News & Notes from Around the World: Memorial Day Edition

Sather Air Base is a memorial itself, named for Scott Sather who was the first Airman to be killed in action in OIF. The Scott Sather memorial was dedicated last year and this was the first Memorial Day to further honor him and everyone else who has served with the same distinction as Scott Sather.

Baghdad, Iraq – While millions of Americans take a day of from work to reflect and enjoy each others company, the aerial port of Baghdad and the USO, that serves the 1000 passengers a day, were working at full speed. “Mission Critical” is when important work takes priority above all else, but the meaning of this day is too important to over look.

USO Duty Manager, Courtney Haueter, lead the National Moment of Remembrance and the entire aerial port staff, passengers and visitors paused for a full minute at 3:00pm local time. USO customers ceased all calls, IMs, games and movies while the military crew of Sather Air Base paused operations during that time.

Commanding Officer of the 447th, Col Bruce Taylor USAF, led the Memorial Day ceremony and spoke of heroes gone and not forgotten.  Honor Guard for both the Air Force and Army took part in the remembrance and did outstanding work in saluting their brothers in arms.

An essay by Theater of War‘s Bryan Doerries in today’s Washington Post – After a reading of Sophocles’ “Ajax” and “Philoctetes” for members of the Warrior Transition Unit at Fort Stewart, Ga., a soldier approached me. His hands were trembling and he was fighting back tears.

“For a while now, I have been separated from my unit, the guys I fought alongside downrange. Being separated from your unit is like being stripped of your humanity. I think Sophocles wrote these plays to bring soldiers together to restore their humanity.” He leaned closer, his eyes locking with mine. “Without our humanity, none of this means anything.”

I held the soldier’s gaze and shook his hand, thanking him for his comment, which I promised to share with military audiences at performances throughout the United States…

Watching the soldier at Fort Stewart exit the auditorium last month, it suddenly seemed un-coincidental to me that the ancient plays that we were performing for the U.S. military during the ninth year of the war in Afghanistan and so many years into Iraq depicted what happened to the Greek armed forces during the ninth year of the Trojan War. Brig. Gen. Loree Sutton, the visionary leader who made our project possible, has said repeatedly of today’s armed forces: “Never has so great a burden been placed upon the shoulders of so few on behalf of so many for so long.”

We are not a nation at war. We are a nation with a volunteer army at war… Click here to read the full essay.

From Snag Film’s Rick Allen – “For 99% of Americans, Memorial Day is a chance to circle a barbeque grill; for us, it’s about gathering together in a cemetery.” Probably nothing captures the enormous gulf between how veterans and civilians treat Monday’s national holiday than that quick but pointed reminder I heard Wednesday from Paul Rieckhoff.  Paul is the charismatic founder of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) and author of the acclaimed book Chasing Ghosts, about his tour of duty in Iraq.  As most of us celebrate the “official” start of summer this weekend, hopefully the words of Paul Rieckhoff, or the roar of Rolling Thunder, or the quiet comfort that the USO brings every day to service families, will break through our routine.

My generation was the first beneficiary of our modern volunteer armed service, in the sense that no longer would all able-bodied men be expected to spend time in uniform.  The ability to outsource our service keeps us personally untouched by combat, but raises societal issues and comes with countervailing personal trade-offs. Sebastian Junger’s new book War and his companion film Restrepo vividly detail the depth of camaraderie that come from absolute commitment to the safety of your fellow squad members.  Those of us around our family barbeques can instinctively appreciate how common mortal danger binds brothers and sisters-in-arms; our challenge now is to find better ways to hold our veterans close to the whole community and to demonstrate our appreciation for what they’ve given for our freedoms.

IAVA joins many other governmental and non-profit organizations in working on the full range of issues facing today’s returning warriors. At a time when our economy struggles to produce new jobs, an estimated 30% of veterans of our current conflicts are out of work.  The Veterans Administration is more invigorated under Secretary Shinseki than it has been in many decades – but a huge number of vets, particularly the young ones, will never willingly walk into a VA hospital or ask for government help, despite what may be significant need.

Many organizations are hard at work to bridge these gaps. The USO assists service members and their families around the world. IAVA has created an incredible online community of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan operations, and advocates for federal action on jobs, health, education and other pressing vet issues. There are various levels of government that deliver services as well as recreational opportunities to active duty warriors and their families, and veterans.  But more is needed, from our society collectively and each of us individually.

Leon Cooper will be on CNN Monday morning. Leon is 90, a WWII vet living in Los Angeles and working with a consistency and energy of someone in his 20s. That’s how old he was at Tarawa, one of the bloodiest battles in Marine Corps history. Leon returned to that atoll when he learned that the beach that held the bones of his fallen comrades was now a garbage dump for islanders without arable land for alternatives.  His final campaign is captured in the film Return to Tarawa, which you can watch here.  Thanks to Leon’s indomitability, the power of the film, and the tools of SnagFilms, Congress last year directed the Department of Defense to identify the remains on Red Beach and bring them home.  In two months, the DOD teams will wing west to begin a task of memory and responsibility we have deferred for nearly 7 decades.

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Kyle Maynard spends significant time working with wounded warriors.  An exceptional athlete honored with an ESPY and a shelf of other awards, best-selling author and motivational speaker, Kyle was born without complete limbs.  His motto, “No Excuses”, completely encapsulates how he lives his life. (A new film about Kyle will air on ESPN in November and you can learn more here.) Not long ago, I spent an afternoon at Ft. Myer, Virginia, with Kyle and a group of Iraq and Afghanistan vets with serious physical injuries resulting from their service.  We gathered around an exercise mat, and Kyle put the six men and one woman through a daunting workout – but from my fly-on-the-wall vantage point, the greatest outcome of the day came from the conversation among the participants.  The service members joining Kyle knew he only had a civilian’s perspective … but they also knew that his physical challenges had been life-long. They had in common much more than what they lacked; each was working every minute to turn loss into motivation, not cause for withdrawal.

We too need to make an effort, each in our own way. Memorial Day provides many such opportunities.  At the very least, it provides the chance for reflection and appreciation. Our founder, Ted Leonsis, coined the term “filmanthropy” to combine the communication power of film with the interactivity of the web, and allow an engaged audience new ways to start a conversation or take an action. We’ve pulled 11 films together from different conflicts and perspectives for Memorial Day – you can watch them from the widget below, or at .  Enjoy them alone or with others. And make your Memorial Day into something to remember.

News & Notes from Around the World

This week’s edition of News & Notes show how great collaborations can build a better USO for everybody…

USO Baghdad staffers Richard (left) and Ernie (right) shake hands with Iraqi Air Force Command Chief Master Sergeant Hassan Abid Kahdum, the senior NCO of the IqAF.

Baghdad, Iraq – It’s known as the Iraq Training & Advising Mission (ITAM) and it’s a key component to the drawdown plans for US Forces serving in Iraq. Here in Baghdad on Sather Air Base, members of the USAF work side by side with the Iraqi Air Force building up the personnel and fleet to enable the Iraqis to be self sustained. The ITAM-AF mission takes place on Al Multhana Air Base which sits right next to Sather Air Base and many of the US Airmen that work on Al Multhana are also dedicated USO volunteers.

TSgt William “Bill” Kusar USAF has spent the last year teaching his trade of airframe maintenance to his Iraqi counterparts and in that time has become a ambassador of the USAF and friend to many of the Iraqi including IqAF General Mohhamed Alaa Jasem. Bill, one of our USO volunteers, told us how many of the Iraqi Servicemen lack many simple items on Al Multhana including toilet paper. The Staffers of the USO Baghdad were able to recognize a wonderful opportunity to reach out and do some positive work with our Iraqi partners as toilet paper and hand lotion are two of the items we have in surplus here at the USO Baghdad.

On May 18th, USO Staffers Ernie Lacson & Richard McCarty accompanied Bill Kusar to Al Multhana Air Base to donate 9 boxes of toilet paper and 2 boxes of hand lotion to the General and his staff. General Jasem was very taken with the gesture of good will and expressed his gratitude, in true Arabic fashion, by inviting the USO Staff to a dinner in our honor. The USO Baghdad has served many nations at our center including Dutch, Turkish, Australians, British, Polish and even Fijians, but it was a great opportunity to help out the Iraqi as well when their success is so vital to our mission here.

USO staff, volunteers, and supporters turned out en masse for the Komen Race for the Cure in Rome, May 2010.

Rome, Italy – On an overcast gray Sunday morning, the USO Rome Center was thinking “pink.”  More specifically, staff, volunteers, friends and visitors of the USO Rome Center were gathering early on the morning of Sunday, May 16th to participate in the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure.  The USO Rome Center had worked diligently over the past several weeks soliciting donations and signing up runners.  In total, their efforts raised over 240 euros.  But now came the more grueling part.  They were pinning on bib numbers and lacing up their sneakers in preparation to run the 5K through the streets of the historical center of Rome.

The Race for the Cure is the signature event of the Susan G. Komen Italia, a nonprofit, volunteer-driven organization, active in Italy since 2000 as the first international affiliate of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the world’s largest and most progressive grassroots network fighting to eradicate breast cancer forever. The Race is a 5K run to raise funds, to promote positive awareness, education and early detection of breast cancer as well as to celebrate breast cancer survivors who participate to the Race donning pink caps and t-shirts and share their experience in an open and positive way.

The USO Rome Center team joined over 40,000 participants in the Race for the Cure.  Weaving their way around the race course, they had little time to catch their breath as they passed the Colosseum and the ancient Forum.  Energetic and enthusiastic the whole way, they reached the finish line and celebrated with the thousands of others in the Race Village at Terme di Caracalla.  This truly “amazing race” is now an annual event in the Eternal City and the USO Rome Center is proud to be part of this great tradition and to support this global organization.

The USO Rome Center is located in the heart of the capital city of Italy.  Conveniently located near the Vatican, the center’s goal is to make Rome one of the most memorable and positive experiences of our patrons’ military service by offering a “Home while in Rome.”  The USO Rome Center offers a hotel reservation service, great tours, airport transportation and free area information. And while in Rome, visit the center to relax and meet their friendly, informative staff, who can answer all your questions and provide you with area info, maps and more to help you make the most of your experience.  For more information, visit the USO Rome Center website.  You can also find them on Facebook and Twitter.

COL Dan Scott, USA, addresses the military families at the Opening Ceremony.

Chicago, Illinois– On Saturday, May 15, the USO of Illinois honored Armed Forces Day by sponsoring a fun-filled day of recreation for Illinois military and military families at Chicago’s historic Navy Pier.  Over 400 guests were treated to USO Kid Kits filled with kid-friendly surprises, free carnival rides and attractions, complimentary lunch and a free IMAX movie theater screening.  The event began with a special Opening Ceremony featuring guest speaker, Colonel Dan Scott, Deputy Commanding Officer, 3rd Brigade, 75th Division Battle Command Training Division, Ft. Sheridan, Illinois, and USO of Illinois President and COO, Tony Enrietto.

Military and their families were warmly welcomed to USO’s Navy Pier center, where USO Volunteers made them feel at home and helped military kids select a free Disney DVD from a large assortment while all families enjoyed home-baked treats and refreshments before embarking on the many activities arranged especially for the day and meant to recognize and thank them for their service.

You can find out more about USO Illinois on Facebook and Twitter.

Mother’s Day Across the Miles

The good folks at Baghdad USO have forged a great relationship with Operation Write Home, a volunteer organization that has approximately 2,500 talented crafters across the USA making unique greeting cards for the service members at Sather Air Base in Baghdad.  OWH supplies cards for every occasion, whether Birthday, Anniversary, Miss You – or holidays including Easter, Mother’s Day and St. Patrick’s Day.  Sather AB has received over 600 Valentine’s Day cards and every single one was used!  They were also very fortunate to have one of their volunteers, who happens to be a master woodworker, make a beautiful card rack to display the cards in the reception area.

To commemorate Mother’s Day, Operation Write Home asked Baghdad USO to take pictures of our wonderful troops for their website.  They hope to ensure that all Mothers will receive a card from their service members who are passing through Sather AB.  USO Baghdad recently provided photos that are included in Operation Write Home’s video tribute to Moms everywhere, shown below.

Happy (early) Mother’s Day…we hope you enjoy!