Little Things Often Mean the Most: How One Wounded Warrior’s Day was Brightened at the USO

Army Maj. David Keithan

Army Maj. David Keithan

After a brief surgical stay to repair the shoulder he injured during a 2006 tour in Iraq, Army Maj. David Keithan stopped into the USO Warrior Center in Landstuhl, Germany. He just wanted to “chill out and take a break for a minute” before walking the rest of the way to the Fisher House where he was staying.

After signing in, Keithan spotted a jar of spaghetti sauce and a packet of ramen on the counter and it transported him back to his childhood.

“I saw it and I just thought, ‘Man that looks good,’” Keithan said. “I know it sounds really, really weird but I used to eat that as a kid. I’d always throw the packet of flavoring in the Oodles of Noodles away because it was too salty and I’d put spaghetti sauce on it instead. It’s a quick meal and growing up I used to eat it that way all the time.”

Whether it’s the smell of fresh cooking, a familiar brand of coffee or just the “howdy” of an American volunteer, it’s often little things inside each USO center that connect troops to their communities back home.

Keithan, who has been in the Army more than 18 years, asked a USO volunteer if it was okay if his wife – who was traveling with him – cooked him some spaghetti the way he likes it.


“It wasn’t anything gourmet, but it was exactly what I wanted at that moment,” he said. “It’s like chocolate chip cookies made by Grammie. Grammie loves her American service members, and when you eat that cookie you feel connected … and you love her like she’s your own grandmother. I don’t care how young and how tough these soldiers think they are, they all have mothers and grandmothers and they know exactly what I’m talking about.”

Being from a small town in Maine, Keithan says it’s the little things that continue to bring him back to the USO. On one USO visit, he found his favorite local brand of coffee from Boston, which reminded him of home. Another time he was just comforted by hearing a friendly northeastern accent.

“It comes from everywhere,” Keithan said. “We all have different cultures in the States and all these little things come from the people who donate to the USO and as little as those things are — it could be a packet of sauce from your favorite local fast food chain — it brings you back home in that moment.”

The Military Journey and the USO Volunteer

America’s military is an all-volunteer force, and so is the USO.

From the first day of boot camp throughout the cross-country trip to their military occupational schools to a Quonset hut in a foreign country and airports along the journey back home again, USO volunteers are by the side of troops and their families every single day of their service.

Bringing a touch of home to our troops abroad is not an easy task. It takes love, compassion and patriotism. All three of which are qualities USO volunteers carry in spades. Coming from all walks of life, each USO volunteer is dedicated to the simple, heartfelt mission of making every moment count for America’s troops and their families.

‘A Much Needed Shot In The Arm’: Navy Commander Talks About the Impact the USO has on Deployed Troops

USO Sailor of the Year Petty Officer 1st Class Troy Cromer and his wife,

USO Sailor of the Year Petty Officer 1st Class Troy Cromer and his wife, Laura, last week in Washington. USO photo by Mike Theiler

Even bona fide heroes can use a pick-me-up.

Troy Cromer has an Army Commendation Medal, a Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal with Valor, a Combat Action Ribbon an is credited with saving multiple lives during his 2013 deployment to Afghanistan with Navy SEAL Team 10.

Last week, the petty officer first class added 2014 USO Sailor of the Year to his trophy case at the 2014 USO Gala. According to his commanding officer, it was a timely show of appreciation.

“Last week [the] USO lived up to my own personal memories of your dedication to our troops,” Navy Cmdr. Matthew Andrews wrote in an email. “EOD1 Cromer and his family are extremely appreciative for the opportunity to participate. Troy has given so much of himself, and I know that the burdens of his personal sacrifices are shared by his family. It is absolutely phenomenal that the USO recognized Troy, and even more impressive that you were also able to include [and] recognize the critical role our families play.”

According to his gala program citation, Cromer — an explosive ordnance team leader — directed suppressive fire against enemy forces while neutralizing an improvised explosive device planted between two of his team’s vehicles during an ambush in Afghanistan. On another mission, he led four vehicles through an area littered with IEDs, dismantling three of the bombs. And on a third mission, he located a system of caves, destroying the weapons inside and then making sure enemy forces couldn’t use them any longer as underground bunkers.

For Andrews, who also attended the USO Gala, the recognition brought back memories of a USO moment he had during a deployment seven years ago.

“Before this event, my most vivid experience with the ’21st Century USO’ was the reception I received at the Atlanta airport on my mid-deployment R&R layover back in 2007,” he said. “Words would not do justice to the amount of gratitude I felt for the tremendous outpouring of sincere care [and appreciation] as we marched through the airport to resounding applause. That was an extremely tough deployment for me, and that was a particularly tough time during that long deployment. USO provided a much needed shot in the arm. Thank you.”

“The support [the USO gives] the families and forward-deployed guys is above and beyond all,” Cromer said at last week’s USO Gala. “It’s a phenomenal organization.