Helicopter Rides, Crazy Food Pairings and Troops: Steve Byrne and Roy Wood Jr. Talk About Their USO Travels

Comedians and USO tour veterans Steve Byrne and Roy Wood Jr. have dozens of great stories about traveling the world to entertain troops on USO tours.

At the beginning of May, the duo was part of the USO’s first entertainment tour to Iraq since 2011.

In this video, Byrne and Wood discuss the allure of riding in military helicopters, the wild world of DFACs (dining facilities) and why they keep going overseas to perform shows.

The Stories Behind Military Challenge Coins

CoinRack_blog

They’re one good deed and an open palm away. And they can be kinda heavy.

Challenge coins permeate the military. Almost everyone with a significant rank doles them out. Even the commander-in-chief has one.

If you’ve been in the military for a while, you probably have a case or a rack (or a vintage sea chest) to display your coins. Last week, the coins reared their heads (or tails) in mainstream culture when the popular design podcast 99% Invisible did an episode on their existence, purpose and history. The podcast even highlighted an oft-repeated awkward civilian moment: the first time a service member shakes their hand and simultaneously plants a coin in their palm.

At the USO, we know a handful of people who have a few (hundred) coins from their years both serving in the military and serving troops. And behind every coin is a pretty cool story. Here are five of them:

Rachel Tischler

Three of the scores of coins Rachel Tischler has received during her tenure as USO Vice President of Entertainment.

Three of the coins Rachel Tischler has received during her tenure with the USO. USO photos by Eric Brandner

Rachel Tischler has taken more flights into the Middle East than a lot of service members. The USO’s Vice President of Entertainment has traveled the world supporting USO tours, including 15 trips to Iraq. She’s collected a lot of coins along the way, too. Here are the stories behind the three pictured above:

Dempsey and Tischler. DOD photo

Tischler with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin E. Dempsey. DOD photo

  • Top of the World: “That’s from Greenland, from the Vice Chairman [of the Joint Chief’s of Staff] tour,” Tishler said. “You can only land there a couple times of year because the runway is frozen ice. And it’s 200 people in the middle of nowhere. I can’t even imagine [a full] deployment.”
  • Gen. Ray Odierno’s coin: “Gen. Odierno was a permanent institution. I saw him every time we went over there,” Tischler said. “I think about it as [a symbol of] all the good work the USO did in Iraq and specifically his support of the USO and entertainment.”
  • The South Park coin: “I don’t know if it’s even appropriate to have this one [on display for this story] but I do love it,” Tischler said laughing. She received the coin with a take on the signature “South Park” line on it from a unit during a USO entertainment tour to Iraq. “I just loved it because I love ‘South Park.’ … You have to admit that is a good sense of humor for [being deployed].”

Glenn Welling

USO Vice President of Operations Glenn Welling holds his personal coin, which he's carried since he deployed to Iraq in 2008. USO photo

The personal coin of USO Vice President of Operations Glenn Welling who is also a command master chief petty officer in the Navy Reserve. Welling has kept the coin in his pocket every day since he deployed to Iraq in 2008.

Glenn Welling always has a challenge coin on hand. It’s his own.

Glenn Welling

Glenn Welling

“For the first 20 years of my Navy career, I had no concept what [challenge coins were about],” said Welling, the USO’s Vice President of Operations and a command master chief petty officer in the Navy Reserve. “When I was selected to be a command master chief in the Navy, I decided it would be a good idea to have my own coin minted so I could recognize sailors that were part of my organization for exceptional service.”

Welling had 100 personal coins minted before deploying to Iraq in 2008.

“This particular coin has been in my pocket every single day since June of 2008, which is when I left for Iraq,” he said.

Welling's sea chest, where he keeps his coin collection.

Welling’s vintage sea chest, which he bought to display his coin collection.

Welling said the coin, along with a prayer stone his neighbor gave him that he also still carries each day, “provided me comfort and security while I was deployed.”

He’s scheduled to retire in October after 37 years in the Navy. But he won’t be taking his coin out of his pocket.

“I may not be in uniform anymore, but I’ll always be a sailor,” he said, smiling. “Til the day I die, I’ll carry my coin with me.”

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Dr. JD Crouch II

USO CEO and President Dr. J.D. Crouch II holds his recently minted personal coin.

USO CEO and President Dr. J.D. Crouch II holds his recently minted personal coin.

USO CEO and President J.D. Crouch II had a clear direction in mind for his first personal coin.

USO President and CEO Dr. J.D. Crouch II shakes volunteers' hands. USO photo by Gretchen Ertl

Crouch greets USO volunteers last fall. USO photo by Gretchen Ertl

“[The USO is] a strong support center for that military family – for spouses, for children as well as the people who sort of orbit around that military family,” Crouch said. “So I thought having that at the center of my coin reflects everything we do: The service members themselves and the family members that also serve in their own way.

“I wanted this to be something that was both reflective of the values [of the USO] and also reflective of the emphasis that I want to place on things while I’m here.”

Valerie Donegan and Jonathan Matthews

USO Director of Information Technology Val Donegan, left, and USO Director of Logistics and Facilities Jonathan Matthews hold up a coin they both received in 2012 for their work building the USO Warrior and Family Center on Fort Belvoir, Virginia.

USO Director of Information Technology Valerie Donegan, left, and USO Director of Logistics and Facilities Jonathan Matthews display a coin they both received in 2012 for their on the USO Warrior and Family Center on Fort Belvoir, Virginia.

Valerie Donegan and Jonathan Matthews are critical to planning the USO’s computer and facilities infrastructures around the globe, which puts them in some interesting places.

In the photo above, Donegan is holding the coin then-Joint Force Headquarters-National Capital Region commander Maj. Gen. Michael T. Linnington gave them to commemorate their roles in building the USO Warrior and Family Center at Fort Belvoir, Virginia.

Donegan holds a coin she received in Iraq in 2009.

Donegan holds a coin she received in Iraq in 2009.

Donegan and Matthews were installing the USO’s downrange satellite communication system in 2009 when they received the coin in the inset photo at then-Balad Air Base in Iraq. It was a trip they’ll never forget for sobering reasons, including their leg in Afghanistan.

“[That trip was] also where I saw my first dignified transfer,” Donegan said. “We hadn’t been at the [USO Pat Tillman Center] for two hours …”

“And everybody stopped,” Matthews interjected.

“Everybody stopped and you lined up,” Donegan said. “That was my first time ever to see a [dignified transfer] out to a flight line.

“There’s nothing as powerful as standing on that flight line watching those coffins go by. … I think that’s really the first time I understood the role [the USO] plays.”


Joseph Andrew Lee

Joseph Andrew Lee holds up the coin President Barack Obama gave him in 2011.

Joseph Andrew Lee holds up the coin President Barack Obama gave him in 2011.

Joseph Andrew Lee has a knack for being in the right place at the right time. It’s a great skill to have if you’re a multimedia journalist like Lee, a gregarious former public affairs Marine who chronicles USO stories.

Joseph Andrew Lee

On Aug. 9, 2011, Lee was working at Dover Air Force Base in the wake of the greatest single-event loss of life U.S. Special Operations has experienced. Three days earlier, a Chinook helicopter carrying 38 coalition troops — including 31 Americans — was shot down in Afghanistan, killing everyone on board. That included 25 special operators. Lee traveled with several fellow employees from the USO’s Arlington, Virginia, offices to do whatever he could to support the mass dignified transfer through USO Delaware. He took a role refilling a cooler of drinks for families, service members and senior officials.

“Our task was to get these grieving families anything they needed,” Lee said.

Three hours in and soaked with sweat after unloading another palate, someone tapped Lee on the shoulder and asked “Hey, you mind if I grab one of those?”

“I looked up and it was the President of the United States,” Lee said.

President Barack Obama took the drink Lee handed him, recognized the USO logo on Lee’s shirt, and struck up a conversation.

“The first words out of his mouth were ‘Thank you for what you do. The USO’s a great organization,'” Lee said.

Lee told Obama that his USO experiences during his 10 years in the Marine Corps were the reason he decided to work for the nonprofit.

Obama then looked over at an aide who handed him something, turned back, and shook Lee’s hand, placing his presidential challenge coin in Lee’s palm in the process.

“He said ‘Thank you for your service and thank you even more for what you do for the USO today,'” Lee said. “And I thought that was pretty special.

“Obviously that day was nothing to celebrate. … Like a lot of medals that Marines receive, it was kind of a reminder of one of the saddest days I’ve served.”

Want to share your own challenge coin story? Send it to us at usomoments.org/stories.

2013 USO Marine of the Year Andrew Seif was One of 11 Killed in Florida Helicopter Accident

Staff Sgt. Andrew Seif

Staff Sgt. Andrew Seif at the 2013 USO Gala.

Andrew Seif was a hero with a chest full of ribbons and medals to prove it. He wasn’t much for talking about it, though.

Unfailingly polite with a sheepish smile, the Marine was reticent to recite his accomplishments when approached time after time by the press pool attending the 2013 USO Gala, where he was honored as the USO’s Marine of the Year.

He wasn’t naïve about what he’d done. Bragging just didn’t seem to be his thing.

The Department of Defense confirmed Friday that Seif was one of 11 service members killed Tuesday night when their helicopter crashed during a training mission near Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. The 27-year-old staff sergeant was awarded a Silver Star just four days before the accident, an honor he received for his actions in Afghanistan in 2012.

“Staff Sgt. Seif was one of the Marines … who really showed tremendous heroism and valor,” said Maj. Gen. Joseph L. Osterman, commander of the Marines Special Operations Command [MARSOC]. Osterman, who confirmed the seven Marine deaths Friday, is also the officer who presented the Silver Star to Seif just a week ago. “He and his family … really epitomize the silent warrior and quiet professional that really is the hallmark here at MARSOC.”

The other six Marines who died in Tuesday’s accident are Capt. Stanford Henry Shaw III of Basking Ridge, New Jersey, Master Sgt. Thomas Saunders of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, Staff Sgt. Liam Flynn of Queens, New York, Staff Sgt. Trevor P. Blaylock of Lake Orion, Michigan, Staff Sgt. Kerry Michael Kemp of Port Washington, Wisconsin and Staff Sgt. Marcus Bawol from Warren, Michigan. All seven men were stationed at Camp LeJeune and were members of MARSOC’s 2nd Special Operations Battalion.

Four National Guard soldiers were also killed in the accident, though they have not been officially identified.

“Staff Sgt. Andrew Seif was an American hero and a deserving recipient of the USO’s 2013 Marine of the Year Award,” said Dr. J.D. Crouch II, CEO and President of the USO. “Our hearts go out to his wife Dawn, their extended families, and the families of all 11 service members who died in Tuesday’s tragedy.”

Described by his commanding officer as a Marine with “tenacity, vigor and common sense that he applies to every task or endeavor he undertakes,” Seif was attempting to detain a high-value target on July 24, 2012, along with his teammate, Sgt. Justin Hansen. Hansen was shot several times as the duo approached a compound. Electing not to wait for reinforcements, Seif entered the compound alone and eliminated the threat. After clearing the compound, Seif returned to treat his teammate’s wounds while exposing himself to constant enemy fire. Despite Seif’s efforts, however, his teammate died later that day.

“There are definitely some individuals out there who deserve [the Silver Star] just as well,” Seif said at last week’s ceremony, according to the New Holland Sentinel. “But it’s an honor to accept it on the behalf of the unit and on behalf of the rest of the men.”

Seif, a New Holland, Michigan, native, leaves behind his wife of four-plus years, Dawn. The couple celebrated their third wedding anniversary in 2013 with fellow USO honorees.

Photos: USO Supporting Wounded Warriors at the Marine Corps Trials

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CAMP PENDLETON, California–The road to the Warrior Games starts here.

More than 300 wounded Marines, veterans and international troops from 10 countries are competing at the Marine Corps Trials in Southern California. When they’re done, the top 50 Marines across all sports will advance to compete against wounded warriors from the Air Force, Navy, Army and a team of special operators in June at the Warrior Games in Quantico, Virginia.

Hosted by the Marine Corps Wounded Warrior Regiment and support by the USO, the Marine Corps Trials select the best wounded Marine athletes in Paralympic sports including seated volleyball, cycling, shooting and archery.

The event runs through Wednesday and is opened to the public. For more information, go to woundedwarriorregiment.org.

‘He Came to Us’: USO Staffer in Germany Takes Action to Save the Life of Despondent Soldier

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How do you know if someone’s contemplating suicide?

For Shannon Huffman, it’s instinct. Huffman, a USO employee in Landstuhl, Germany, received extensive suicide prevention education during her 20 years in the Air Force. Late last year, that training may have saved someone’s life.

One evening, Huffman was at Landstuhl’s USO Warrior Center in Germany teaching a volunteer how to make chili. A service member approached her, looking distressed, and asked if she would help mail some belongings for him. Even though Huffman could sense something was wrong, it wasn’t until the he gave her his mother’s mailing address that she realized he was in a fragile, possibly suicidal, state and needed immediate help.

Huffman, an information specialist at the center, asked a volunteer to watch the service member while she alerted the hospital’s medical staff. Within minutes, Huffman subtly asked the service member to step outside the center and speak with medical personnel, who later escorted him to the hospital for treatment.

“She didn’t just help an individual – she helped all of his family and friends who may have had to suffer an irreplaceable loss,” said Laura Ponzo, the USO Warrior Center Manager and Huffman’s supervisor.

“The reason our center exists is to provide a home away from home for the wounded, ill and injured service members and give them someplace where they can feel comfortable and relax. That service member probably wouldn’t have felt comfortable going up to someone in uniform and asking for help, so he came to us.”

Because of her actions, Huffman was honored with the USO President’s Award, which recognizes USO employees for outstanding contributions to or on behalf of the organization.

“To be in a position where I get to help our veterans in need on a daily basis makes going to work a passion, not just a job,” Huffman said. “I was on the [receiving] end of the USO for 20 years and am honored to be able to return the kindness.”

Huffman says it’s the simple actions — like listening to someone vent or giving them a hug — that most benefit recovering troops who visit the USO Warrior Center.

“Often when a person comes in our center they are shook up and distraught,” she said. “Helping them make a cup of coffee and dial the phone back home to let family know they are OK is the most important thing in the world to them at that moment.

“It feels good to make that kind of difference for somebody, but that’s what we do right? Make every moment count.”

Celebrate Valentine’s Day With These Five Huggable USO Moments

In the spirit of Valentine’s Day and making memories for military families, here’s a look at five of the most huggable USO moments from the past year.

1. Americans Around the World Send USO Love Notes to Troops

In the past two years during the weeks leading up to Valentine’s Day, the USO has asked people at home and overseas to send love notes to troops and their families. People all around the globe embraced the challenge and sent in 3,713 notes of love and affection to troops between January and March of last year.

2. USO and NASCAR Help a Soldier Surprise His Family on Father’s Day

Sgt. Sean Brady, center, is reunited with wife Lauren, right, son Sean and daughter Sarah prior to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan International Speedway.  (Photos by Sean Gardner/NASCAR via Getty Images)

Sgt. Sean Brady, center, is reunited with wife Lauren, right, son Sean and daughter Sarah prior to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan International Speedway. Photo by Sean Gardner/NASCAR via Getty Images

Not even a made-for-TV movie writer could dream up a military homecoming this special.

Last June, the USO and NASCAR teamed up to pull off the ultimate homecoming for Sgt. Sean Brady and his family, reuniting them on the pit road on Father’s Day before the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan International Speedway.

But that’s not all.

In the spirit of making moments count, the USO turned the tables on Brady and gave him a Father’s Day surprise, too. Check out the video to see what happened:

 

 

3. A Happy Ending: USO Steps in to Make a Wedding Happen for a Young Military Couple

The unpredictable military lifestyle can making planning big life moments, like weddings, a little difficult.

This was the case for Pvt. Chase Howard and his then-fiancee, Brittany, who had been trying to find a date to tie the knot for months. So when a Chase received a four-day pass over Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend last year, the couple finally had the perfect opportunity to say ‘I do.’

The only problems were that the couple only had a week to plan the ceremony and had no nearby family to help make the arrangements. That’s when Howard called his mother, who got in touch with the USO.

With some quick planning and a few good Skype connections — one with Chase’s father in Afghanistan and another with Brittany’s parents at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington — the Howards had a day to remember at the USO Warrior and Family Center in Fort Belvoir, Virginia.

4. USO Sets Up Surprise Homecoming for a Soldier’s Family on “The Meredith Vieira Show”

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Every service member deserves a special homecoming.

But for Lt. Beau McNeff and his wife Ceci, who had missed their last two wedding anniversaries due to deployments and work-ups, something a bit more extravagant seemed to be in order.

The USO, which benefitted from more than 250 hours of McNeff’s volunteer service while he was stationed at Forward Operating Base Fenty in Afghanistan, selected the McNeff family for a surprise reunion on “The Meredith Vieira Show” and also arranged three days of fun for the family in Manhattan. Read more about the homecoming here.

5. A Perfect Proposal: USO San Antonio Helps an Army Private Pop the Question (Again)

Volunteers hold up signs during the surprise proposal at USO San Antonio. USO photo

Volunteers hold up signs during the surprise proposal at USO San Antonio. USO photo

When most girls dream about their perfect proposal, they imagine their future husband down on one knee — not a long-distance call from a boyfriend hundreds of miles away.

Unfortunately for Pvt. Zoe Tunchez and Pvt. Emmanuel Aleman, who were stationed at different Army bases, a happy phone conversation seemed like the closest to a fairy-tale proposal they would get.

That is, until Aleman, his mother, Marita Maldonado, and the team at USO San Antonio joined up to give Tunchez the surprise proper’ proposal of a lifetime just hours before the wedding ceremony. Read more about the couple’s magical USO moment here.