Legendary Dad: How Online Gaming Brought One Marine Family Closer Together

Today, troops and families around the world come together with video games – many of them at USO centers. But that wasn’t always the case. USO Staff Writer Joseph Andrew Lee remembers the beginning of online console gaming– and how it brought him closer to his family despite being stationed half a world away:

When I visit my parents’ house, the first thing I hear when I walk through the door is a face-melting guitar solo followed by a string of heavy machine gun fire.

No, I’m not an Osbourne or a Schwarzenegger. My parents are online gamers. My father is well known (and feared) across the spectrum of first-person shooters, while my mother is known to snap-kick like Steven Tyler when she heats up on a Guitar Hero riff.

For years now, the living room gaming console has made my parents’ house a home. It’s not just a toy. For them, it’s a fountain of youth.

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Tommy Lee aka Legendary Dad, can be seen on Skype while playing Battlefield 3 against his son, Joe Lee just last week. USO photo by Joseph Andrew Lee

As a teenager, “Goldeneye 007″ was a mainstay on Nintendo 64. In fact, I believe 007 was the first video game my dad ever attempted to master. He would get so angry whenever my brother and I would ambush him. He would ignore the dinner bell for hours until he was able to kill one of the two of us. Then — and only then — was it was time to eat. (Yes, sometimes I was hungry enough to let him win.)

My dad was already in his 50s when I left for boot camp in 1997, so my brother and I give him a lot of credit: He didn’t just play video games with us, but he actually took the time to learn how to set an effective proximity mine and launch an MGL round at just the right angle so it would land directly in someone’s path. Trust me, this takes skill, and is good reason to be impressed. If technology were alive it would have a restraining order against my dad.

When I left home at 17, I probably missed those gaming days the most. Not so much getting blown up by a random grenade, but the trash-talking and hanging out with my family and friends. Keeping my dad up to date on the latest games and watching him become proficient at them was really fun for us. We felt like it kept him young. When my siblings and I left the house, it was sad to think that without us he might grow old and lose track of how to play the newer, more technical games.

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“Goldeneye 007″: A father’s introduction to gaming.

I spent the first two years as a Marine in Okinawa, Japan, and I missed my dad and brother a lot. I could tell they missed me, too, but phone conversations between the boys always felt forced and awkward. Maybe it was just me, but I just never felt it was a guy thing to jabber on the phone about Grandma’s new hip or to describe what I just ate for dinner (pre-Instagram).

In the year 2000, (queue up Conan O’Brien bit) the world was supposed to change dramatically. In most respects it stayed very much the same. In the world of console gaming, however, there were some significant changes taking place.

Two paradigm-shifting consoles hit the ground running in the first few years of the century, and once they got their respective online networks established in 2002, Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network began connecting families like mine.

The PlayStation Network was a free service, so it probably comes as no surprise this was the console of choice for a broke, young, enlisted Marine like me. The first big shooter to come out for the PlayStation Network was a game called SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs.

I was immediately engrossed.

The title was revolutionary in that every copy was packaged with a microphone headset intended to promote in-game communication. But as a perhaps unforeseen byproduct, the headsets created a new communication platform for fathers and sons, brothers and friends. Finally, the men in my family had a way to discuss Grandpa’s colon cancer with dignity — while shooting each other in the face.

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“SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs” became an international family affair for the Lees.

The first of my family to connect online was my brother and me. As an active duty Marine, my skills were valued in this new form of online competition, and as an aspiring Web designer, his skills were also useful. We made friends with other gamers quickly and formed a team (called a “clan” in first-person shooters) named Special Operations Training Group (SOTG). He built out our website and discussion forum while I designed our team’s tactical strategies. At its peak, SOTG had more than 200 adult gamers who played SOCOM daily. Many were active duty military. Some were on my base. Some were veterans assigned to Camp Couch, 1st HOME. Others aspired to be – and eventually became – servicemen and women themselves. All are still my close friends today.

Gaming was a reprieve from military life as well as a direct portal home. Knowing my family and friends were just a power button away lifted my spirits greatly while I was in the service. Before online console gaming, my brother and I spoke once every couple of years. Now we were hanging out daily.

Over the years the games have changed but the bond has stayed the same.

“Goldeneye” turned to “SOCOM” turned to “Battlefield” turned to “Call of Duty,” but I feel comforted knowing that somewhere out there, my dad is virtually mowing down fields of teenage gamers with an arsenal of automatic weapons. Maybe even with a flame-thrower (tear).

My Mom still kicks shoes across the living room, rocking out to Drowning Pool while simultaneously baking a five-layer wedding cake for one of my sister’s friends.

My brother doesn’t play so much these days, but when I have a chance, I still jump online to hang out with (and generally get “pwned” by) my father, whose call sign couldn’t be more accurate.

His name is Legendary Dad. Find him online and he will kill you.

–By Joseph Andrew Lee, USO Staff Writer (aka SOTG Marine)

News Roundup: A Day in the Park for Stuttgart Students, Milwaukee-Area Troops

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USO volunteers and staff served food to Patch High School seniors June 4 as part of graduation week festivities. USO photo

With 72 years of practice, the USO knows how to throw a party.

And after sitting through ceremony practice last week, 170 graduating students from Patch High School in Stuttgart, Germany, needed a break.

USO Stuttgart – with help from the parents of the graduating seniors – held a barbecue for the grads June 4, with USO staff and volunteers served up hamburgers, hot dogs, sides and desserts.

When they were done eating, students were treated to an afternoon of lawn games including a water balloon toss, volleyball and croquet.

“We appreciate the USO so much for coming out and supporting the seniors,” said Sheryl Wagner, the Patch High School Guidance Department secretary and mother of a senior.

USO of Wisconsin, Milwaukee Brewers Honor Troops with Mass First Pitch

Fifty-eight troops participated in a mass first pitch May 27 at Miller Park in Milwaukee. USO photo

Fifty-eight troops participated in a mass first pitch May 27 at Miller Park in Milwaukee. USO photo

Fifty-eight people lining the infield of Miller Park were all thinking the same thing: “Just don’t let me throw it in the dirt.”

On Memorial Day, the USO of Wisconsin and the Milwaukee Brewers teamed to do something special for thousands of troops. Not only did they combine to donate and distribute 5,000 tickets to the May 27 Brewers game against the Minnesota Twins, but they also placed 58 troops on the field before the game to throw out simultaneous ceremonial first pitches.

The Brewers Community Foundation also held a 50/50 raffle that afternoon, with proceeds going to the USO of Wisconsin.

–Story by USO Story Development

Say It With Flowers

Search for "USO" on the FTD Flowers site to find some extra patriotic gifts!

Search for “USO” on the FTD Flowers site to find some extra patriotic gifts!

This time of year, the most popular USO partner promotion is with FTD Flowers! You’re probably not surprised, but no less delighted to learn of the details: for all of 2013, FTD will be offering customers who visit ftd.com/uso a 20% discount on flowers, plants and gifts AND will donate 5% of the purchase price to the USO.

“We are proud to forge a strong partnership with a wonderful, well-respected organization like the USO,” said Rob Apatoff, president of FTD. “The men and women of the U.S. Military perform an invaluable service to this country and we are proud to support an organization that provides them with so many important services and programs.”

In addition, FTD is delivering 10,000 flowers to USO centers about the country next Friday! The centers will be handing them out to service men and women to keep or give to their own mothers for Mother’s Day.

Thank You for the Memory

Debbie Fink – co-author of “The Little C.H.A.M.P.S – Child Heroes Attached to Military Personnel“ is currently on a USO tour of the Pacific talking to children from military families. Here is a blog post about her trip:

Alas, all momentous memories must come to an “intermission” as they become – memories.

DSC00946 copyOur whirlwind, 26-event Little C.H.A.M.P.S (Child Heroes Attached to Military Personnel) USO Tour through mainland Japan and Okinawa, reaching 6,000+ Champs, is now settling into a monumental memory.

Thank you for the memory bound in classes filing in, singing  their song, “The Little Champs.”  Thank you to DoDEA’s music educators who took the time to teach it.

Thank you for the memory created as we exalted the Champs from each of the five branches, as the USO’s talented Cristin Perry led them singing their branch hymn while I roamed with my fiddle – getting close up and personal.  Each hymn was followed by everyone calling out in voice and American Sign Language (ASL):  “Go [NAVY] Champs!”

Thank you for the memory born as I shared the ‘backstory’ about the Little Champs’ book and song, followed by viewing  the Little Champs YouTube video, linking aural learning with visual learning: 

Thank you for the memory imbedded in reviewing a writer’s Six Golden Questions (Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How);  and answering the questions in our book.  Hats off to our 156 volunteers, dubbed the Golden Questioneers!

Thank you for the memory fixed in my retelling the story’s plot on one foot in the yoga tree pose in ~25 seconds!

Thank you for the memory steeped in introducing each of our book’s characters, branch by branch, giving the Champs ways to “connect” to each character.  Our USMC character Lo even got me cartwheeling again (26x) ~ now that’s quite a memory!

Thank you for the memory set as we addressed the challenge of being on-the-move as Champs, collectively conducting  research identifying the “mode” for the total number of moves made by our Champs thus far.  The overall mode was 3-4 times.  Our Champs became statisticians!

Thank you for the memory rooted as we dug deeper, addressing other challenges faced by Champs:  deployments, injuries/wounds, and homecomings (reintegration).  Thank you to the 234 “Emotioneers;” the Champs who held out the emotions discussed at each event, as we addressed the need to feel and deal with, and identify, our emotions.

Thank you for the memory as we highlighted that it is a Champ’s  right to ask for help; that communication and community are key; and that it is our responsibility, as trusted adults, to respond to their pleas for help.

Thank you for the memory implanted in our emphasis on how each Champs is special, and has a spark.  They loved watching my co-author/songwriter Jen Fink, who was beamed in from the University of Maryland, alongside her oversized bear, delivering her message of gratitude and our “Heart Smart A-B-C Song” (available on OperationChamps.org).

DSC00735Thank you for the memory placed in Champs “finding” their Heart Smart Magnifying Lens, and filling it with virtues – taught in ASL – that they’ve already ‘learned and earned,’ simply by being a Champ:  Worldliness; Honor; Loyalty; Patriotism; Communication and Community; Adaptability and Flexibility; and gobs of our Gratitude for all they do for America.

Thank you for the memory sharing some role playing about positive differences between civilian kids and Champs (e.g., Civilians say ‘Goodbye;’ Champs say ‘Farewell.’”)

Thank you for the memory – hearing ~36 shining singers lead their peers, singing The National Anthem.  The audience stood tall and proud, hands over hearts, reflecting upon how they and their families help keep America ‘the land of the free and the home of the brave’ as they sang.

Thank you for the memory – the soaring memories amidst the incredible memories – when we concluded each ‘edu-tainment’ event clapping and singing “The Little Champs” at the top of our lungs, dancing on the tips of our toes, and smiling from ear to ear.  The resounding cheer at the end, the “Go Champs!” – shouted and signed in ASL by all – reverberated ‘round the room, and reverberates in our hearts.

Thank you for the memory – seeing the Champs file out, class by class, with song in their hearts; dance in their steps; pride in their souls; virtues on their mind; and a Little Champs book awaiting their li’l hands.

Thank you for the memory that comes from working with such committed, compassionate, and competent staff and volunteers at both the USO and DoDEA.

With a heartfelt attitude of gratitude to all involved, and especially to our 6,000 shining Champs that currently reside in mainland Japan and Okinawa, I conclude with a quote from Bob Hope’s signature song, “Thank You for the Memory”:  Awfully glad I met you / Cheerio and toodle-oo / Thank you.

To close with “The Little Champs’” signature song, Goodbyes are not forever / Goodbyes are not the end / They simply mean we’ll miss you / Until we meet again!

I’m ready to make more memories!  Go Champs!  Go USO! – Debbie Fink, Author, Edutainer And USO Tour Vet

For more information on the tour, visit:  facebook.com/AuthorDebbieFink or OperationChamps.org

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!