A Holiday Gift Guide for Our Troops

DOD photo

The holidays are here.

If you didn’t see them coming it before this week, a pile of mail with circulars and glossy catalogs probably brought them into focus. By Thanksgiving night, your inbox was stuffed with email sales pitches aimed to get you to do a little Christmas shopping while you’re riding out that turkey coma.

And while we think everyone should treat themselves to that new coat or gadget if they can, we do have one more holiday shopping suggestion. There’s a group of folks out there who protect our freedoms who can’t just decide to buy a plane ticket online and come home for the holidays. And for a little cash, you can give them a gift that can significantly benefit their lives.

Keeping Families Connected

The USO is a home away from home for deployed troops. But what gets lost in that phrase is the connection those troops get back to their families through our centers. Check out this video about a North Carolina couple who connected just in time for one of life’s most precious moments. This holiday season, it’s easy to support the USO’s efforts to keep troops downrange connected with phone calls home or online video connections back home from war zones.

Homecomings

The USO is also there for spouses back at home during deployment. Here is a story of how one spouse — who is also a USO volunteer — coped during her husband’s deployment in part by tapping into the USO community on Fort Drum, New York.

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USO2GO

Not every service member in the field has access to the basics, much less amenities to pass the time. That’s where USO2GO comes in. Service members like Army 1st Lt. Ben Lyman contact the USO directly from their forward operating base or combat outpost and put in an order to receive customized shipments of everything from furniture to snacks to sports equipment, TVs and even video games. You can donate toward great services like that here, or sponsor an entire shipment via USO Wishbook.

Families of the Fallen

Everyone reacts differently when the unthinkable happens. London Bell’s brother — Marine Staff. Sgt. Vincent Bell — died in Afghanistan in 2011. She was heading into what she thought would be a difficult holiday season in 2013 when the USO called, offering her a USO/TAPS getaway to New York City where she could bond with others who’d lost family a military family member.

“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.” It’s one of several ways the USO helps military families when they need us most.

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.

29 Facts You May Not Know for the Marine Corps’ 239th Birthday

Everyone knows the meaning of semper fidelis. But today, the USO takes a look at 29 other Marine Corps facts that may surprise you on the service’s 239th birthday:

Marine Rank

Now he can wear it on the outside. DOD photo

1. Marines often pin their next promotable rank onto their uniforms as a motivator. They usually hide it in their cover or under a pocket flap.

2. The Marine Corps’ first amphibious raid was only weeks after its creation when Marines successfully stormed a British weapons cache in the Bahamas.

3. The Marines’ first land battle on foreign soil was in Libya, where 600 Marines stormed the city of Derna to rescue the crew of the USS Philadelphia from pirates.

4. Male Marine recruits attend boot camp in one of two locations, depending on which side of the Mississippi they’re from: Marine Corps Recruit Depot (MCRD) San Diego for West Coast recruits (which is a separate facility from Camp Pendleton) and MCRD Parris Island for East Coast recruits.

5. Female recruits only attend MCRD Parris Island.

6. MCRD San Diego can be seen from the air if you fly into San Diego International Airport, causing recruits to wonder if the airport was built there to torment them.

Marine Drill Sgt

Nothing makes for a great photo like boot camp. DOD photo

7. Because MCRD Parris Island was the first of the two depots, Marines who attend MCRD San Diego are often called “Hollywood Marines” by Parris Island Marines. Hollywood Marines don’t have a name for Parris Island Marines because they feel bad about the sand fleas.

8. Since then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta ordered the military to integrate women into combat arms occupations in January 2013, more than 18 female infantry officer candidates have attempted the qualification course. To this point, all 18 have failed to qualify.

9. Marines regularly train with their international counterparts from more than 15 different nations. See if you can hear/see the similarities between these Tongan Marines and U.S. Marines.

10. U.S. Marines also let their hair down at times while training with allied forces. Check out this drum battle with the South Korean Army band.

2012 Warrior Games (Practice 2)

A medically retired Marine at Warrior Games. DOD photo

11. The Marines have won four out of five Warrior Games competitions. This year marks their first loss to the Army.

12. Terrance Ford, brother of Harrison Ford, leads a photography program for wounded transitioning Marines at Wounded Warrior Battalion West on Camp Pendleton, called fStop Warrior Project.

13. Marine recruits are finished eating the moment their drill instructor is finished. This is why Marines eat so fast.

Watch out for the fist behind the beard. DOD photo.

Watch out for the fist behind the beard. DOD photo.

14. Fewer than 100 people have received the title of honorary Marine, a title that can only be bestowed by the Commandant of the Marine Corps. Here are a few of their names and ranks in order of seniority:

  • Chuck Norris (rank unknown but also unneeded)
  • Brig. Gen. Bob Hope
  • Master Sgt. Bugs Bunny
  • Cpl. Jim Nabors, star of Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.
  • Gary Sinise

15. “Hurry up and wait” is what happens when each leader down the chain of command tells his or her Marines to be there 15 minutes prior to the senior’s directive. This is why Marines arrive early to their destinations.

16. The license plate of the Commandant of the Marine Corps reads “1775.”

17. Marines in uniform are not authorized to put their hands in their pockets.

18. Only female Marines are authorized to carry umbrellas in uniform.

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19. The rank of Marine “gunner” is the only Marine Corps rank that requires different insignia on the left and right uniform collars (*The rank of colonel requires the eagles on each collar to be mirror images of each other, so they are also technically different insignia).

20. In the Corps, because of the total hours off, a three-day weekend is called a “72” and a four-day weekend is called a “96.”

Chesty always gets respect - and hugs. DOD photo

Chesty always gets respect – and hugs. DOD photo

21. The Marine Corps mascot is an English bulldog named Chesty, after Marine Lt. Gen. Louis B. “Chesty” Puller, the only Marine to earn five Navy Crosses.

21. Even though the Corps is an amphibious force, swim qualification is one of the few annual qualifications that doesn’t count toward a Marine’s promotion to the next rank.

23. A three-volley salute performed at funeral ceremonies is often confused with a 21-gun salute. The three-volley salute is the firing of three rifle volleys (rounds) over the graves of fallen armed forces members and political leaders and can be traced to the European dynastic wars, when fighting was halted to remove the dead and wounded. Once an area was cleared of casualties, three volleys were sent into the air as a signal to resume fighting. Three, five or seven Marines can perform a three-volley salute.

24. Every year, Thai Marines instruct U.S. Marines in a day of jungle-survival training as part of the annual exercise Cobra Gold. The training culminates with the U.S. Marines participating in a Thai warrior ritual that involves cutting a cobra’s head off and drinking its blood.

Marine John Glenn25. Marine Corps Col. John Glenn was the first *American to orbit the Earth.

26. According to Marine sniper superstition, there is ultimately one round destined to end the life of a Marine, and that is “the round with your name on it.” Until that round is fired, the person for whom it is intended remains invincible. If the sniper carries the round with him at all times, it can never be fired and the sniper is therefore untouchable. Out of school, a Marine sniper carries the colloquial title “PIG,” or a Professionally Instructed Gunman, until he has killed an enemy sniper in combat and removed the round with his name on it from the enemy sniper’s magazine. That round is then worn as a necklace and symbolizes his new status as a HOG, or “Hunter of Gunmen.”

27. Ever since Vietnam, Marine amtrac crews will not eat apricots, as they’re considered bad luck.

28. Marines also think it’s unlucky to eat the CHARMS that used to come in packs of meals ready to eat.

29. Marines are often called jarheads because of their high-and-tight haircuts, but some Marines take this cut to the extreme. Unauthorized haircuts include the horseshoe and the mohawk.

3 Ways You Can Help Troops in 90 Seconds Through the USO

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You’re probably thinking “Three ways to help troops in 90 seconds? That can’t be true.”

You got us. This should only take 87.

The USO makes life easier for our troops and their families. We also make helping out as easy as possible for folks like you. Here’s how:

1. Send a message to troops on USOmoments.org
Click here. Say what you want to say, and go about your day knowing you made service members feel good about the sacrifices they make for all of us.

2. Get info on becoming a USO volunteer
Want to feel really good about helping someone else? Volunteering with the USO is a feeling that’s hard to top. Check out the FAQs. If you’re still interested, go to the sign-up page or contact your local center.

3. Donate (because a little goes a long way)
If you can’t give your time, but you still want to make a big impact, there’s no easier way to support a good nonprofit than to throw a few dollars its way. And with 73 years of experience, the USO knows how to put those dollars to work efficiently. For just $11, you can provide services like 70 cups of coffee to troops at a USO center or 34 phone calls home for troops downrange. That’s 34 people who can talk to their families from Afghanistan or 70 people who get a much-needed break, all because of you. Interested? Click here.

Thanks for your 87 (or 90) seconds. Have a great rest of your day.

USO Tour Veteran Kellie Pickler Shares Why She’s Excited to Perform at the 2014 Gala

Seven-time USO tour veteran and recording artist Kellie Pickler took a break from her pre-Gala preparations to share why she is excited to perform at the 2014 USO Gala tonight.

“I’m honored to be here tonight and be a part of honoring our service men and women. It’s going to be a great night,” Pickler said.

The award-winning country music artist, who first gained fame as an “American Idol” contestant, has entertained more than 33,000 troops and military families while touring with the USO.

USO Sets Up Surprise Homecoming for Soldier’s Family on “The Meredith Vieira Show”

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Last month in Manhattan, a special reunion took place on Meredith Vieira’s new talk show between an Army Reserve officer and the family he hadn’t seen in nearly a year.

First Lt. Beau McNeff and his wife Ceci had missed their last two wedding anniversaries due to deployments and work-ups. While Ceci was in on the reunion, their four kids – including their newborn daughter Lexi – got the surprise of their young lives on live television.

The USO, which benefitted from more than 250 hours of McNeff’s volunteer service while he was stationed at Forward Operating Base Fenty in Afghanistan, selected the McNeff family for the surprise reunion and also arranged three days of fun for the family in Manhattan as a thank you for his contributions to the military and the organization.

“Before deploying, the only thing I knew about the USO was that they did care packages and they were in the airports,” McNeff said. “But then I go to Afghanistan and they’re in every airport that I went through. Fellow veterans, families, people who want to help and support our veterans and our military [were volunteering at each location], and these people loved us. They treated me like family at every stop. Then I get to Afghanistan and there’s a USO on my [forward operating base].”

McNeff visited that USO almost daily, and used the USO/United Through Reading Military Program room as often as possible to communicate with his four children back home in Beaverton, Oregon. After he became one of the first fathers to participate in the USO’s Tiny Tots program (a reverse care package program where a dad requests a personalized USO newborn kit be sent to the mom back home), he became a committed USO volunteer for the rest of his deployment.

“The McNeffs are a wonderful example of how a family is able to stay connected through so many of our wonderful programs and services,” USO President and CEO Dr. J.D. Crouch II said during the show’s taping. “This truly shows how we are always by their side … from the moment they join, through their deployments and as they transition back to their communities.”

On set, Vieira concealed the show’s surprise by demonstrating how the USO keeps families together via Skype. But McNeff, who could be seen on camera in uniform, was not actually in Afghanistan. He was backstage, waiting to surprise his family.

“It was surreal,” McNeff said. “I got to go behind the scenes and see how the show was put together. I’m sitting in this green room looking down on the set of “Saturday Night Live” as they set up for the weekend’s show. They pretended like the camera feed dropped out and I came out on stage. Our two oldest came running to me and started crying. Our 2-year-old stayed crying the whole time she was out there, holding her daddy doll … and that’s when I got to meet [Lexi] for the first time.

“It was one of those moments in life when everything felt right. I’d seen pictures of her, but I finally got to hold her and she smiled at me for the first time and you can’t beat that.

“And the USO set that up for me. It was more than anything I could have asked for.”

After the show, the USO had more surprises in store for the McNeff family. Volunteers from USO of Metropolitan New York spent three days with the McNeff family, leading them on a guided tour of the Museum of Natural History, the USS Intrepid and the Statue of Liberty.

McNeff’s two little girls, 6-year-old Elena and 2-year-old Sarah, were taken to the American Girl store where they were able to design their own custom dolls, and his 4-year-old son Daniel was taken to FAO Schwarz, where he picked out “the coolest Transformer in the whole world.”

“It’s just amazing the experience the USO can bring to a soldier,” McNeff said. “Both while you’re gone, and redeployment and now coming home.”