Operation C.H.A.M.P.s’ USO Tour Kicks Off in Japan

After a recent reading of her book “The Little C.H.A.M.P.s – Child Heroes Attached to Military Personnel,” author Debbie Fink overheard two fourth grade girls discussing an all-too-familiar story.

Debbie Fink, co-author of “The Little C.H.A.M.P.s – Child Heroes Attached to Military Personnel,” speaks to kids at Fort Meade, Md., on Oct. 25. Fink launched her USO tour in Japan this week. USO Photo by Mike Theiler

One CHAMP asked her civilian classmate what it’s like not having to move all the time. The girl said she liked staying in one place because she could keep the same friends and live in the same house.

The CHAMP admitted she’d never experience anything like that, but quickly found the silver lining, pointing out how excited she is each time she gets to redecorate her room.

With a new understanding of each other, they both agreed to give the book four out of four stars.

“The Little C.H.A.M.P.s” follows the lives of five fictional military children, celebrating their families’ service and sacrifice to our country while showing how they cope with the challenges associated with military life. The book aims to build a bridge of understanding between military kids and their civilian peers.

For the next two weeks, author Debbie Fink will be on a whirlwind tour of Japan and Okinawa “edu-taining” and delivering support and comfort to 6,000 CHAMPS currently living in the Pacific. The USO has teamed with Fink to provide the book free of charge to children in military families in an attempt to prepare them for the ups and downs of life as a dependent.

According to Fink, one of the key drives for the initiative and the inspiration for the book was the Defense Department’s Strengthening our Military Families report. The report says military children in public schools don’t feel like their peers or teachers understand them.

“We have to change that,” Fink said. “We will change that. Child by child, classroom by classroom, school by school, we can make a difference.”

As an Andrews Sisters wannabe (they clocked in 1,000 USO performances supporting our troops), Fink says she can’t think of a greater honor as a civilian than to go on tour with the USO. Fink wants to share some of this momentous experience with readers on Twitter, where they can follow her 25 performances at 13 schools, on Facebook, where they can track her adventures and like her page, and on her blog at OperationCHAMPS.org.

“We hope that by sharing, it will help build a bridge of understanding between our civilian and military worlds,” she said. “We surely owe this — and much more — to our military families.”

–Story by Joseph Andrew Lee, USO staff writer

Google, USO Honor Military With Circus Performance

Screen Shot 2012-12-07 at 1.00.37 PMAs a part of Veterans Week NYC, the USO and Google teamed up with Big Apple Circus to provide laughs for more than 1,500 veterans, active duty service members and their families! This special performance opened with a full military color guard, with the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ performed by the USO Liberty Bells, and an had a guest ringmaster, Congressional Medal of Honor Recipient Paul Bucha of the U.S. Army. The show was held in NYC’s Lincoln Center and also streamed live on both YouTube and Google+.

Jenny Milewski, wife of SSGT Bryan Milewski  said “We were thrilled to have the opportunity to see the Big Apple Circus! Each family member had a favorite part—we had never been to the Big Apple Circus, but we are now going to make it a family tradition! This was one of the highlights of Veterans Week, and the USO has been so wonderful to our family.”

Watch some of the highlights with your family now!

Eight New USO Wishbook Gifts

What’s new for the USO Wishbook this year? We have eight new gift options for you to choose from!

Flight Home Comfort Kit
For $60, make the trip home a bit more comfortable for wounded troops by helping to provide blankets and airplane pillows.

Run a Day Room for a Month
For $1,500 you can foot the bill for one of Afghanistan’s Warrior Day Rooms that give wounded ill or injured troops a refuge from the frontlines to heal.

Writing the Right Resume
For just $150, help Hire Heroes USA & the USO in our efforts to provide wounded, ill & injured troops with resumes & practice interviews that helps them to best represent their military skills & experience as they transition to the civilian sector.

Help Wounded Troops Navigate Their New Normal
$1,000 will assist the USO and AspenPointe Peer Navigator as it facilitates mentorship between community leaders and returning wounded troops.

Relaunch a Troop’s Career
With Career Opportunity Days, wounded, ill and injured troops are given guidance to secure jobs as they reintegrate into the private sector. Help for $250.

Give a Getaway to a Healing Family
Help fund retreat programs for $750 with the USO and TAPS (Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors) to organize getaways designed to mend families after trauma and tragedy.

Send a Military Child to Camp
Unique camps provide military children from families of the fallen or kids who have recuperating parents with getaways designed to focus on their well-being. Send a child for $500.

Keep USO Mobile on the Go
Keep USO Mobile rolling with a $500 contribution that allows the wheeled USO supply center on the road, supporting stateside troops at events and military installations.

Thanks for Thanksgiving!

Let’s talk turkey.

The basic annual pay for junior enlisted troops comes in around $25,000.

It’s on this salary alone that many are supporting an entire family. During the holidays, these dollars can get extremely tight. So tight that a traditional Thanksgiving dinner might end up “off the table.”

In Kaiserslautern, Germany, there is a USO program that has kept that dinner on the table for the past 14 years, and more and more enlisted troops and families are fed each year.

It’s called Thanks for Thanksgiving, and this year it fed a record 600 junior enlisted and their families!

Junior enlisted troops were individually selected based on their family size and financial needs to receive a full Thanksgiving dinner, complete with stuffing, cranberry sauce, and even a movie to watch with the family. USO photo

“It’s the USO’s way of saying “Thank You” for their service during these past years of multiple deployments, long separations of families, and to assist in taking some of the financial stress off their shoulders,” wrote Colleen Lynch, USO Kaiserslautern Area Operations Manager in an email reporting the program’s most successful year to date.

Each year, on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, the USO partners with Army Community Services, the Vogelweh Commissary, and several other community organizations to provide a full, traditional Thanksgiving meal to deserving junior enlisted service members and their families.
According to USO Europe, this year’s dinner was also the most generous to date.

Of course, the meal included a sizeable turkey. But in addition, troops received a grocery bag with two boxes of stuffing mix, two cans of green beans, two cans of cranberry sauce, a can of sweet potatoes, pumpkin pie, dinner rolls, a can of fruit, a box of hot chocolate mix, 12 Nestle ice cream sandwiches, and a Stars and Stripes newspaper and calendar.

Senior enlisted leadership from each participating unit and the Sergeants Major Association worked together to assemble the bags for their troops at 7 a.m., prior to the first families arriving.

“The program is really about seniors caring for juniors,” said Michael Lewis, Director of Operations for USO Europe. “They personally prepared the bags and personally delivered the groceries to their troops, along with a heartfelt ‘Happy Thanksgiving.’”

The USO mobile canteen was on site serving breakfast burritos, coffee, hot chocolate, hot cider and orange juice, and commissary employees cooked eggs and sausage non-stop from 5:30 am until the end to keep the canteen supplied.

Service Credit Union came through with $25,000 worth of in-kind donations to support the program, including a $25 Visa gift card for each of the families. Once families received their dinner they had the opportunity to select a DVD for each family thanks to Disney and the USO.

“I believe that we have achieved our goal beyond our expectations this year thanks to everyone involved,” wrote Lynch. “On behalf of the USO I would like to express our thanks to each and every one of you involved for making this event so successful and I look forward to continuing the tradition next year! – Story by Joseph Andrew Lee, USO Staff Writer

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

USO, Sandals Grants Honeymoon Wish for Military Family

The happy family!

Jennifer Burnett married the man of her dreams.

After a whirlwind romance, she and Army Spc. Bryan Burnett rushed to wed in a courtroom ceremony in the spring of 2010, just before his pending deployment. The newlyweds weren’t able to celebrate with a honeymoon.

“Ever since then we’ve been praying and trying to plan a ‘real’ wedding with our families, but have not been able to afford it,” Jennifer said. “I was eight months pregnant when he shipped off, and it was so hard those first months as a parent without him.”

Bryan returned home after 10 months in Afghanistan to meet his son, Bentley, for the first time. But he’d missed all of the firsts. First steps, first anniversaries and everything else that goes with being a new father.

“It seems we have been in a rut since he returned,” she wrote in her submission essay to the USO in an effort to win a Sandals WeddingMoon vacation. “It would be a dream come true for us to have both of our families together to witness the renewal of our vows, and to see the genuine love we have for one another and our pride and joy, Bentley.”

The Burnetts were selected—along with more than 20 other military families—to attend a star-studded, interactive bridal experience at Grand Central Terminal in New York City. The event was hosted by Sandals Resorts and special guest emcee, Randy Fenoli, star of TLC’s “Say Yes to the Dress” and “Randy to the Rescue.”

The main event was dubbed the Ultimate Bouquet Toss, where the sea of military brides gathered behind Fenoli for a chance to win them their dream WeddingMoon, as well as a wedding dress and tuxedo. Maria Yates—who traveled all the way from Fort Dix, N.J., with her husband, Jason, a member of the Air Force—caught the bouquet.

For a brief moment, the Burnetts were disappointed they didn’t win the grand prize. But that disappointment quickly turned into elation when the USO and Sandals Resorts made their dreams come true anyway. Sandals Chairman Gordon “Butch” Stewart and CEO Adam Stewart took the stage after the toss and surprised all the military couples in attendance with the gift of a free honeymoon.

“Everyone went crazy,” Jennifer said. “It caught us totally by surprise. We were excited just to get the trip to New York City. Bryan had just returned from a second deployment to Afghanistan, so it was the first time we really got to spend any time together.”

The couple chose to have their honeymoon at Sandals Royal Plantation in Jamaica.

“It’s nice to see companies like Sandals and organizations like the USO willing to do things like this for us,” Bryan said. “There are probably so many other couples more deserving, but we can’t thank Sandals and the USO enough for this. You truly made our dream come true.” - Joseph Andrew Lee, USO Staff Writer

The Little Champs’ Visit to Manor View ES

We stood among 321 Champs at Manor View ES of Fort Meade to talk about The Little Champs  – Child Heroes Attached to Military Personnel.  Thanks to the USO’s commitment to our Nation’s littlest heroes, each student was given his/her very own copy of the book; to have and to hold, to read and to reread.  Meanwhile, the students had read The Little Champs in their classrooms with their teachers before we arrived.  Their minds, hearts and souls were full.  There was a wellspring of energy and emotion: the school’s guidance counselor noted, finally, this is a book that is about them and for them – and honors them.

The Little Champs accomplished its mission through literature and music, reaching and teaching to multiple learning styles.  The story intertwines their stories, with characters to whom they could relate.   As one parent commented, “the characters are ‘real time.’  My kid takes it wherever she goes.’”   Its characters walk the walk, talk the talk, and ‘feel the feel’ ­– they experience the multitude of emotions that our Champs experience.   Its characters acknowledge their feelings, and deal constructively and proactively with their situation, learning more about their inner strengths in the process.  I like to call it building resiliency by building character.

 Among the feedback from teachers, parents, and the guidance counselor, the story   evoked “Aha!” moments, proud smiles, cathartic tears, grateful giggles, and sighs of relief.

One 5th grade teacher said:  “I want to thank you very much for writing such a wonderful book for our military children.   Fifth graders have a lot of emotions as military children, and they’re not always open with their feelings.  They’re not always able to express what it is that they’re feeling.  They may be angry or upset or sad.

“During the time we were reading the book, they were making so many connections, and having these ‘A-ha’ moments, and just really related to what they were reading.  I had one student who, when the book talked about the Champ whose stomach dropped when the dad was moving the family back to the East Coast – he had experienced the exact same thing.  The student teared up and said, ‘Ms. Ricker, I have that connection.  The same thing happened to me and my family, and my stomach dropped.’  It was an opening to talk about it.

“I really appreciate that there’s a book to help them express their emotions, and lets them know they’re not alone.  These feelings are okay.  It’s okay to be angry.  It’s okay to be sad.  It’s just part of what comes with having a parent deployed or having to move a lot.  It’s a great book, and was a great experience, and one that I really appreciate.

“My favorite part was that we sat cuddled up together on the carpet; the kids were sooo into the book; each kid had his/her own book that s/he could go through; they didn’t want to stop reading until we’d finished . . . it was such a special, warm experience for all of us.”

In addition, each child had created a personalized “I Am Me” card, that they’d then placed in a Champ Chest.  The Champ Chests were decorated by University of MD’s college students, covered with motivational comments, through Operation Champs.   It was quite special to see them place their “I Am Me” cards in the Champ Chests as they headed to feast upon the ice cream treats that awaited . . . another sweet USO touch to make this a most memorable, multi-sensory experience for all!

We walked away with full hearts, full Champ Chests, and the knowledge that we’d reached out and touched the hearts and souls and minds of 321 of our Nation’s littlest heroes. – Debbie Fink, MA, Author