9 Times the USO Came Through for Military Moms

To mark Mother’s Day weekend, here are nine ways the USO has come through for military moms and families:

1. Beamed in to the delivery room: Marine Capt. Nick Whitefield went downrange during the run-up to his wife, Laura Whitefield, delivering their second child. Thanks to USO technology, the couple got to see each other during that special moment.

2. USO/What To Expect Special Delivery Baby Showers: The USO works with The What To Expect Foundation and best-selling author Heidi Murkoff to deliver baby showers to military families around the world.

3. A juice and a snooze: How the USO gave a much-needed respite to one military mom and her young daughter when they got stranded while traveling to a funeral.

The Hoffman quintuplets. Photo courtesy the Hoffman family

The Hoffman quintuplets. Photo courtesy the Hoffman family

4. Cute overload: USO Arizona quickly rolled out the red carpet for an Air Force couple that moved across the country right before giving birth to quintuplets.

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5. Staying connected with her kids around the world: When Amy DeRosa’s children started deploying, she wasn’t sure how often she’d get to talk to them. Then she found out about the USO.

Dickinson_md6. A mother’s quiet moment at the USO: How the mom of a fallen soldier honored his memory – and felt a little closer to him – during an impromptu USO visit after his death.

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7. Creative mom gets an assist on military daughter’s birthday: Jeanne McConnell had a history of surprising her daughter — Air Force Capt. Emily Arthur — on her birthday. Thanks to the USO, she was able to keep up the tradition even though Arthur was deployed to Afghanistan.

8. A twist on a birthday celebration: Air Force couple James and Cherrie Bell had a bunch of USO experiences over the years. So when their daughter turned 1, they wanted to set an example of giving back. Their efforts may have made her our youngest donor ever.

9. Giving a mom peace of mind: When Marlene Chapman’s daughter was stranded alone in the Denver airport overnight, their family knew exactly where to send her.

USO Steps in to Help Stranded Military Teen and Give Worried Mom Piece Of Mind

Marlene Kenney and her family. Photo courtesy Marlene Kenney

Marlene Chapman and her family. Photo courtesy Marlene Chapman

Marlene Chapman never thought her kids would need the USO.

But after her 19-year-old daughter, Mareena Brown, found herself alone, upset and stranded overnight in the Denver airport, Chapman, who’s married to Air Force 1st Lt. Joseph Chapman, was relieved the USO was there to lend a hand.

“I can’t explain it, except to say, I am crying (again) thinking how relieved I was knowing she felt safe. Knowing she was safe,” Chapman wrote in an email. “I always thought it was for the ones serving, not their families.”

Chapman and Brown’s USO story began long before any plane tickets were booked.

A few years back, Chapman and her children lived in Colorado. That’s where Brown met her friend Cali Lurvey, whose father was in the Army. But military families rarely stay in one place for long. Eventually, Brown moved to Salt Lake City with her mother, and Cali relocated to Minot, South Dakota, with her family. The girls remained close and continued to grow their friendship, particularly when Brown struggled with health issues and Graves’ disease during high school.

Brown eventually graduated high school and started to regain her health. She resumed everyday activities, too, including getting a job at a local call center. After earning her first paycheck, Brown decided to spend the money to visit Cali. So she booked a flight to Minot, packed her bag and had Chapman drop her off at the airport.

“She was very nervous about traveling alone,” Chapman wrote. “I was even more nervous.”

When Brown landed in Denver, she received a series of flight delay texts, and later, a notification that her connecting flight to Minot was cancelled. Alone, and facing a night in the airport without her luggage, Brown called her mother, who suggested she head to Denver International Airport’s USO center.

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After signing in with a volunteer, calming herself down and fueling up on a sandwich and juice, Brown called her mother to let her know that everything was going to be alright.

“She told me to thank Joe (my husband) for being awesome and in the Air Force,” Chapman wrote. “She said the USO felt safe.”

Even though the center closed 10 p.m., Brown said the USO volunteers gave her plenty of snacks and books to keep her happy in the main terminal until the center re-opened at 6 a.m. The next day, Brown went back to the USO and spent her morning relaxing at the center before catching her flight to Minot.

After her experience with the USO, Brown told her mother that she’d like to look into volunteering at her local USO.

“I told her that we will all look into it as a family,” Chapman wrote. “I am grateful to the USO for helping me find peace of mind while she was traveling. We definitely want to be part of the USO community, family, organization.”

Juice And A Snooze: How The USO Helped Ease One Military Mom’s Travel Woes

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The McClanahan family. Photo courtesy of Michelle McClanahan

When Michelle McClanahan headed to Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport on her way to Pennsylvania, she didn’t anticipate spending the rest of the day in the Atlanta airport.

But since she and her daughter, Sophia, were flying on a non-reservation status to her grandfather’s funeral — thanks to a perk Michelle’s husband, Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Jacob McClanahan, had in an earlier job —  they had to wait until seats became available on a plane from Atlanta to Allentown, Pennsylvania.

It was a long wait.

After several hours of boredom mixed with the sadness and stress of losing her grandfather, Michelle spoke to her husband, who suggested she head to the airport’s USO center.

Not expecting much, Michelle decided to take his advice and went to the USO Jean Amos Center at the Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

When she arrived, a volunteer helped her sign in and gave she and her daughter some food. A USO volunteer even went out to purchase some juice for Sophia, since the center only had water and soda at the time.

“I was blown away at how welcoming they were to my family,” McClanahan wrote in an email. “They even comforted me when I started crying over my grandfathers passing!”

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After enjoying the refreshments and a much-needed nap, Michelle says a few volunteers even offered to play with Sophia and walk around the center with her.

“I will definitely be using the USO again,” she said. “It represents to me a safe place to go when you feel like you don’t have any options. It represents a family environment.”

The Hunt is On: $10,000 in Prizes Awaits the Military Family that Finds USO Colorado Springs’ Jingle Bell Rock

JingleBellRockPhil Martinez got up before dawn Friday, went over to Fort Carson, Colorado, and hid a rock. Whichever military family finds it is going to be about $10,000 in prizes richer.

USO Colorado Springs’ Jingle Bell Rock contest sends military families on the Colorado Springs base into a pre-holiday frenzy, as active duty troops and their immediate family members race their peers to find where Martinez stashed the painted piece of Earth. Martinez supplements their search by providing clues through his center’s Facebook page, website and at the USO center on Fort Carson. (HINT: There’s even an exclusive clue at the end of this story.)

There’s a lot on the line this year, too, including a $5,000 tennis bracelet, laptop computer, flat screen television, android tablet and four tickets to the Dec. 28 Denver Broncos-Oakland Raiders game and hundreds of dollars in gift cards to local stores.

“What’s great about it is it’s winner-take-all,” said Martinez, who is the director of USO Colorado Springs. “When I drive around [the base], you see little kids, families all bundled up looking for it together. I love that. It’s what it’s all about.”

Martinez says the contest has evolved over the years. The prize pool is up significantly from last year, when it was roughly $7,000 in gifts. He’s also seen collaboration come into play. After all, winner-take-all doesn’t mean you can’t team up.

“The first few years, everybody would hunt for it individually,” he said. “Now people are splitting up to look for it and pre-agreeing to split the prizes.”

Martinez says it normally takes between three and five days for the winners to combine enough clues to find the rock.

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The hefty prize pool is donated to the USO by local businesses as a way to say thank you to troops for their service. Martinez’s team puts the prizes together, comes up with a strategy to hide the rock and then springs it on the community in the days leading up to Christmas.

“Every year we try to make it bigger and better,” he said. “And with the help of our local partnerships out here with the business community, they are the ones who provide all the presents for our troops and their families.”

The full list of prizes includes:

  • $5,000 tennis bracelet courtesy of Gold Fingers Jewelry of Colorado Springs
  • 20” Mongoose bike courtesy of Coca-Cola of Colorado Springs/Denver 
  • 32” flat screen TV courtesy of Omni Financial
  • Acoustic guitar courtesy of MWR Fort Carson
  • Blu-ray DVD player courtesy of the USO
  • Nabi kids’ tablet courtesy of the USO
  • Assorted DVDs courtesy of Disney
  • Android tablet w/ case courtesy of the USO
  • Laptop computer w/ case courtesy of the USO
  • $500 in gift cards courtesy of the USO
  • Sony DSCW710 camera w/ case courtesy of the USO
  • Overnight stay and dinner for two at Hotel Elegante courtesy of Hotel Elegante
  • Marble top desk  courtesy of MWR Fort Carson
  • Two headsets courtesy of the Colorado Springs Airport
  • Colorado Rapids autographed soccer ball courtesy of Kroenke Sports in Denver
  • Papa John’s pizza for a year courtesy of Papa John’s Colorado Springs
  • Custom-made Disney gift basket courtesy of Disney
  • Four tickets to the Dec. 28 Denver Broncos-Oakland Raiders game courtesy of Coca-Cola of Colorado Springs

And finally, your clue:  Hunt day and night and keep a minimum speed, when you think you are close just look at the weeds.

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.

Your USO at Work: November 2014 — USO, Sesame Street Celebrate 500,000 Smiles

The Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families celebrated a major milestone with families at Fort Benning, Georgia, on October 3 when the tour entertained its 500,000th military family member. USO photo by Dave Gatley

The Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families celebrated a major milestone with families at Fort Benning, Georgia, on October 3 when the tour entertained its 500,000th military family member. USO photo by Dave Gatley

Sesame Street/USO Experience Reaches 500K Milestone

It’s always a sunny day on Sesame Street, but Elmo, Cookie Monster and the Muppets had an extra special reason to sing and dance with all their friends last month. The Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families entertained its 500,000th military family member.

“The fact that we hit that particular number is a giant milestone for us,” said Nicole McClendon, tour manager for the USO/Sesame Street Experience for Military Families.

The Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families has toured since July 2008 and has taken its message of facing fears and embracing change to more than 500,000 troops and military families. With help from Katie, a military child who is moving to a new place, and all of her friends, the tour has performed more than 893 shows on 147 military installations in 33 states and 11 countries.

“Five hundred thousand represents the number of smiles Elmo and Katie have brought to military kids and their families … as the tour has traveled around the world,” USO President and CEO Dr. J.D. Crouch II said in a release. “We thank our friends at Sesame Street for helping to make this possible and we look forward to seeing many more smiling faces as the tour continues its journey.”

USO’s Every Moment Counts Flag Breaks World Record

The USO's Every Moment Counts flag is displayed at The Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati on Sept. 11. USO photo by Mike Theiler

The USO’s Every Moment Counts flag is displayed at The Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati on Sept. 11. USO photo by Mike Theiler

With signatures gathered from all 50 states and seven countries, USO announced in September that it broke the Guinness World Records title for most signatures on a flag with 115,405 gathered digitally and in-person around the world. The USO shattered the current record set in 2012 by more than 82,132 signatures.

As part of its Every Moment Counts campaign, the USO rallied Americans to show support for troops and their families through the simple act of saying thank you with their signature.

“Every signature on the Every Moment Counts flag is a symbol of a grateful nation’s appreciation for all that our men and women in uniform and their families do for us on a daily basis,” said J.D. Crouch II, USO President and CEO.

Go to USOmoments.org to show your appreciation for our troops and their families.

Al Roker Sets Weather Forecast Record in Support of the USO

With six minutes to go in #Rokerthon, the expression momentarily drained from Al Roker’s face as his co-anchors piled into his small New York City studio.

NBC's Al Roker headlined the "Today"/USO Comedy Tour in Afghanistan in October. USO photo by Fred Greaves

NBC’s Al Roker headlined the “Today”/USO Comedy Tour in Afghanistan in October. USO photo by Fred Greaves

“I don’t think there are enough people in here,” Roker deadpanned. More than 33 hours  — and despite several jokes suggesting the contrary — he was still lucid.

And then he delivered more temperatures.

Roker, a USO tour veteran, set a Guinness World Record on Nov. 14 for the longest continuous televised weather forecast at 34 hours. He did it to raise awareness for the USO, asking a national audience, a litany of NBC affiliates and livestream viewers to visit his still-active Crowdrise page, where he raised more than $75,000 for the organization by the time he went off the air.

He had a lot of help while he was on the air, too. #Rokerthon was often the No. 1 trending topic on Twitter, with thousands of viewers (including USO centers around the world) tweeting in questions about the weather to keep Roker’s forecasting streak alive.

USO, Renovating Hope and Gary Sinise Foundation Repair Home of Wounded Vet

After returning from Afghanistan with PTSD and a traumatic brain injury, medically retired Army Nurse Corps officer Jim Gardon came home to a surprise.

Unfortunately it wasn’t the good kind.

“When Jim was deployed to Afghanistan, I hired a contractor to remodel the back two rooms of the house,” said his wife Cece Gardon. “He came in, pulled out the electricity, did a haphazard job of sheet rocking and left and never came back.”

Stuck with a huge bill for incomplete work, they didn’t have the money to invest in the project a second time. The USO introduced the Gardons to Paul Hoffecker, the CEO of Renovating Hope, after Cece attended a USO Caregivers Conference. Renovating Hope secured grants from the USO and the Gary Sinise Foundation to make sure the job could be completed once and for all.

“The USO has been better than the 15 different medications the VA has tried to improve my attitude,” Jim Gardon said. “This is something that actually physically, emotionally and socially helps the soldier.”

Visit USO.org/donate to learn how you can support our healing heroes and their families.

USO Supports Fort Drum Spouse Through Deployment – and Homecoming

Ashley Sandgren

Ashley Sandgren

Ashley Sandgren’s smiles said as much as her words. Sometimes anxious. Other times confident.

Either way, she knew her wait was almost over.

Just 24 hours away from reuniting with her husband, Army Sgt. Jeremy Sandgren, after his nine-month deployment to Afghanistan, the Virginia native talked through the emotions of what it was like to wait out the couple’s first overseas deployment.

“I think putting it out of your mind is helpful in some sense, but you shouldn’t live your life in denial that they’re in danger, because they are,” she said.

Not that she didn’t have plenty to do. A trained cosmetologist, Sandgren balanced her work with coordinating a family readiness group at Fort Drum, N.Y., and volunteering with the USO, where many Fort Drum spouses have found a home away from home while their significant others were deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade.

“I think this USO has such a huge heart,” Sandgren said. “I think it’s extremely important to have the community and the different groups to lean on when your soldier’s deployed. It helps in the sense that you realize that you’re not alone.”

BNSF Helps the USO Support Transitioning Veterans with a Landmark Donation

Job searches are never easy. The task can be even more daunting for veterans looking to land their first civilian position.

That’s where the USO and supporters like the BNSF Railway Foundation step in.

On July 24, the BNSF Railway Foundation announced a $3 million pledge to support USO Warrior and Family Care employment programs for active-duty troops transitioning out of the military. The first-of-its-kind, three-year pledge will fund USO programs designed to assist transitioning troops – including those who are wounded, ill or injured – entering the civilian workforce.

Former Army Officer Makes a Difference for USO, Troops

USO Houston Center Director Liz Vallette

USO Houston Center Director Liz Vallette

USO Houston Center Director Liz Vallette understands what it’s like to be far from home.

With a tour in South Korea and a deployment to Iraq, the former Army officer and West Point graduate also knows that the USO is able to deliver a piece of home to deployed troops around the world.

“I was eager to join an organization that I had directly benefited from during my service, from relaxing in airport USO centers … to enjoying a touch of home from entertainers,” said Vallette, who started with the organization in 2011.

She arrived at USO Houston after serving six years in the Army and another two working with an economic development group in Afghanistan. Having daily opportunities to positively impact the lives of troops and their families was a driving factor in her decision and working with outstanding, motivated colleagues is an added benefit, she said.

Under Vallette’s leadership, USO Houston is piloting innovative programs that connect transitioning troops and their families with high-profile companies in the city’s booming industries. Oil and Gas 101 – a free, two-day orientation to the oil and gas industry – helped troops network directly with Houston-area hiring managers. Vallette and her team are planning another session for 2015 and hope to help more troops prepare for life after the military.

Go to USO.org/donate to support our nation’s transitioning troops and their families.