First Lady Michelle Obama Visits Troops and Spouses at a USO Event in Italy

First Lady Michelle Obama made a surprise visit to U.S. Army Garrison Vicenza on Friday for a USO ice cream social among other activities with the troops.

Obama went on to co-host a surprise baby shower for expectant moms at the base. You can see a full slideshow of her visit over at stripes.com.

“We want you to know we’ve got your backs when you’re going through this part of your lives,” she told military spouses during her visit, according to ABC News. “You’re not alone.”

Video: USO MEGS Keep Troops Gaming in Far Corners of Globe

By 2008, roughly 97 percent of American 12-to-17 year olds were playing video games. Thousands of those kids are now in the military and they’re still gaming—even when they’re deployed—thanks to the USO-developed MEGS (Mobile Entertainment Gaming System).

“MEGS is a portable, ruggedized case containing a console gaming system and a television, which troops can take with them and easily set up anywhere they have a one-ten power connection and play DVDs and video games in a matter of minutes,” said Juston Reynolds, the USO Programs Manager responsible for launching and managing the program.

“The USO started this project about five or six years ago in order to meet the growing needs of deployed troops, and now the project is in its third iteration with the Xbox One and everyone downrange can’t get enough of it.”

Alabama Baseball Tournament Unites Community, Raises More Than $60,000 Over Three Years for the USO

The check presentation. USO photo

The Hits for Heroes check presentation. USO photo

Each spring in America, colored stirrups are excavated from the bottom of sock drawers, hardened orange clay is knocked loose from cleats and home plate is dusted clean so the local baseball diamond – and community – can come to life.

In Dothan, Alabama, the game has evolved beyond America’s pastime to become the way this small town says thank you to the men and women who protect their freedom.

Organized by a self-proclaimed stay-at-home wife who “couldn’t stay at home while service members sacrificed,” Hits for Heroes Director Angela Dunning brought more than 20 teams together in her local area to participate in a two-week baseball tournament to raise awareness of the sacrifices America’s troops make and to raise money so the USO can provide them more comforts when they’re away.

Players and coaches wore camouflage Hits for Heroes jerseys at each game. And during the fifth inning, Dunning invited everyone who is a veteran or military family member onto the field to be honored.

“Our community has just wrapped its arms around it,” said Dunning, who canvassed Dothan to gather corporate sponsors and participants.

“It’s more about the cause than it is about baseball, but because you’re including baseball, we get so many more people participating. And since every single person in America needs to thank our military, it has … become the way this town says ‘thank you.’

“And when it comes to the best vehicle in which to deliver that message of thanks, the USO is a no-brainer.”

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This year’s Hits for Heroes tournament raised $23,000 for the USO, bringing the three-year total donation to more than $60,000.

“I’ve yet to meet a single person who has a relationship with the military — either through their spouse or themselves — who doesn’t have a great story to tell about the USO,” Dunning said. “So we feel honored to partner with the USO and hope we can continue this effort for years to come.”

USO and TAPS Come Through for Army Family After Son’s Suicide

Corey Smith was a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom who committed suicide in 2012

Corey Smith, a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, committed suicide Dec. 29, 2012. Courtesy of the Smith family

Like every Saturday morning, Kathy Smith expected a phone call from her Army veteran son.

But on this Saturday, it was a call from someone else.

“Corey Jon Smith, what did you do? Oh my God kid! What did you do?” she recalls shouting aloud from her bathroom before gathering the family at her oldest son Travis’ house to share the tragic news.

Their beloved Corey, her youngest child who had struggled with post-traumatic stress for years after serving in Iraq and who was close to graduating with a psychology degree with the intention of helping others going through similar problems, had committed suicide at his home in Anchorage, Alaska.

“You know what, God,” she recalled saying, “I absolutely do not agree with this plan. I don’t like this plan and I don’t agree with it.

“But I believe in you and I trust you, and I’m trusting that you’re going to take care of us now, because we have to get to Anchorage.”

Corey Smith on deployment in Iraq, 2006. Courtesy photo

Corey Smith during a 2006 Iraq deployment.

Kathy said the family had recently spent the last of its savings on her nursing school tuition and were trying to figure out how to get gas and food for the week. There were no funds to get to Anchorage.

“When TAPS stepped into the picture with the USO, they covered all of those areas,” she said. “When I told you they were the answer to a prayer, I wasn’t kidding. They answered our prayers to a ‘T.’ There’s not a day that goes by that we don’t think of the people at TAPS and the USO.”

On Dec. 29, 2012, TAPS (Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors) received a call from a friend who lived near the Smith family in Big Lake, Minnesota, explaining the Smiths’ need to get to Anchorage quickly to comfort their 26-year-old now-widowed daughter-in-law and 3-year-old granddaughter.

TAPS moved quickly to make that happen. The only available flight plan included an overnight layover in Seattle, which meant asking the USO to act as a concierge for the family. Within days, the Smiths were on their way to Alaska, arriving at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport just as the ball was dropping to start 2013 in New York City.

“We were so exhausted,” Tim Smith said. “In a situation like that, you wouldn’t know what you want if you wanted it, your brain is so scrambled and confused — kind of just hanging in limbo.”

USO SeaTac Director Bill Baker greeted them and guided them to the USO, where they stayed until their 6 a.m. flight.

“It was a heartbreaking week to say the least,” Baker said. “My volunteers did an amazing job taking care of them and made them feel so comfortable and welcome when they asked if they could stay in the USO instead of a hotel so they could be closer to military troops.”

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With an early flight and Kathy nursing a broken foot from dropping her laptop bag on it that day, they decided staying at the USO was the most convenient decision.

“I remember we went to bed at about 1:30 or 2 a.m. but the gentleman on duty at the USO said he had an alarm set for us, and that he and another woman would be up all night to look over us” Kathy Smith said. “I know for a fact that they were because I saw them come in and check on us. I couldn’t sleep, so I watched her pull the covers up over my daughter.”

The Smiths made it to Anchorage for the funeral proceedings and back to their home outside Minneapolis without further incident, all the while being watched over by TAPS and USO volunteers.

“Throughout the whole time we would get calls from TAPS asking us if we needed anything or if we forgot anything,” Kathy Smith said. “They called to make sure we got to the USO safely and we got calls shortly after we arrived. Every step of the way they made sure that we weren’t stranded anywhere at any point in time.

“In that moment and in so many others, USO volunteers made a grieving family feel more comfortable and gave them such care during a very difficult time,” said Bonnie Carroll, President and Founder of TAPS. “It’s the perfect example of why and how our organizations rely on each other to care for military families during their most difficult moments.”

His sister Autum set up a peer support foundation called Coreysadventuresfoundation.org, to memorialize Corey by connecting veterans with each other and by connecting the families dealing with the aftermath of PTSD-related suicides. Corey believed in “Faith, Family, Friends, and Freedom,” but at his heart he was an adventure-seeker who believed in the brotherhood of one soldier to another. The Smiths believe the key is to facilitate outdoor adventures and activities where veterans and families can meet and connect.

“I miss him very much,” Kathy Smith said. “But there are still Saturdays when I wake up thinking Corey’s going to call today.”

12 Things You May Not Know About Women in the Military

Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester stands at attention before receiving the Silver Star on June 16, 2005, at Camp Liberty, Iraq. DOD photo

Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester stands at attention before receiving the Silver Star on June 16, 2005, at Camp Liberty, Iraq. DOD photo

Here are 12 pieces of trivia about the legacy of women in the United States military. See if you know them:

1. Although they weren’t officially enlisted at first, women have served in the U.S. Army since 1775. In the 18th century, American women tended to the wounded, washed and mended clothing and cooked for male troops.

Mary_Edwards_Walker

Mary E. Walker

2. In 1779, Margaret Corbin became the first woman to receive a military pension. During the Revolutionary War, Corbin manned her husband’s canon after he was shot and killed in battle. Corbin was subsequently injured in the same battle and never fully recovered from her wounds.

3. After the Civil War, Dr. Mary E. Walker was awarded the Medal of Honor for her work as a contract surgeon in the Union Army. She’s the only woman to receive this award. In 1917, Walker was stripped of her medal due to changes in regulations. After many appeals, her medal was reinstated in 1977.

4. In 1866, Cathay Williams was the first African American woman to enlist in the Army, doing so under the pseudonym William Cathay. She was assigned to the 38th U.S. Infantry. Despite being hospitalized for illness several times, she managed to hide her gender for almost two years before a post surgeon discovered she was a female, leading to her discharge.

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Twin sisters Genevieve and Lucille Baker

Twins Genevieve and Lucille Baker. DOD photo

5. Women were officially allowed to join the U.S. military during last two years of World War I, and 33,000 of them signed up to work as nurses and in other support roles. More than 400 nurses died serving America during the Great War.

6. In 1918, twins Genevieve and Lucille Baker became two of the first women to serve in the Coast Guard.

7. Navy Rear Adm. Grace Hopper was one of the first — and most influential — computer programmers. Hopper played an important role in the development of the COBOL programming language and helped shape how programmers code today. Also, she’s often credited with popularizing the term “debugging.”

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Navy Adm. Grace Hopper at work. DOD photo

8. During World War II, 88 American women were captured and held as prisoners of war.

9. Brig. Gen. Hazel W. Johnson-Brown was the first African American woman to become an Army general. Brown enlisted in 1955 and later became the chief of the Army Nurse Corps.

10. Females weren’t allowed to attend the four service academies until 1976. The USO’s magazine On Patrol profiled some of these women in its Spring 2012 issue.

Col. Linda McTague

Col. Linda McTague.

11. In 2004, Col. Linda McTague became the first woman commander of an Air National Guard wing and also the first woman to command an Air Force fighter squadron.

12. In 2005, Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester (pictured at the beginning of this story) became the first woman since World War II to receive the Silver Star for combat actions.

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.