Fighters in the Ring, Heroes on the Ground

In March 2011, a group of boxers set out to Kuwait and Iraq on their first USO tour.  Among them were Olympian and boxing legend Oscar De La Hoya and up-and-coming Golden Boy boxers Adrien Broner, Danny Jacobs and Seth Mitchell.  This band of boxers toured 8 bases and visited with thousands of troops as part of their first USO tour experience at installations like Camp Arifjan, Command Operating Base Basra, Camp Victory, Camp Liberty, Joint Security Station (JSS) Loyalty and JSS Justice.

Oscar De La Hoya speaks to U.S. troops serving in Kuwait while on his first USO tour to the Middle East March 10, 2011. De La Hoya was joined by up-and-coming boxers Adrien Broner, Seth Mitchell, and Danny Jacobs (background left to right). (USO Photo/Steve Manuel)

Along for the journey were HBO producer Scott Boggins and cinematographer Thom Stukas, who had worked together previously on the Emmy Award-winning “24/7 Penguins/Capitals: Road to the Winter Classics,” and me.  Yes, that’s right me! And like everyone else, this was my first USO tour.  My role was to serve as liaison between the HBO film crew and the military officials on the ground, and while that may not sound too exciting, it actually turned out to be the experience of a lifetime.

As part of our week in theater, we met service men and women from all over the United States.  The fighters signed autographs and hosted boxing clinics, which gave our troops the chance to pound fists with some of boxing’s greatest athletes.  And as we traveled from base to base we heard over and over how grateful troops were for the touch of home the visit brought.

But at the end of the week-long adventure it was the tour participants who walked away feeling humbled and grateful for the opportunity to spend time with troops serving on the frontlines.  When boxing legend De La Hoya returned to the states, he talked about his experience on a USO tour,

“Hearing their stories and seeing what they go through on a daily basis has changed my life.  The opportunity to see how our troops live and understand their ability to be ready for anything at a moment’s notice showed me what it means to be truly brave.”

I watched as the boxers signed autographs for countless troops, shared meals with them and just listened as they told their stories of life in the military and the families that awaited their return.  It was clear that what our troops missed most was a connection to home and by sharing their stories with us, knowing that in a few more days we’d be headed stateside, it was like they were sending their stories back with us.  It was enough to humble even the biggest of giants.

Olympic gold medalist and former 10-time world champion, Oscar De La Hoya (right), spars with Army CWO-2 Lisa Buckley of the 36th Infantry Division serving in Basra, Iraq, Friday, March 11, 2011. The boxing legend is in the region as part of his first USO tour to the Middle East. De La Hoya is joined by up-and-coming boxers Adrien Broner, Danny Jacobs, and Seth Mitchell. (USO Photo by Steve Manuel)

But it wasn’t just De La Hoya who was left with a profound sense of awe for the service men and women who put their lives on the line on a daily basis.  Heavyweight Seth Mitchell said:

“When I spoke to some of the soldiers, they told me that they work twelve to sixteen hours a day, six or seven days a week.  Hearing about their dedication and the sacrifices they make actually boosted my morale.  It’s a great honor to know that these men and women are serving to protect us.”

These boxers aren’t just showing their appreciation with words.  In fact, Broner – who is the World Boxing Organization’s current superfeather weight champion – has taken it one step further.   He recently trained, as part of the 2012 USA Boxing National Championships, alongside troops at Fort Carson, Colorado Springs, Colo., stepping in the ring with some of the fiercest competitors around.

Broner, who will be featured on this Saturday’s broadcast of HBO’s “Boxing After Dark,” will defend his title against fellow boxer Eloy Perez.  HBO will feature footage from last year’s USO tour to the Middle East as part of the broadcast. Tune in to HBO this Saturday, February 25th at 10 PM (EST) to learn more about Broner’s USO tour experience or watch the video on HBO.com. It’s a match I won’t want to miss! – Sharee Posey, USO Communications Specialist

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The USO <3s Paul Wall

Paul Wall performs during his 2009 USO Tour at the Boardwalk at Kandahar Air Base, Afghanistan.

When asked to think of USO entertainers, many people imagine Bob Hope or, more recently, country music superstars such as Toby Keith. Grammy-nominated rapper Paul Wall may be less expected, but, having recently come back from his 5th USO tour to the Middle East, is definitely one of the biggest supporters of the USO and our nation’s troops!

How did you get started touring with the USO?

There was a guy in Texas, his name is Mattress Mack and he owns a huge furniture store in Houston and he did a lot of events and stuff for the USO and he suggested I go out on a tour. And then my good friend Jamie Kennedy and I went out on a USO variety type show. He did stand-up and I performed for troops. It was a great experience and I really appreciated the opportunity to perform for troops.

What was your most memorable experience over the years?

The thing that sticks out the most is one time in Afghanistan, there was so much activity in the air terminals and we ended up getting stuck there. Our USO tour manager stayed up all night trying to arrange a way for us to get out, if he hadn’t done that we may have been stuck there for more than just a day. The whole time I was thinking about my family and getting home to them and I knew that this was nothing compared to what the troops must feel. I was only away from my family for a week but these guys are gone for months and a year at a time, I could only imagine how long an extra day might feel to them, if they were trying to get home and something like this happened. It just made me appreciate them even more for all of their hard work and sacrifice.

Hip-hop artist Paul Wall brings members from the 380th Expeditionary Wing on stage during his USO concert on Jan. 18.

How have things changed since your first USO tour?

With the drawdown in Iraq this time I had the chance to visit different areas of the Middle East. We Went to Kuwait, Djibouti and an undisclosed location in the Middle East. I almost experienced kind of a role reversal in Djibouti because many of the troops there had never been to Iraq or Afghanistan and they were asking me questions about what it was like over there. It really just made me realize how versatile our troops are and even though they may not be serving in theater they are still sacrificing time with their family, friends and loved ones and that they care about their fellow troops who are on the frontlines.

If you could say one thing to the men and women serving this country what would it be?

Thank you and I’ll see you when you get back or on my next USO tour!

Wall, whose latest album “Politics as Usual” was released last year, says, “My family is the most important thing to me and being apart from them, for any amount of time, is always hard. I can’t imagine how it must be for our troops. Most of them haven’t seen their family in months, that’s why I make it a point to go on tour with the USO whenever I can. Our troops need to know that we appreciate them.”

See images from his recent tour full of meeting the troops and five performances at USO.org.

Letters Back Home

Sometimes it’s easy to forget about all the small moments that add up to a great USO experience, so we love getting notes like this from deployed service men and women.

If you or someone you know is deploying overseas, check out the full range of services we offer for Troops and their families.  Not sure where a USO Center is located?  Check out our Locations Directory and find one near you today!

News & Notes from Around the World

Kuwait – The different units assigned to Camp Ali Al Salem started a Softball League and the USO sponsored their T-Shirts.  Thomas Lee, a Duty manager at AAS, coordinated the all the logistics to make it happen.

Each team came up with a design and the USO got the shirts made in Kuwait City. The USO logo was placed on each shirt to help promote the USO and to make it all seem as real as possible. The Softball League was created to unite the units and as a way to help boost service members’ morale.

Players get ready to hit the diamond as part of the newly formed softball league in Kuwait.

Stuttgart, Germany – On Friday June 4 2010, USO Stuttgart partnered with FMWR, AUSA and other local organizations to welcome home the 554 MP Co after a one year deployment in Afghanistan.  The USO Mobile Canteen served up hot dogs, the local American Legion grilled up hamburgers and pork steaks that were donated by the VFW.  USO Stuttgart volunteers cooked up sides and  salads, while the Center provided the desserts and cake.  A disc jockey played music and a bouncing castle and inflatable jousting ring provided entertainment for the kids.  In addition, USO Stuttgart raffled off four free entry registrations for our 19th Annual Golf Tournament in August, as well as amusement park tickets.  We take great pride in serving those who continue to serve our great nation!

A USO banner is the perfect way to welcome home Troops returning from Afghanistan!

Kuwait – At Buehring sometimes we have the opportunity to do something a little out of the ordinary. A couple months ago someone asked me if I would hold onto a card for her boyfriend who would be coming through Camp Buehring in June. Being the last stop for all units going into Iraq, Buehring has a constant flow of transient troops. In the flow of troops, Sgt. Ball found me to ask if someone had left him a card…over two months later! It was great to be able to hand deliver the card to brighten his day and help two people make a connection after they both passed through our tent doors!

Reunited, and it feels so good: Sgt. Ball with his card!

Guam – La’Licia is a six year old native of Guam who continues to greatly grieve the loss of her beloved Uncle and godfather — Sergeant Gregory Fejeran –who died at the age of 28 in Operation Enduring Freedom.

When Alicia Yamzon, La’Licia’s mother, shared this information with the Guam USO and that La’Licia had an upcoming birthday, the Guam USO arranged a small party at the USO for La’Licia and her family. USO provided a birthday cake that read “To La’Licia — Happy Birthday — I Love You — From Daddy.” She received presents, and was then connected with her daddy in Afghanistan via Skype…Please click here to read the full story.

The birthday cake from Daddy was held up for him to see, along with the presents and other special gifts for all his children.

Operation Hardwood – Hoops with the Troops: Episode 1

In 2006, 12 NCAA basketball coaches traveled to Kuwait to coach soldiers in a March Madness-style basketball tournament as part of "Operation Hardwood II."

Operation Hardwood was created in by the USO in 2005 to boost morale and bring a touch of home to those in uniform.  The USO has a long tradition of bringing sports figures and sports-related events to troops overseas,“Operation Hardwood” has deployed more than 35 NCAA basketball coaches and sports personalities to Kuwait and Japan.

In 2006, a group of elite coaches participated in “Operation Hardwood II,” coaching the basketball teams in Kuwait, and participating in combat drills, tank simulations, and visited injured troops in the hospital.
As part of a special four-part series, FOX Sports is looking back at this unique USO trip to see how it changed the lives of the soldiers and the coaches.  Through new interviews with some of the coaches – Rick Barnes, Tom Izzo, Kelvin Sampson, and Gary Williams – viewers get to see how their lives have been affected by the trip.  We hope you enjoy this series.  Let’s get it kicked off with Episode 1…

more about “Operation Hardwood: Episode 1“, posted with vodpod