Washington Nationals and USO Kick Off ‘Me & a Friend’ Program for Kids

By Brian Price

Our nation’s “Patriot Six” culminates this July 4th weekend, but appreciation for our troops and their families will continue throughout the baseball season. The Washington Nationals, in conjunction with the USO of Metropolitan Washington, have started a new program that provides military kids free tickets to Sunday’s game when star pitcher, Stephen Strasburg, takes the mound. The Nationals will provide free tickets to thousands of young fans throughout the rest of the season.

Craig Stammen chats with USO Vice President Kevin Wensing (r).

USO Vice President Kevin Wensing is especially pleased that the Nationals have taken this initiative. “We hope this is just the beginning and that other pro teams take a page out of the Nationals’ book and get involved with military family and friends across the country,”

In anticipation of Sunday’s festivities, Nationals players and their manager, Jim Riggleman, offered their thoughts on the meaning of the holiday and the military families who will be coming out to the ballpark.

BP: What does the “Me & a Friend” Program mean to you?

Jim Riggleman: “I’m so proud of every soldier for defending us. I think what the troops do is the most important thing that anybody can do for his country. Playing baseball pales in comparison to what the troops do. We provide entertainment. However, I’m honored that we can be the first team to get ‘Me and a Friend’ started. For a young person to have a loved one in combat is an unimaginably difficult thing. If baseball can give them a few moments of comfort than that’s more satisfying than anything I can think of. I’m excited for them to come out to the ballpark.”

BP: What’s special about playing in our nation’s capital?

Ryan Zimmerman, 3B, #11: “Washington D.C. is a great patriotic city to live in and play baseball in, especially during July 4th weekend. We play within view of the capital building, which is a special thing. We’re always trying to do things to stay connected to the troops and to show our appreciation. I know the whole club is really excited to kick off the ‘Me and a Friend’ program. Everyday we’re thankful for what our troops do. We live in a great country.”

J.D. Martin, SP, #51: “One of my favorite moments each home game is when we welcome home troops [in the 3rd inning]. They get put up on the jumbo screen and they always receive a standing ovation. It’s great getting a chance to acknowledge them.”

BP: What does this holiday mean to you?

Craig Stammen, SP, #35: “The only reason I’m able to do what I do is because of the troops. For most Americans July 4th means fireworks and barbeques, but it’s like any other day for a soldier in that they’re still risking their lives for the independence that we civilians are celebrating. I appreciate all soldiers and can’t thank them enough.”

(L to R) Nyjer Morgan, Ryan Zimmerman, Josh Willingham, and Adam Dunn observe the National Anthem.

BP: Do you have any friends in the service?

Riggleman: “I just returned a letter to a veteran who was a ball boy for me when I was managing in the minors. He served in the U.S. Marines for 20 years. His first passion in life was serving this country. His second is baseball, so after having served he’s back and I’m trying to help find him a job in baseball.”

Stammen: “My college roommate enlisted in Officer Candidate School about two years ago. After, he spent a year in Afghanistan and now he’s at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. I try to speak with him as often as I can and keep him close to my heart.”

“The thing about him, and really any soldier, is that they’ll never let on to how tough it is in combat. We’ll play on a hot day and the first thing we do after the game is shower. He’s in combat, it’s 40 degrees hotter and he might not be able to shower for days at a time.”

Martin: “A good family friend, Mike Hill, was in Iraq and he was responding to a roadside bomb. He was helping to pick up a wounded soldier on a stretcher when a landmine went off. It killed several troops around him and he was seriously injured. I’m from a small town, so that’s something that everybody heard about. We were just glad he made it out alive.”

Jim Riggleman summed up perfectly: “Our troops provide safety for us and some of them don’t come back. As Americans, that’s something we need to always appreciate especially when we’re celebrating our independence. Freedom’s not free and they’re the ones paying the price.”

The Washington Nationals and the USO of Metropolitan Washington have teamed up to give military kids the opportunity to enjoy a baseball game with their friends through the “Me and a Friend” program, which formally kicks off on July 4 when the Nationals host the New York Mets in Washington, D.C at 1:35 p.m..

Tickets for the July 4th game are available on a first come first serve basis through USO-Metro’s TicketLine program and must be picked up at the USO office at 228 McNair Road Bldg 405 Fort Myer, VA 22211.  Military families can also visit http://www.usometro.org/tickets to check on availability.

Duty, Honor, Country: West Point Ideals Guide Today’s USO

by Kevin Wensing, VP of Executive Office at the USO, for ASSEMBLY and the West Point Association of Graduates:

Duty, Honor and Country. Those words are the guiding principles for every member of the Long Gray Line. They also ring true for the USO, an organization established by President Franklin Roosevelt and Congress on the eve of America’s entry into World War II. These principles continue to guide the 22nd president of the USO, Sloan Gibson ’75. For Gibson, when duty, honor, country are combined they translate into trust, which is the foundation of effective leadership in any situation.

For the USO, an organization that is an American icon, trust is the key element that draws troops and their families to the 140 USO Centers around the world. In 2011, the USO will mark 70 years of service to America, and, since its founding in 1941, nearly every man or woman who has worn a military uniform has been helped or entertained by the USO and its thousands of volunteers in some way. Since coming aboard in 2008, Gibson and the USO have been working hard to adapt to meet the needs of today’s military and the “new normal” of repeated deployments to combat zones and to humanitar- ian missions around the world.

The USO was chartered by Congress to “lift the spirits” of America’s men and women in uniform. That prime directive still applies as the USO asks, “What, if we could do it, would be truly special for our troops and their families?” In the past year the USO has done a number of truly special things for our warriors and military families, from the front lines in Afghanistan and Iraq to places like Ft. Hood, TX, where the USO Center commenced 24-hour operations after the tragic shootings in November 2009. The USO is also with the families of America’s fallen every day at Dover Air Force Base, where a beautiful new center was built for families who come to witness the dignified transfer of their loved one when they return home for the final time.

Army Cheerleaders are joined by Steve Hodges of ATT (far left) and USO president Sloan Gibson ’75 (far right, 2nd row) at the 2009 Army-Navy game. (Photo courtesy of ASSEMBLY)

Last year the USO recorded more than seven million visits and produced hundreds of celebrity performances, bringing smiles to the faces of our troops and their families. Recently new centers opened in Landstuhl and Grafenwoehr, Germany, Osan and Daegu, South Korea, Camp Sather and Basrah, Iraq, Ft. Carson, Ft. Drum, Ft. Bragg, Ft. Benning, Columbia, and Dover, and others, in places like Kuwait, Dubai, St. Louis and Houston, were renovated.

Staying in touch with family is the number one morale issue, and that’s why the USO provided more than one million free phone calls home from its new private telephone network in Afghanistan and Iraq, while continuing to distribute hundreds of thousands of free calling cards. Connecting deployed troops with their children is a high priority, and last year the USO sent some 50,000 United Through Reading recordings and books to military kids. Last year, 400,000 USO Care Packages and 300 USO2GO bundles, that in- clude entertainment and gaming systems, were sent to forward de- ployed troops, enabling them to set up their own entertainment areas.

The USO has focused on serving those who need help the most. At the very top of the list are those serving in harm’s way; our wound- ed, ill and injured, their families, and the families of the fallen. Today’s USO has delivered an unprecedented level of support towounded warriors and families through its own programs and by building strong partnerships with other organizations. In 2010, the USO will break ground on its most ambitious undertaking as con- struction begins on two new USO Centers, one at the new Army Hospital at Ft. Belvoir, VA, and at the other at the new Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, MD. They will be dedicated to serving our wounded, their families and those who care for them. These centers were inspired by the success of the USO Cen- ter at the Army’s regional medical facility in Landstuhl, which has won high praise from its users and from the Pentagon. The Army’s Warrior and Family Support Center at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, built with donations from the local community and gifted to the Army, was another model that guided the USO.

Gibson describes these centers as, “Gifts from the American peo- ple. Our wounded warriors and their families deserve our best.” Rick Cantwell ’75, President of Odell International and a classmate of Gibson, said, “Sloan is a close and trusted friend who has taken up the challenge of serving the men and women of our armed forces and their families at one of the most critical times in our nation’s history. The USO has made a remarkable difference in the lives of our troops and has adapted to meet the needs of our wounded, ill and injured and their families with the two new USO Centers at Bethesda and Ft. Belvoir. These centers will help those who need USO support the most, and at a critical time in their lives.” Cantwell added, “This ability to adapt to the ever changing needs of those who serve our country is what has made the USO a trusted friend.”

As an additional 30,000 troops surge to Afghanistan, the USO continues to find ways to do even more for those serving in harm’s way and for their families at home.

New USO Centers will soon open in Kandahar, Ft. Campbell, Ft. Riley, Ft. Bliss, Ft. Hood, Richmond, Phoenix and Las Vegas, with renovations planned for centers in Japan, Qatar, San Antonio and McChord AFB. The USO also will continue to send hundreds of performers and celebrities to let our troops know that the American people appreciate their service and sacrifice. The USO has always relied upon the goodness and generosity of the American people to accomplish its mission, and for seven decades it has had their steady support. The ongoing requirements of two wars and the pressing needs of our wounded and their families will require the USO to find additional resources to build, operate and sustain the new centers at Ft. Belvoir and Walter Reed hospitals and support other programs for our wounded and their families.

These are challenging times, and the support of the American people is more important than ever. Gibson says, “People often ask why we need a USO. Shouldn’t the government be doing all this for our troops? Well, the government does a lot, but this is different. This is the American people saying thank you and doing something special for our troops and their families.” With trust in the American people, and the trust of the brave men and women who serve, the USO remains committed to continuing the mission that began al- most 70 years ago. For more information on the USO and its programs please visit their website.

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!”