Your USO at Work: August 2015 — Great Dane Pup Who Needed Help is Returning the Favor


Meet Bandit, the Gentle Giant at USO Fort Leonard Wood

When Kelly Gist adopted Bandit more than three years ago, she didn’t expect him to become a healer.

Sickly, underweight and suffering from a number of health issues, the Great Dane pup looked like he needed more help than he would ever be able to give.

As Bandit grew stronger and healthier, he started accompanying Gist to her job as center director of USO Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri. She quickly learned Bandit was no ordinary rescue dog.

“We would bring him into the USO, and as he grew, his interactions with the troops were unbelievable and we realized he had something else to give,” said Gist, who decided to train Bandit as a therapy dog.

Whether it’s visiting patients at the hospital, comforting troops at the Warrior Transition Unit or hanging out with military families at USO Fort Leonard Wood, Gist says Bandit is always ready to comfort those in need.

“If anyone can spend five minutes with him … they’ll realize the difference he can make in someone’s day,” she said.

Bandit isn’t the only one who make a difference in five minutes. Go to USO.org/donate to find out how you can show your support for our troops and military families.


Duracell and Hilary Swank Help the USO Highlight Military Family Issues

Two-time Academy Award winner Hilary Swank has played several roles, but her first was as the daughter of a now-retired Air Force senior master sergeant.

Swank joined military couple Robert and Denise Nilson, Duracell’s Jeff Jarrett and USO Senior Vice President Alan Reyes in New York last month to promote the USO’s partnership with Duracell and the company’s new short film “The Teddy Bear.” The video, which has been viewed more than 11 million times, is based on the Nilsons’ deployment experiences.

Duracell is also generously donating $100,000 to the USO Transition 360 Alliance to support the Comfort Crew for Military Kids, which helps children deal with their parents’ deployment and other issues that come up when you’re part of a military family.

Bruno Mars Brings ‘Uptown Funk’ to USO Concert at the White House

Grammy-winning recording artist Bruno Mars performed a USO show for cheering troops, military family members and guests of the first family at the White House on July 4.

Bruno Mars and his band perform at the USO’s Salute to the Military show July 4 at the White House. USO photo by Mike Thelier

Bruno Mars and his band perform at the USO’s Salute to the Military show July 4 at the White House. USO photo by Mike Theiler

The superstar sang some of his hits at the annual Salute to the Military USO concert. While storms cancelled the preshow cookout on the White House lawn, President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama came out and addressed the crowd before Mars’ hourlong set that led up to the fireworks display on the National Mall.

This was the seventh consecutive year the White House has partnered with the USO to host the concert. Last year’s event featured Pitbull, while acts like fun., Cedric The Entertainer, The Killers, Brandi Carlile, Brad Paisley, Train, Jimmy Fallon and the Foo Fighters have also played the White House on Independence Day.

“It was an honor to perform at the Fourth of July concert at the White House,” Mars said in a release. “It was incredible to stand with the first family and the USO to recognize the service and sacrifice of our troops and military families.”

Mobile USO Helps Troops Through Summer Training 

Spending three weeks in the field on a military exercise can make you feel like you’re in another country — even if you never leave your home state.

Images from the Mobile USO’s stop in Oklahoma. Photos courtesy of Army Spc. Tyler Davis

Images from the Mobile USO’s stop in Oklahoma. Photos courtesy of Army Spc. Tyler Davis

Ask Army National Guard Spc. Tyler Davis, 21, from Lawton, Oklahoma, who took to Instagram to show his appreciation when his unit received a surprise visit from a Mobile USO during training. Davis, who’s been in the National Guard for more than four years, was pulling 48-hour shifts in the blazing sun when the Mobile USO arrived.

“When we’re out here in the field, we’re adapting to the military lifestyle. … You get completely engulfed in it,” Davis said. “When we first caught wind of the [Mobile USO] coming I made sure to get everyone in my squad signed up.”

A USO center on wheels, Mobile USO units offer troops the same kind of support provided at stationary centers, including video games, movies, Wi-Fi and air conditioning—the most important amenity when training in the Oklahoma sun.

“God bless you guys at the USO,” Davis said. “Without you, a lot of us would probably go insane.”

USO Opens First Staffed Center in Africa

Sometimes they are created to facilitate the changing travel needs of troops stateside. Sometimes they are built downrange and constructed by the troops themselves. Whatever the case, each USO center is opened where troops need them the most. And that most recent need is on Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti.

There are lots of smiling faces inside the new USO center on Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti. Courtesy photo

There are lots of smiling faces inside the new USO center on Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti. Courtesy photo

After the Defense Department announced it would spend $1 billion over the next 20 years to enlarge the U.S. base, the USO decided it was time to open up a permanent canteen for troops stationed there.

“Most of the troops here are unaccompanied and stay … anywhere from nine months to a year,” USO Camp Lemonnier Center Manager Michael Eyassu said. “They are very excited about [the USO] providing free phone calls to the States since they have to purchase phone cards otherwise.”

Currently the only staffed USO center in Africa, USO Camp Lemonnier consists of two Quonset huts equipped with a lounge area, leather chairs, a full canteen with snacks and treats from home, free toiletries and plenty of phones and computers to use to call home.

“We’ve got something going on every night for the military,” Eyassu said. “We have a lot of fun, and we’re getting more and more foot traffic each and every day we’re open.”

You can support troops deployed to bases around the world by visiting USO.org/donate.

USO Partner Almay Highlights the Strength and Determination of Military Women

Almay is partnering with the USO and celebrating female service members with their Simply American campaign. As part of the initiative, the cosmetics giant is donating $250,000 to the USO and creating a #SimplyAmerican social media push to raise additional funds and awareness.

AlmayThe company is highlighting military women throughout the summer in two unique ways. First, they’re embarking on a summer-long road trip to fairs and festivals to create what they’re calling a Simply American experience that celebrates female service members, military wives and their families.

Almay also is soliciting photos that capture “Simply American moments.” The company will donate one dollar for every like or share on social media that uses the hashtag #SimplyAmerican, up to a total of $10,000.

Go to Almay’s Simply American page to see if the road trip is coming to a city near you.

USO Opened Up a New World for This Military Spouse

Karolina Wignall has been connected to the military for as long as she can remember.

Karolina Wignall

Karolina Wignall

She grew up in the military, living in Texas, Georgia, Germany and Las Vegas during her formative years. She later married an Air Force pilot, moving around the globe to places like Okinawa and Virginia.

Wignall, USO Europe’s operations manager, understands the sacrifices troops and military families make every day, but she didn’t know much about the USO before becoming a volunteer in 2010.

“All I knew about the USO was what I saw in the airports,” she said. “I wasn’t sure what volunteering for the USO really meant.”

She quickly learned what the USO’s all about by racking up hundreds of volunteer hours in a few months. “Averaging 40 hours a week as a volunteer, I was hooked,” Wignall said. “The USO opened up a whole new world to me and I haven’t looked back.”

Hired as a full-time employee a short time later, she’s been with the organization ever since and has watched as the USO has evolved with the military.

“We have come a long way from just providing comfort and respite for our troops during wartime,” she said. “We are with the young troops when they first enter military service, when they deploy, and when they return home.

“Always by their side” is more than a slogan. It’s what the USO—backed by volunteers and employees like Wignall — does each and every day at more than 160 USO locations around the world.

“No matter what stage they are in during their military career, the military community can be sure the USO will always be there, providing whatever it takes to ensure that the military community knows we stand by them,” she said.

From start to finish, the USO supports troops and military families through each step of their journey. And we can’t do it without you.

“An Eye-Opening Experience”: How the USO and RP/6 are Showing Transitioning Troops the Way Forward


TACOMA, Washington—Even the most experienced soldier can use a hand when leaving the Army.

“After 28 years I was certain that I had this whole thing down,” said retired Army Sgt. Maj. Lee Baleme, now an RP/6 Fellow. “It was an eye-opening experience to think that I was going to make that transition — smoothly — and then realize that I wasn’t.”

RP/6, part of the new USO Transition 360 Alliance, connects service members and their families with resources and organizations in their community that support their transition. This concierge approach incorporates several USO Transition 360 Alliance partners (including Hire Heroes USA, Stronger Families and the Comfort Crew for Military Kids) in an attempt to cover both the personal and professional issues military families face when moving to the civilian world.

The USO plans to incorporate RP/6 services at some of its stateside locations in the near future.

“[Veterans and transitioning military] can come [to RP/6] and find that person [who] will point them in the direction of the resources that they need,” Baleme said. “From housing issues to employment, school and even family issues, transition from active duty to the civilian has never been an easy nut to crack and I think RP/6 found a great partner in the USO.”

There on the First Day: USO Expands its Mission to Military Entrance Processing Stations

The USO center inside the San Antonio Military Entrance Processing Center. USO photos

The USO center inside the San Antonio Military Entrance Processing Station. USO photos

A recruit’s first few days in the military can be tedious.

From the early morning moment they enter the Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS), most recruits sit through hours of aptitude testing, medical screening and job selection that set the path for their military careers. Between these steps, there’s little to do but sit around or read.

It’s a day begging for a distraction. So the USO is bringing some.

The USO is opening several new centers inside MEPS around the United States in 2015. It’s part of the organization’s commitment to support service members and their families through their military career – a career that often begins at a MEPS station. These new centers – which will feature entertainment like televisions and video games, snacks and support services – are aimed at comforting recruits and their families during the entrance process. They also introduce recruits and families to the services the USO offers.

USO_SanAntonio_MEPS“It’s a chance for us to provide some respite to the [recruits] and families who go to the MEPS and experience these long wait times,” USO Vice President of Field Operations Kristen Baxter said. “By placing ourselves in the Military Entrance Processing Stations across the U.S., we have an opportunity to … educate troops and families [about the USO].

“[We want to show them] how the USO can be a part of their life and help them through various phases.”

The USO plans to open eight centers inside MEPS this year in addition to the six that were already serving new recruits in Cleveland, Columbus, Ohio, Dallas, Houston, Milwaukee and Fort Lee, Virginia. USO San Antonio held a soft opening for its MEPS center earlier this month.

The majority of these centers will be near locations where the USO already has an established presence, like Nashville, where the MEPS center is slated to open in October.

“By having an official footprint inside of MEPS we are really able to take care of them in those hours [they’re] sitting become a new service member,” said USO Fort Campbell Center Director Kari Moore, who will oversee the USO Nashville MEPS center. “We get to let the new service members know how we can support them.”

USO Houston Operations Supervisor Sarah Parris said the USO volunteers are also on site at the MEPS centers to provide emotional support to family members of new recruits who might be upset, confused or worried about their relative going through the entrance process. Before the USO was on site, concerned relatives had to direct their questions to MEPS personnel who might not have been able to easily balance answering questions while doing their job.

“The employees of the MEPS building, they’re very excited to see us there because we help the family members cope through the process,” said Parris, who helps run the newly opened USO Houston MEPS center. “It’s a very emotional process that [the family members are] going through.

“A lot of times what our volunteers will do is just be there for a shoulder to lean on.”

Special Delivery, Indeed: Air Force Spouse Leaves USO/What To Expect Baby Shower to Give Birth

Kylee Austin and Heidi Murkoff at the USO Special Delivery event, left, and then hours later at the hospital. Photos courtesy of the Austin family.

Kylee Austin and Heidi Murkoff at the USO Special Delivery event, left, and then hours later at the hospital with Kylee’s husband Air Force Capt. Josh Austin. Photos Copyright Candace Castor.

Heidi Murkoff said the room was beautiful — full of baby shower decorations and brimming with pregnant women.

Kylee Austin, an Air Force spouse and mom-to-be attending the baby shower at the Kadena Officers Club in Okinawa, Japan, had waited a year for the USO event to come back to the country after her friend raved about her experience at the 2014 edition.

“I thought my baby would come before the event and I was really sad I was going to miss out, but I figured I might register anyway just in case,” Austin said.

USO/What to Expect Special Delivery baby showers are a chance for new military moms and moms-to-be to bond with others in their community going through similar experiences, like being away from their family and coping with their spouse missing the birth of their son or daughter. The showers typically feature lunch, traditional baby shower games, supply giveaways and an intimate Q&A session with Murkoff, author of the “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” series.

But this wouldn’t be a typical baby shower.

Austin had gone to the doctor’s that morning and everything looked fine. She was enjoying the event with the other mothers and all of a sudden started having contractions. First seven minutes apart. Then six. Then five.

The USO volunteers were so worried for me, checking on me and offering to drive me to the hospital if necessary,” Austin said, “but I wanted to stick it out to hear what [Murkoff] had to say.”

Murkoff, familiar with pregnant mothers, noticed Austin pacing around the back of the room “looking very serious and talking on the phone.”

“She was doing a lot of belly clutching and holding her back,” Murkoff wrote in an email. “I thought — hmmm, that’s interesting. Sure enough, I found out during the book signing that she had been having contractions and another mama had taken her over to the hospital.”

The timing meant Kylee missed the opportunity to spend one-on-one time with Murkoff, but the USO made a point to bring Murkoff by hospital the next day to meet baby Tristan, who was born at 5:42 a.m. that morning.

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“It isn’t easy being pregnant under the best of circumstances — to do it while serving our country, far from the network of family and friends who usually help and support a mom-to-be through the journey — is exponentially harder,” Murkoff wrote. “To work with the USO to fill in some of those blanks for these mamas is an honor and an incredible opportunity. Plus I love the hugs and the baby cuddles.”

Murkoff says a special delivery during Special Delivery was bound to happen at some point. Still, this was a first for the program.

“The USO was just so sweet and supportive,” Austin said. “My favorite thing about being there was just getting to meet all the other ladies who were pregnant and getting the community support. It was such a neat experience for us and to tell our son in the future.”

True to military fashion, the Austins had their son Tristan while deployed and then less than two weeks later executed orders to return stateside, doing what military families do best.

“It was no surprise to us,” Austin said about receiving orders so soon, “but that’s why we have the USO there to help us out along the way. We take advantage of every center at every airport and that’s honestly what’s been getting us through.”

Duracell and Hilary Swank Help the USO Highlight Military Family Issues

Actress Hilary Swank, center, and USO Senior Vice President Alan Reyes participate in a panel discussion following the premiere of Duracell’s new film “The Teddy Bear” on Thursday at The Times Center in New York. Courtesy photo

Actress Hilary Swank has played several roles, but her first was as the daughter of a now-retired Air Force senior master sergeant.

Swank joined military couple Robert and Denise Nilson (Robert is an air traffic controller in the Navy), Duracell’s Jeff Jarrett and USO Senior Vice President Alan Reyes on Thursday in New York to promote the USO’s partnership with Duracell and the company’s new movie “The Teddy Bear.” The film — which you can watch below — is based on the Nilsons’ deployment experiences.

Swank poses with the Nilson family. Courtesy photo

Swank poses with the Nilson family. Courtesy photo

“One of the biggest eye-openers was watching my husband sail away,” Denise Nilson said. “I believe out of the seven-and-a-half-month deployment, we saw my husband’s face three times via Skype. And only one of them my girls were able to see.”

Denise Nilson was six weeks pregnant when Robert deployed, and they already had two young daughters — one of whom is autistic — and a pet. By the time he returned, the family pet had passed away, they’d gotten a new puppy and Denise was ready to deliver their son at any moment.

“I don’t look at it like our life has hardship. We’re a military family … this is just what we do.”

Duracell is donating $100,000 to the USO Transition 360 Alliance to support the Comfort Crew for Military Kids, which helps children deal with their parents’ deployment and other issues that come up when you’re part of a military family.

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Daddy’s Home! USO Helps with Surprise Father’s Day Weekend Homecoming for Seabee

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Spencer Bouchard came to the USO to record a video. He left with a rapidly forming plan.

Bouchard, a construction electrician petty officer third class in the Navy Seabees, stopped by USO Yokosuka earlier this spring to record a USO/United Through Reading Military Program video for his infant son, Noah. While there, he spoke with the USO staff about surprising his family back in the states. He had a special date in mind: June 20. Not only was it the Saturday before Father’s Day, but it was also Noah’s first birthday party. The USO staff at Yokosuka helped set him up to record the video, which he ended by asking his wife, Courtney, to turn around, knowing he’d be behind her to greet her.

Bouchard’s parents were in on the surprise and helped facilitate the plan while keeping it secret from his wife, Courtney, for three months.

“It was quite the process,” Bouchard said. “I had to be cautious [about what I said] when I Skyped Courtney.”

The Seabee flew from Japan to San Francisco and finally to Cleveland on June 20, where he was greeted by a trio of USO of Northern Ohio volunteers and his parents around 6 a.m. Bouchard’s mom and dad snuck him into their home — which is across the street from Courtney’s parents’ house, where she and Noah are living during the deployment.

By the time Bouchard woke up, Noah’s Mickey Mouse-themed party was already coming to life, with about 40 guests and a few photographers trickling in. Around 1:30 p.m., Bouchard’s mother, Tamara, asked everyone to face the garage where Courtney and Noah were going to watch a special greeting from her son. Bouchard’s father, Paul, was on the phone with him when the DVD started playing and gave him his cue to walk over.

Just as the video was wrapping up, he walked in.

Happiness ensued.

“[She was] shocked and incredibly happy,” Bouchard said. “She was just crying. All the stress she had from [coordinating] Noah’s birthday party and all the stress she had from me being away kind of just disappeared in that one second she saw me.”