Football is Back: A Look at How the NFL Supports the USO

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The return of the NFL season marks 48 years since the league started supporting America’s troops through the USO.

Starting with the first USO/NFL tour to Vietnam in 1966 — which featured Pro Football Hall-of-Famers Johnny Unitas, Willie Davis, Sam Huff and Frank Gifford — to March’s USO/NFL tour featuring Jimmy Graham, Pierre Garcon and Brandon Fields, the league has found ways to consistently show it’s appreciation to America’s troops.

“We are proud of our relationship with the USO that dates back more than 45 years and includes dozens of overseas visits to troops and trips to military hospitals nationwide,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell wrote in an email interview with the USO earlier this year. “The USO is an important partner for the NFL because our collaboration enables the NFL to give something back to the men and women in uniform that have given so much to all of us.”

Goodell became the first NFL commissioner to go on a USO tour when he traveled overseas in 2008.

“That USO tour was a privilege and had a profound impact on me,” he wrote. “The NFL’s support for the military had always been a priority, but it was really striking to see firsthand how much NFL football means to our service members overseas. Some of our players were traveling with me and we all came back with a renewed and strengthened commitment to our troops.”

Here are five ways the NFL has supported troops over the past few years:

  • NFL_321NFL Sports Lounge: The NFL pledged $2 million to build the NFL Sports Lounge inside the USO Warrior and Family Center on Naval Support Activity Bethesda, Home of Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. The center serves as a home away from home for severely wounded, ill and injured troops recovering on the hospital campus.
  • Discounted tickets for troops: If you’re a service member who happens to be a fan of the Browns, Jaguars, Dolphins, Jets, Raiders, Chargers, Buccaneers or Redskins, you have the opportunity to buy discount tickets and/or stadium parking passes this season.
  • Salute to Service: The USO is one of three military nonprofits the NFL supports through it’s November Salute to Service games. A donation is made to each nonprofit for every point scored in these games, and special camouflage gear worn by the players in Salute to Service games is also auctioned off to benefit the organizations.

Your USO At Work: April 2014 — Warrior and Family Center at Bethesda Opens

USO officials, military leaders and celebrities cut the ribbon to USO's Warrior and Family Center at Bethesda.  USO Photo by Mike Theiler

USO officials, military leaders and celebrities cut the ribbon to USO’s Warrior and Family Center at Bethesda. USO Photo by Mike Theiler

USO Opens New Warrior and Family Center at Bethesda

After a year of construction and several years of planning and fundraising, the ribbon was finally cut on April 1 at the USO Warrior and Family Center located on Naval Support Activity Bethesda, home of the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland.

The center – which is the sister structure to the USO Warrior and Family Center at Fort Belvoir, Va. – opened to troops, families and caregivers the next day and provided a much-needed home away from home for wounded, ill and injured troops and their families and caregivers living on the installation.

More than 200 people – including Department of Defense officials, wounded warriors, esteemed donors and even Miss America – attended the ceremony at the new center.

“This is where the future begins,” USO President and CEO John I. Pray, Jr., said. “We built this Warrior and Family Center to serve all troops and their families who pass through this healing center of excellence.”

The 16,217-square-foot center has places for recovering troops and their families and caregivers to relax and plan their futures away from the grind of the hospital. Outfitted with state-of-the-art technology, the Warrior and Family Center has a classroom for recovering troops to take college courses, plenty of computers and a fireside lounge and kitchen where they can relax and grab a bite to eat.

Troops seeking to have a good time can hit the sports lounge, where they can watch the biggest games, or visit the studio, where they can work on creative projects or jam on house instruments.

“It’s hard to capture in words what a center like this means to recovering warriors and their families,” said Adm. James A. Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “To be able to get away – in the midst of it all – to such a beautiful, peaceful and comfortable place right here on campus … is more than just nice to have. It is an essential part of recovery.”

Cheryl Laaker Hall, vice president of operations for USO of Metropolitan Washington-Baltimore, spoke with confidence when she talked about the center’s future.

“We’re very certain, after the last few days of being here, that we have a winner,” she said. “We know that troops and families want to be here. They need a place like this, where they can go and be themselves. … We’re just so proud to have this facility and be able to be that space for them.”

USO,What to Expect Foundation Host Baby Showers for Military Moms-To-Be

The time-honored tradition of celebrating the birth of a child with a baby shower is one of the moments many of our expectant military moms miss out on, especially if they live overseas. To help fill that void, the USO, in collaboration with the What to Expect Foundation and author Heidi Murkoff, brought “Special Delivery,” a very special baby shower to military moms in Landstuhl, Germany.

Best-selling author Heidi Murkoff hugs a service member at a Special Delivery baby shower held in Landstuhl, Germany, in March. USO photo

Best-selling author Heidi Murkoff hugs a service member at a Special Delivery baby shower held in Landstuhl, Germany, in March. USO photo

“Motherhood is the ultimate sisterhood,” said Murkoff, the best-selling author of “What to Expect When You’re Expecting.” “For military moms-to-be, far from their immediate family and friends, these baby showers are more than gift bags and cake. They are about connecting and sharing a common bond and creating friendships with women experiencing the same mix of emotions.”

Over three days, the USO and the What to Expect Foundation hosted three baby showers for hundreds of new and expecting military moms in Germany. Each baby shower featured food, gifts and games as well as a question-and-answer session and book signing with Murkoff.

“Military families sacrifice countless everyday moments in service to our country,” said USO Europe Regional Vice President Walt Murren. “It is such an honor for USO Europe to host a program like Special Delivery, because for many of these women this may be their only baby shower. We want to make sure it’s an experience they won’t soon forget.”

Find out how you can show your support for military moms by visiting USOmoments.org.

Longtime USO of Georgia CEO Looks Back – and Forward

As the Vietnam War was raging in late 1968, a USO ad in a newspaper caught the eye of Mary Lou Austin, who was teaching in Washington, D.C. After interviewing for a job, she was hired and sent to New York City – then the home of USO headquarters.

USO of Georgia President and CEO Mary Lou Austin. Courtesy photo

USO of Georgia President and CEO Mary Lou Austin. Courtesy photo

Forty-five years later – after holding numerous USO jobs and traveling around the world – Austin is still with the organization, serving as president and CEO of the USO of Georgia.

“I guess you can say the ad made me curious,” she said. “The organization interested me, and the mission compelled me. … I started in January of 1969, and thus began my wonderful, meaningful journey serving troops.”

She’s been able to support thousands of service members and their families over the years and taking care of them has always been her top priority—and her favorite part of the job.

“We [at the USO] have unique opportunity to provide a myriad of programs and services to the committed and courageous men and women serving our country. … You see them in happy times and in times of sadness, but at the USO, you represent a living symbol of respect and honor for their service.”

Austin said she’s been fortunate to have had such a gratifying career, and even after helping countless troops and families, she remains dedicated to our spirit-lifting mission.

“USO receives many accolades and awards, but the most meaningful part is knowing that you truly helped someone in some way, through a program, service, or even a smile.”

USO Helps Woman on Journey After Marine Brother’s Death

On Nov. 30, 2011, Marine Staff Sgt. Vincent J. Bell, 28, was killed by an IED in Afghanistan. The youngest of three children, he was on his first tour of duty in Afghanistan after having served four tours in Iraq.

“He was the sweetest, most gentle, loveable man I have ever known. He was the love and light in our family, and every day without him feels so painful,” his sister London Bell said.

London Bell poses in front of New York’s Rockefeller Center during her USO/TAPS-sponsored trip to the Big Apple in October. Photo courtesy of London Bell

London Bell poses in front of New York’s Rockefeller Center during her USO/TAPS-sponsored trip to the Big Apple in October. Photo courtesy of London Bell

In October, Bell was approaching the anniversary of her brother’s 2011 death in Afghanistan when the USO and Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) offered her a chance to take a trip with others who lost siblings to war. Weeks later, she was making unexpected friends in Manhattan. She was also finding out that she wasn’t alone.

“I started out on the journey as a lone traveler, but I left meeting several people who were really just like me,” Bell said. “It was a good way for me to bond.”

Bell lives in Chicago and relies on TAPS retreats for emotional assurance that is critical to brothers and sisters who lost so much during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. On her retreat, Bell and her fellow sibling survivors were able to enjoy a weekend in New York City together, sharing stories, sightseeing and attending a live taping of “The Daily Show.”

“I feel that it is important that I continue to reach out to TAPS to find support,” Bell said. “I’m the only person in my circle of close friends who has lost a sibling in battle and it can be very isolating.

“I need to be able to share my story as a sibling,” she said. “I do a lot to support my mom and dad and my sister in their grief, but I also need that support for myself.”

She’s learned a lot about life since Vincent died and wants to be a support to other siblings.

“I can be an ear, a hug and a friend to other sibling survivors, and I want to be able to do that for others on this journey.”

NFL Stars Jimmy Graham, Pierre Garcon and Brandon Fields Visit Troops in the Middle East on USO Tour 

While the official NFL season ended in February, a trio of professional football players continued the tradition of traveling to the Middle East for an offseason USO tour. New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham, Washington Redskins receiver Pierre Garcon and Miami Dolphins punter Brandon Fields met up with U.S. troops downrange.

From left to right, NFL stars Brandon Fields, Jimmy Graham and Pierre Garcon pose for a photo with troops during their USO tour to the Middle East in March. USO photo by Dave Gatley

From left to right, NFL stars Brandon Fields, Jimmy Graham and Pierre Garcon pose for a photo with troops during their USO tour to the Middle East in March. USO photo by Dave Gatley

“This experience for me has truly been life-changing,” said Graham, who caught an NFL-best 16 touchdowns last season. “The personal connection I’ve been able to make is something that will be with me forever. I grew up in a military home and this just makes me more of a patriot. I have more of an appreciation for the little things we have back home each and every day.”

“The best part of this trip [was] being able to spend time with the troops and interact with them,” said Fields. “We are truly blessed because of the sacrifices that our men and women of our armed forces are willing to make.”

Publishers Clearing House Prize Patrol Delivers $25,000 Check to the USO

What would you do if the Publishers Clearing House Prize Patrol showed up on your doorstep?

Staff and volunteers at the USO Warrior and Family Center at Fort Belvoir, Va., were jumping for joy in January after receiving a $25,000 check from the Publishers Clearing House recent Facebook promotion, The Give Back.

“We’re really grateful,” said USO Vice President of Operations Glenn Welling, who was presented the check by the Prize Patrol. “This was our first opportunity to get involved with the Publishers Clearing House Give Back promotion, and just to be able to be recognized by the Americans who went online each day is awesome. For 73 years, the USO has been the connection between America and her military, and donations like this one will allow us to continue doing what we are do for another 73 years.”

This year’s The Give Back event featured three charities: the USO, ASPCA and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Fans were allowed to vote for their favorite charity once per day, with the charities earning prizes based on where they finished in the voting.

“We love being able to give back to the charities our customers care about,” said Danielle Bertellotti, assistant manager for digital marketing development at Publishers Clearing House. “Our audience has been very vocal on social media, and they have made it clear that the USO is a charity they care deeply about, so we are very happy to give.”

Comedians Lewis Black, Roy Wood Jr. Talk About ‘Extraordinary’ USO Tour Experiences

Back in Black ... er, camo. Comedian Lewis Black gets ready to fly to another forward operating base during a 2008 USO entertainment tour. USO photo by Dave Gatley

Back in Black … er, camo. Comedian Lewis Black gets ready to fly to another forward operating base during a 2008 USO entertainment tour. USO photo by Dave Gatley

Spring is fast approaching. That also means USO entertainment tours are gearing up across the world.

A trio of NFL stars just visited bases in the Middle East. The Band Perry is slated to preform for troops Monday in England at and the Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families is set to launch another year of touring on April 4.

Earlier this week, Politico highlighted two comedians – Roy Wood Jr. and Lewis Black – who’ve taken the USO stage to bring laughs to troops.

“You’re not getting the same kind of sense of self-worth when you get off the stage in Iowa on a Thursday night as you did entertaining a bunch of men and women who just want a slice of home,” Wood said.

Wood – a regular on TBS’ “Sullivan & Son” – wrapped a USO tour to Guam and the Philippines earlier this month.

The Politico story also quoted Black. The legendary stand-up comedian and frequent contributor to The Daily Show with Jon Stewart has been on three USO tours.

“You go to perform for the troops it’s what it must have been like performing at Woodstock,” Black said. “It’s extraordinary. … The amount of energy that you get on the stage is like nothing — I don’t know what else to compare it to. It’s like an adrenaline rush. They’re so thrilled that you are there. .. It was one of the most extraordinary times in my life.”

You can read the full Politico story on USO tours here.

Photos: NFL Stars Jimmy Graham, Pierre Garcon and Brandon Fields Visit Troops in the Middle East on USO Tour

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It’s football season downrange.

While the official NFL season ended last month, a trio of professional football players are continuing the tradition of traveling to the Middle East for an offseason USO entertainment tour. New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham, Washington Redskins receiver Pierre Garcon and Miami Dolphins punter Brandon Fields are currently meeting, playing catch with, and even getting carried around by (see the slideshow above) U.S. troops downrange.

“This experience for me has truly been life-changing,” said Graham, who caught an NFL-best 16 touchdowns last season. “The personal connection I’ve been able to make is something that will be with me forever. I grew up in a military home and this just makes me more of a patriot. I have more of an appreciation for the little things we have back home each and every day.”

USO Tour Veteran and Ravens Coach John Harbaugh Receives NFL Salute to Service Award

Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh is used to winning. He added another accolade to his resume earlier this month when he received the NFL Salute to Service Award.

Ravens coach John Harbaugh meets Army Gen. Ray Odierno (top) and mingles with troops during a 2009 USO Tour. USO photo

Ravens coach John Harbaugh meets Army Gen. Ray Odierno (top) and mingles with troops during a 2009 USO Tour. USO photo

The award – presented by USAA – is given to one member of the NFL community each year who goes above and beyond to support and honor America’s troops and veterans.

Harbaugh participated in the inaugural USO NFL Coaches Tour in 2009. He traveled to the Mideast that summer with Giants head coach Tom Coughlin, then-Titans head coach Jeff Fisher and former NFL head-coaches-turned-TV-personalities Bill Cowher and Jon Gruden.

“We do some great things in the National Football League, but to me the Salute to Service games are by far the most meaningful because the support goes to the right organizations,” Harbaugh told the USO in 2012. “The USO is one of these great organizations. What they do for troops is first class all the way. I feel like America is in good hands as long as these very special people keep making very special sacrifices to keep sane those who keep us safe.”

The USO has a long relationship with the NFL. The league gifted NFL Game Pass subscriptions to USO centers overseas this past season so troops serving abroad would still be able to watch their favorite teams on Sundays. That gift kept games streaming to service members during last fall’s government shutdown, when TV service to troops in Afghanistan was limited.

USO-NFL Partnership Kept Football Streaming to Troops in Afghanistan During Government Shutdown

Troops gather at USO Kandahar in Afghanistan to watch football, courtesy of NFL Game Pass. USO photos by Daniel Wood

Troops gather at USO Kandahar in Afghanistan to watch football in late September, courtesy of NFL Game Pass. USO photo by Daniel Wood

The recent government shutdown – which ended on Thursday – left troops downrange with a slimmed-down version of the Armed Forces Network, and the prospect of missing their favorite football teams on Sunday nights.

However, NFL Game Pass – which the league offers free of charge to USO centers outside the United States – kept the games streaming for troops at sites like USO Kandahar.

“They really saved the day here,” said Daniel Wood, duty manager at USO Kandahar.

Here’s what troops in Afghanistan told the USO’s Eric Raum on Oct. 6:

  • Spec. Gary Stripling: “I thought we just weren’t going to get to watch the games this week. A buddy told me the USO was still going to show the NFL over an Internet connection so we all came down early to get a seat.”
  • Staff Sgt. Brian Duchsne: “It’s something we look forward to all week, it gets you through, knowing you’ll relax for an evening and watch football, so we were pretty excited to hear the USO was still going to be showing the game.”