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.”

Sesame Street / USO Experience for Military Families Cast Members Share Their Favorite Tour Memories

Grover, Cookie Monster, Katie, Elmo, Honker and  Rosita sing and dance for service members and their kids during The Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families which kicked off April 7, 2012 at Scott Air Force Base. (USO photo by Fred Greaves)

Grover, Cookie Monster, Katie, Elmo, Honker and Rosita entertain service members and their kids during The Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families on April 7, 2012 at Scott Air Force Base. (USO photo by Fred Greaves)

Since 2008, the Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families tour has made unforgettable memories for military children and their families all around the world. The longest-running annual USO tour has delivered moments to hundreds of thousands of military children and their parents through more than 735 shows at more than 144 military bases in 11 countries.

In the spirit of the USO’s Every Moment Counts campaign — and in preparation for entertaining the tour’s 500,000th audience member — members of the 2014 cast and crew shares some their favorite Sesame Street/USO Experience memories.

Here’s just a small sample of the amazing stories they had to tell:

“My favorite moment actually happened in Spain. … A little girl came up, she gave me a picture to give to Elmo. I brought it backstage, gave it to Elmo, and the picture said, ‘Thank you Elmo for coming all the way across the sea to Spain, just to see me.’ And I think it really brought home exactly how important it is for these kids to see this show.” — Stephanie Harmon, performance director

“I have many favorite moments, but one that happens every single day [is] when hundreds of kids and parents walk out with huge smiles on their faces, holding onto their Elmo spinning lights, telling me how much they enjoyed the show, and they constantly say thank you to me. Its a stream of ‘thank you’s. And since I think the show is our way of saying thank you to those same military families, it’s great to just get that cycle of thank you.” — Nicole McClendon, tour manager

Want to learn more about the Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families or see if a show is coming near you? Find out more here.

Video: USO Officially Opens Revamped Center at Boston Logan International Airport

BOSTON–The USO has had an active presence at Boston Logan International Airport for over 30 years, so when it came time for the airport to renovate, it allowed the USO to relocate and design a larger space to accommodate the needs of traveling service members.

“We are proud to be able to provide the USO with this new, larger space as they continue their important work supporting our troops and their families,” said Edward Freni, Director of Aviation at Massport.

At nearly twice the size of the previous USO space at Logan Airport, the new center is approximately 1,400 square feet and offers a large seating and living room area as well as an expanded refreshment counter, luggage storage space and food and supplies. New amenities include a space for military families traveling with children — which includes hands-on activities, games and reading materials — a recreation room where troops can play video games, board games and card games, and a designated charging area for personal electronic devices.

“At this new USO center, you will get a glimpse of how today’s USO meets the changing needs of a changing military” said Dr. J.D. Crouch II, USO President and CEO. “Most important is that the extra space that will permit our dedicated USO of New England team to accommodate more troops and families at one time.”

Our Youngest Donor Ever? 1-Year-Old’s Birthday Celebration Raises Funds to Buy In-Kind Snacks for Troops at USO Osan

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A birthday is a great reason to celebrate — and give back.

That’s exactly why Cherie and Air Force Capt. James Bell, parents of Collette Cruz Bell, decided to ask for donations to USO Osan in lieu of presents at their daughter’s first birthday. The Bells, who live on Osan Air Base, South Korea, raised nearly $100 to donate in Collette’s name, making her one of the youngest USO donors ever.

“My husband and I feel very blessed in that we are able to adequately feed and clothe our daughter,” Cherie Bell wrote in an email interview. “Consequently we thought that donations to the USO would be much better utilized than gifts for her first birthday.”

“We also wanted her to be able to have the memory later on of doing some great for others so that she will hopefully learn the joy in giving.”

Collette’s parents took the money and made an in-kind donation to USO Osan in the form of snacks, drinks and food for troops and their families to enjoy — something the Bell family knows will be appreciated.

“My husband and I have spent countless hours enjoying USO locations in airports and military installations,” Bell wrote. “Donating to the USO was our way of expressing gratitude to an organization that has always been there for us while also teaching our daughter a valuable lesson about giving.”

In addition to asking for donations to the USO for their daughter’s big day, the Bells threw a “Despicable Me”-themed barbecue for their friends, complete with a special banana-and-applesauce cake for Collette. The Bells also made a family trip to the beach as part of the birthday festivities.

Joan Rivers, the San Diego Padres and a Soaked 5K: A Look at USO Events Around The Globe

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As the summer draws to a close, USO centers around the world were busy hosting events to lift the spirits of troops and their families. Here’s a look at a few of the fantastic moments from USO centers around the world:

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Joan Rivers visits USO Denver. USO photo.

Joan Rivers Makes Surprise Visit to USO Denver
Long-time USO supporter Joan Rivers paid a surprise visit to USO Denver last Wednesday morning and made sure each guest, volunteer and staff member knew how much she appreciated them. Rivers was the 2001 USO of Metropolitan New York’s Woman of the Year.

“Thank you for your service,” Rivers told the group.

Military Kids Hit the Field at the Be a San Diego Padre for a Day Event
The USO partnered with Petco Park and the Padres to give military kids a Major League experience. Several local kids from military families spent the day practicing baseball fundamentals, talking with former Padre Damian Jackson and learning all about what it would be like to be a Major League Baseball player. Check out the video from the event here.

Sixth Annual Clark After Dark in Chicago
The USO of Illinois took to the streets Thursday night for its sixth annual Clark After Dark block party. Thanks to the support of Alderman Brendan Reilly of the 42nd Ward, Boss Bar and other USO partners, partygoers enjoyed live music, military vehicle displays and plenty of food. Despite the rainy weather, Chicagoans came out in full force to support their troops and show appreciation.

Heidi Murkoff smiles with an expectant military mother. USO photo.

Heidi Murkoff smiles with an expectant military mother. USO photo.

USO/What to Expect Special Delivery Baby Shower in Fort Drum, New York
On Friday, the USO and the What to Expect Foundation, founded by best-selling author Heidi Murkoff, delivered a special baby shower to expecting military spouses and service women stationed in Fort Drum, New York. The moms-to-be enjoyed an afternoon filled with shower games, food, a raffle and a question-and-answer session with Murkoff, who wrote the best-selling book “What to Expect When You’re Expecting.”

Second Annual H2GO in Okinawa, Japan
There aren’t many stickier places on the planet than the South Pacific in the summer, where near-100-degree temperatures are coupled with crippling humidity. To help troops and their families stationed in Okinawa beat the heat and stay in shape, volunteers at USO Kadena created H2GO, a 5K foot race with water-themed obstacles along the route.

The H2GO race let participants enjoy slip-n-slides, water cannons and the soaking power of over 20,000 water balloons.

Girls show off their nails and face paintings at Sun and Fun day with Kaiserslautern USO. USO photo.

Girls show off their nails and face paintings at Sun and Fun day with USO Kaiserslautern. USO photo.

Sixth Annual Sun and Fun Day in Kaiserslautern, Germany
As the dog days of summer come to an end, Kaiserslautern USO and TKS hosted the sixth annual Sun and Fun Day for troops and their families to help them enjoy the last of the warm weather. Despite some rain, over 2,300 visitors came out to enjoy the five-hour event that included food, raffles, live music and search-and-rescue dog demos.

Troops Get Their Game on at Camp Buehring Volleyball Tournament
Service members rallied their way to victory at a volleyball tournament Saturday night in Camp Buehring, Kuwait. Troops were able to form teams of six and compete for prizes — all while jamming out to the beats of DJ Break One. The winning teams were even awarded victory T-shirts!