.  Interviews with troops in the field are intended to document exposure to combat, combat trauma and explosions.  Sometimes those report were matched with troops’ medical records.  Sometimes they weren’t.  To complicate things further, troops were not always candid with their interviewers, because they didn’t want to risk being separated from their comrades.

The VA’s New Approach

The government’s new rules for PTSD should make the claims process as simple and straightforward as it can be.  If your doctor verifies your symptoms and your records show you were in the war, the claim will likely be allowed.  That’s the way it should be.

I know there are critics who will say that some veterans will attempt to scam the system.  Maybe, but those cases are almost always found out.  The greater danger is that the system stays the way it is – putting an unreasonable burden on veterans to prove their case and hope for the best.

We owe troops more than their support while they’re in uniform.  We have to recognize that sometimes the things we ask them to do can harm them in ways they cannot imagine.  And we need to make sure they are able to recover and reintegrate after they leave the military.  It’s what a great nation does.

For more information, please visit www.va.gov or call the VA’s toll free benefits number at 1-800-827-1000.

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.

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]

4Troops on QVC Today! At Noon!

Your new favorite band – 4Troops – will be performing LIVE on QVC fromm noon – 1pm (ET) on the show Q Check.  They’ll be singing their first single, “For Freedom,” as well as other selections.  Senior Vice President of Communications John Hansen first visited the group a few weeks ago.  Some thoughts below…

4TROOPS vocalists Daniel Jens, David Clemo, Meredith Melcher and Ron Henry perform aboard the USS Intrepid in New York City during the Monday night taping of a PBS television special to be aired in June. The former Soldiers honed their craft in Army Entertainment Division programs run by the Army Family, Morale and Recreation Command. 4TROOPS self-entitled debut album is scheduled to be released April 28. (Photo by Tim Hipps, FMWRC Public Affairs)

The 4Troops adventure began for real tonight on the USS Intrepid in New York City.  The four singers who comprise 4Troops are veterans of the war in Iraq.

Before we go further, some full disclosure.  Some of the proceeds from the sale of the group’s new CD will benefit the USO, the Iraq, Afghanistan Veterans of America and the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund.  It was a very generous offer made by the group’s management.  But, there are other reasons to support 4Troops, and the USO (and I imagine the other beneficiaries as well) would have been on board with 4Troops without any incentive other than supporting the efforts of these four veterans.

DON’T REPEAT OUR PAST MISTAKES

As a Vietnam veteran, I don’t think anyone would blame me for wondering when the other shoe would drop when it comes to troop support.  It hasn’t happened, which is gratifying as a veteran and an employee of an organization that relies on the public’s ongoing generosity.  If it were not for the continued support the USO receives from individuals and our great corporate partners. (By the way, welcome to our great friends at Frito-Lay, our newest strategic corporate partner.  The Tostidos Bowl was great fun)

The public is smarter than it was a little more than a generation ago.  Our donors span political ideology – sometimes it seems like we’re the last of the red-hot non-partisans.  Maybe it’s because the military is completely voluntary.  Even though 18-year-old males have to register with the Selective Service, there’s no chance of a draft in the foreseeable future.  Everyone I talk to think this has made the military better.  The fact that it, too, is smarter than the military of the past is one thing.  What’s great to see is troops completely committed to their mission.  They’re working at a job they ASKED for, and that makes a difference.

IS PAST REALLY PROLOGUE?

There are somewhere between 1 million and 2 million active duty, National Guard and reserve troops in uniform.  At best, that means that less than 1 percent of our fellow Americans are toting the load for the rest of us.  (The IAVA effectively reminds of that fact all the time, and bless them for that)

Upside – we have a great military, dedicated to their mission and focused on their goals.  They’ll make great employees for someone someday.

Downside – Many Americans say they support the military, but they appear to be doing it without thinking about the service and sacrifice of members of the military and their families.  Out of sight out of mind?  Maybe, probably not.  Americans are good and generous people.  We all have a zillion things on our minds (groceries, yard work, who walked the dog last?), so if something isn’t in our face or on our growing list of  “must do’s,’ we can’t be bothered.

SOMETIMES ONE ANWER SOLVES TWO QUESTIONS

Or, we can blame the fact that there’s no draft.

Inside this issue are many things to worry about.  One is that the lack of a universal commitment to do something (join the Marines, work for the Peace Corps, volunteer for a cause) disconnects us.  Many of us really are bowling alone.

Sadly, what we hear beneath the near universal support for troops is something more fundamentally disturbing.  “Look, this isn’t MY war.”  “This is something the government started and will have to end.  It’s just a money pit, and I can’t do anything about it.”  “Sure, I support them, but they volunteered.  They aren’t my problem.”

Okay, there’s an implicit and explicit contract Americans enter with every man and woman who volunteers to defend us.  Most of the time, our military is no closer to conflict than live fire training sessions in a desert somewhere.  But, when the nation calls on them, it’s really calling on all of us.

No, the military doesn’t call on fat old men like me.  I’d need help stepping out of a Blackhawk, and you can forget about any “jumping out with weapons and pack” foolishness.  That’s how it has been, and will always be … Healthy young people step forward generation after generation to take care of the rest of us.

I’ve lived long enough to give up my fantasies of future heroic service.  But, I have not given up hope that my fellow citizens know who saves their bacon every day in places most of can’t spell.  That’s what’s important.

I DID HAVE A POINT WHEN I STARTED

And, that’s why the USO supports 4Troops. Wherever they go to perform, they will remind people that they have returned from a war.  Just as they were among our best ambassadors around the world, their new mission is to represent their brothers and sisters who face harm and uncertainty and separation from families every day.

With each passing day, the current conflicts become remote notions for new people in our country.

I just figured out that 20-year-olds were farther from my war than I was removed from World War I when I was born.

The difference is that our parents faced and survived a depression and a world war in their own ways.  And THEIR parents faced and survived the first real world war.  Each generation came back to build a prosperous country, expanding opportunities for their fellow citizens. – sometimes far too late, but the wheel turned and more of us shared in the dream of this country.

This generation of troops is colorblind.  We can only hope it is as gender neutral as we would all want, and as blind to every prejudice that creeps in from time to time.

The beauty of focus on a mission is that the mission is what’s important; not the self-important ramblings of talking nitwits on TV.  Or me.

So, hats off to 4Troops.  See them when they’re in your town.  By their CD and teach your children that service does matter.