Four USO Entertainment Staffers Honored by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs for Work on Tours

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They’re normally behind the scenes. This month, they were in the spotlight.

Four USO Entertainment employees were honored Feb. 13 for their roles in entertaining America’s troops at a surprise Pentagon ceremony with the military’s top officer.

Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, presented the Joint Chiefs of Staff Distinguished Public Service Award to USO Vice President of Entertainment Rachel Tischler and the Outstanding Public Service Award to USO Vice President of Celebrity Recruitment Juliet Gilliam, USO Entertainment Specialist Brook Northrip and USO Tour Producer Jeremy Wilcox.

The quartet was specifically honored for their work on Dempsey’s four USO Chairman’s Holiday Tours, the last of which he wrapped in December. The tours – which are whirlwind USO visits traveling from the U.S. to Europe to the Mideast and back in the course of a week – touch thousands of troops annually in the weeks before Christmas.

“The Chairman’s Holiday Tour is an incredibly important annual tour that directly connects our nation’s top military leader with our troops serving around the globe,” said retired Brig. Gen. John I. Pray Jr., USO Executive Vice President for Operations, Programs and Entertainment. “The tour always includes an amazing group of celebrities who eagerly volunteer to accompany the chairman and I was thrilled that Gen. Dempsey recently recognized four USO entertainment team members with the Distinguished and Outstanding Public Service Awards for the key roles each played in making these tours such a big success.”

The most recent tour covered five countries in six days, including stops Afghanistan. The tour roster included eight-time USO tour veteran and country star Kellie Pickler, 2007 USO tour veteran and comedian Rob Riggle, “Glee” co-star Dianna Agron, former Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher, “Suits” co-star Meghan Markle and Washington Nationals pitcher Doug Fister.

“In my dealings with the USO over the past few years, spearheading tours around the globe, I can confidently say that the USO is as helpful and comforting today as it was back [when I joined the Army],” Dempsey said in a press release during the 2014 tour. “This year’s tour has been just as memorable.”

USO Entertainers Shine at Academy Awards

USO entertainers have been raking in the nominations, awards and accolades this winter, and last night’s Academy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles was no exception.

If you missed last night’s festivities, here’s a look at this year’s Academy Award nominees and winners who also happen to be USO tour veterans and supporters.

“How to Train Your Dragon 2”

Academy Awards
Best animated feature film; Nominated

In 2010, actress America Ferrera traveled on an eight-day USO handshake tour to the Persian Gulf, where she visited with over 1,300 service members with actors Ryan O’Nan and Jason Ritter and writer/director Ryan Peters.

Check out what she had to say about the tour here:

 

More recently, in June 2014, actors Jay Baruchel and America Ferrera and writer/director Dean DeBlois joined more than 450 troops and military families at an advance screening of DreamWorks Animation’s “How to Train Your Dragon 2” at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey. The event also included a question-and-answer session with the trio.

Watch the highlights from the event here:

“Unbroken”

Academy Awards
Best cinematography; Nominated
Best sound editing; Nominated
Best sound mixing; Nominated

In 2010, Angelina Jolie, the director of “Unbroken” traveled to Germany to surprise wounded troops and the service members taking care of them.

This past December, as part of its partnership with Universal Pictures, the USO brought five service members and their guests to the premiere of “Unbroken” at the Dolby Theater in Los Angeles. Although Jolie was unable to attend the premiere due to illness, her husband, Brad Pitt, stood in for her, and personally greeted the USO guests.

Watch highlights from the “Unbroken” premiere here:

“American Sniper”

Academy Awards
Best actor in a leading role (Bradley Cooper); Nominated
Best picture; Nominated
Best film editing; Nominated
Best sound editing; Nominated and won
Best sound mixing; Nominated
Best adapted screenplay; Nominated

Bradley Cooper, a veteran of several USO tours, has traveled to Cuba, Kuwait and Afghanistan in addition to a seven-day, three-country tour with then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen in 2009.

Actor Bradley Cooper takes a moment to pose with service members stationed in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, during a week-long USO tour in 2008.  Cooper was in the region on his first tour to show support to U.S. troops and bring them a touch of home.

Actor Bradley Cooper takes a moment to pose with service members stationed in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, during a weeklong USO tour in 2008. Cooper was in the region on his first tour to show support to U.S. troops.

 

‘He Came to Us’: USO Staffer in Germany Takes Action to Save the Life of Despondent Soldier

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How do you know if someone’s contemplating suicide?

For Shannon Huffman, it’s instinct. Huffman, a USO employee in Landstuhl, Germany, received extensive suicide prevention education during her 20 years in the Air Force. Late last year, that training may have saved someone’s life.

One evening, Huffman was at Landstuhl’s USO Warrior Center in Germany teaching a volunteer how to make chili. A service member approached her, looking distressed, and asked if she would help mail some belongings for him. Even though Huffman could sense something was wrong, it wasn’t until the he gave her his mother’s mailing address that she realized he was in a fragile, possibly suicidal, state and needed immediate help.

Huffman, an information specialist at the center, asked a volunteer to watch the service member while she alerted the hospital’s medical staff. Within minutes, Huffman subtly asked the service member to step outside the center and speak with medical personnel, who later escorted him to the hospital for treatment.

“She didn’t just help an individual – she helped all of his family and friends who may have had to suffer an irreplaceable loss,” said Laura Ponzo, the USO Warrior Center Manager and Huffman’s supervisor.

“The reason our center exists is to provide a home away from home for the wounded, ill and injured service members and give them someplace where they can feel comfortable and relax. That service member probably wouldn’t have felt comfortable going up to someone in uniform and asking for help, so he came to us.”

Because of her actions, Huffman was honored with the USO President’s Award, which recognizes USO employees for outstanding contributions to or on behalf of the organization.

“To be in a position where I get to help our veterans in need on a daily basis makes going to work a passion, not just a job,” Huffman said. “I was on the [receiving] end of the USO for 20 years and am honored to be able to return the kindness.”

Huffman says it’s the simple actions — like listening to someone vent or giving them a hug — that most benefit recovering troops who visit the USO Warrior Center.

“Often when a person comes in our center they are shook up and distraught,” she said. “Helping them make a cup of coffee and dial the phone back home to let family know they are OK is the most important thing in the world to them at that moment.

“It feels good to make that kind of difference for somebody, but that’s what we do right? Make every moment count.”

Cast Members from “Being Mary Jane” Visit Troops in San Diego on USO Tour

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Some of the stars of of BET’s “Being Mary Jane” took time to visit troops Tuesday at Naval Base San Diego as part of a USO tour.

The group — which included actors Richard Roundtree, B.J. Britt and Aaron Spears — spent the bulk of their day with sailors and their families, signing autographs, posing for photos and even taking a tour of the base’s facilities.

It wasn’t the first time “Being Mary Jane” cast members hung out with troops at a USO event. Some of the show’s actors stopped by the Mobile USO to send messages of thanks to service members at The BET Experience in Los Angeles last June. The San Diego stop was also part of BET’s celebration of Black History Month, which kicked off with a new episode of “Being Mary Jane” on Feb. 3.

The cast members and attendees shared their experiences on Twitter, too:

USO Volunteers Help Wounded Airborne Medic Traveling on Christmas Eve

Nathaniel Strangways poses with some of his children. Courtesy photo

Nathaniel Strangways poses with some of his children. Courtesy photo

It was going to be a long trip.

On Christmas Eve, Army Spc. Nathaniel Strangways set off to relocate his wife Hannah and their four children — ages 13, 9, 5 and 2 — from Tripler Army Medical Center in Hawaii to Tennessee, where he planned to medically retire due to back injuries.

The plan was simple: they’d fly from Hawaii, to Los Angeles, pick up a rental car and drive across the country to their new home near Fort Campbell, Kentucky.

There was only one problem.

“He wasn’t accounting for his injury when planning the logistics of the move and all of the luggage,” said Hannah Strangways, who realized when they landed at Los Angeles International Airport at midnight that they probably couldn’t handle managing the family’s luggage alone.

In 2008, while serving alongside an Iraqi Police Battalion, Nathaniel — who was an airborne medic — came to the aid of a wounded soldier. As they climbed some stairs, the wounded soldier was shocked by an explosion and fell backwards on top of Nathaniel. The fall herniated a disk in Nathaniel’s back. Nathaniel had surgery for the injury in 2011, but the pain persisted to the point where he could no longer serve his country.

After they deboarded, Hannah led her family to the Bob Hope USO, located outside the airport, to regroup.

“We got inside and there were these two people at the front desk who were genuinely worried for us,” she said, “They problem-solved for us and helped us get organized. It was such a relief.”

The USO volunteers transferred the family’s luggage into storage, showed the kids to a playroom and fed them some hot food so Nathaniel could get the rental car.

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“For a moment, I could finally breathe,” Hannah said. “They had this kids room with a little couch and two rocking chairs and books and toys, so my kids just sat and played. Seriously — without it, I mean — I know we could have done it, but it would have been so hard.”

Nathaniel returned with the only rental van the company had, which was barely large enough to fit the whole family and their luggage. USO volunteers and other troops came out to help the family with the heavy lifting, getting everything inside and tied down on top of the van.

“They loaded it well enough to [get] us to Arkansas, where we finally unloaded the baggage,” Nathaniel said. “Without them, I would have been stuck sitting there for hours. I’m not sure it would have even been possible.”

USO volunteers and troops helped load up the Strangways' rental van. Courtesy photo

USO volunteers and troops helped load up the Strangways’ rental van. Courtesy photo

Nathaniel said he always knew the USO was a place where he could sit down and decompress, or even call his wife and kids to let them know he was okay. But this time, he said, “the USO went above and beyond.”

“I can just imagine what it might have been like without the USO there to help us out,” Hannah said. “It can be hard when you are in a position to take care of your wife and kids and you are hampered due to injury.

“Thanks to the USO and the team effort, he left LAX feeling as proud as he would have if he had done it himself.”

How the USO, Joining Forces and FTD are Bringing Valentine’s Day Moments to the Military

A soldier holds up a sign at USO Colorado Springs. USO photo

A soldier holds up a sign at USO Colorado Springs. USO photo

Many Amercan troops will be thousands of miles away from their loved ones this Valentine’s Day. With this in mind, the USO, Joining Forces and FTD are teaming to show these military families how much we appreciate their sacrifices.

As part of the USO’s Every Moment Counts campaign, USO centers across the United States are receiving a floral arrangement, courtesy of FTD, as a symbol of our nation’s love and enduring support. Every American can add their voice to this display of support, too, by going on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram this weekend and using the #USOmoments hashtag to send messages to America’s troops and their families.

The USO is also inviting Americans to send USO Love Notes to our troops by visiting the USO’s Love from America site. Visitors to the site can also learn about the challenges troops and their families face and what they as civilians can do to help.

Too often, troops miss out on family dinners, date nights, birthdays and the even the births their children. With this in mind, the USO created the Every Moment Counts campaign to rally Americans to show their gratitude by helping the USO create priceless moments for our troops and their families.

“The USO is proud of its collaboration with Joining Forces and FTD, and this synergy shows our troops how much we care wherever they may be serving,” said J.D. Crouch, CEO & President of the USO. “We want the 30,000 troops and military family members who pass through our doors each day to feel closer to home and know that we are always by their side, especially on this Valentine’s Day.”