Iron Man: Why One Volunteer Has Shown Up at the USO (Almost) Every Day it’s Been Open the Last 5 Years

Henry Edmon talks with troops at the Fort Leonard Wood USO center. USO photo

Henry Edmon talks with troops at the Fort Leonard Wood USO center. USO photo

If you’ve been to the Fort Leonard Wood USO center recently, you’ve probably seen Henry Edmon.

A familiar face to new recruits and longtime area residents, the Sudbury, Ontario, native has proudly volunteered at the USO every Thursday through Sunday, which are the days the center is open, for the past five years — minus the two days he took off to attend his daughter’s wedding in May 2013.

“Everyone here at the USO thought it was funny he would worry about missing his shift for his daughter’s wedding,” wrote USO Fort Leonard Wood Center Director Kelly Gist in an email. “But that just goes to show you the level of commitment he has to the USO. [He] loves all that we do here, we are his extended family, but we sure weren’t going to let him miss his daughter’s wedding.”

According to his daughter, Janis Edmon, her wedding wasn’t the first time Henry has worried about missing his volunteer shift for a special occasion. When Janis visits Henry, he always tells her that he’ll still be volunteering at the USO, and she is welcome to join him.

“When I used to come home for Christmas, Easter and everything, we were at the USO,” Janis said.

“He loves working there and he always wants to make sure that, you know, he’s dependable and there for them, and it’s awesome, because it’s like a little family. So, he likes going there, and I like him going there.”

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A Canadian and American Army veteran of three and 23 years, respectively, Henry began volunteering at the USO center in central Missouri after he retired.

“I will always remember the help that the USO was to me during the Vietnam War,” Henry wrote in an email. “It was the least I could do to give back to an organization that helped me so much.”

According to Gist, Henry takes the USO’s spirit-lifting mission to heart, making him a popular guy on base.

“Just to see that every day, the compassion he has, the loyalty … we wish there was more like him,” Gist said.

Henry especially enjoys chatting with new recruits going through basic training. He frequently shares his military experiences with young soldiers to both encourage them and ensure them they’re not alone.

“These soldiers are learning from our volunteers, and him especially,” Gist said. “When you have a solider just come in from basic and he might be sitting there wondering, ‘Am I going to make it through the next few weeks?’ And [then] Henry comes up and says, ‘It’s okay. You’ll make it.’ They really take that to heart.”

Those heart-to-heart interactions have led some troops to seek Henry out when they return to Fort Leonard Wood years later.

“It’s really neat to see them come back around and they remember him,” Gist said. “You can just tell they have a love for him and it’s really neat to see that.”

Henry says he hopes troops he serves will pay the encouragement forward.

“Maybe, one day, when they have the time to give back, they will remember what we did here, just as I remembered the impact the USO [had] on me,” he said.

How Bob Hope Impacted Two Troops in Vietnam (Without Actually Seeing Them)

Bob Hope interviews a service member on stage in Vietnam in 1966. USO photo

Bob Hope interviews a service member on stage in Vietnam in 1966. USO photo

Bob Hope did more for American troops than he probably realized.

If you know the USO, you know about Hope’s decades entertaining troops. You’ve probably seen footage from his televised USO specials, too, where he entertained service members in dangerous spots around the world. But what you likely don’t know about is the personal impact he had on some of those troops — even those whose duties prevented them from attending the shows.

Here are two stories* sent to us by former service members who fought in Vietnam and were touched by Hope in unique ways without actually seeing him.

Donald Scott

I had been in country less than a month when Bob Hope and his crew visited Cam Ranh Bay Air Base, Vietnam, in December 1966. They did a show at South Beach for the Army and Navy and one at the air base.

Being new in country, I was on duty as an aerial port duty officer and did not get to attend a show. That evening, as they took off and were flying to their next destination, we called the plane (call sign Sky King) from our [airlift control element] and spoke to Bob. He summoned Anita Bryant to the [microphone] and she sang “Silent Night” to us as they flew through the dark, black skies of Vietnam.

I will never forget this little act of kindness for a small group of about five guys who could not attend the big show.

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Jerry Tobias

The U.S. Air Force Fairchild C-123K Provider was a tactical airlift workhorse during the Vietnam War. I flew the C-123 out of Phan Rang Air Base in Vietnam, and crisscrossed the length and breadth of the war zone on a regular basis. This gave me the opportunity to observe the realities of war and the impact of combat on the people involved.

One very noticeable constant was the resignation and despair that I saw on the faces of the battle- and boredom-weary soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen that shuffled on and off of my C-123 each day. The war and its painful byproducts seemed to erase all other expressions from the faces of most of them. It’s not hard to understand why. Most of these men … were not there because they wanted to be, but because they had to be. Many had also already known a buddy — or at least had been aware of someone — who had been killed in an ambush, maimed by a booby trap, or caught in the web of cheap and easily accessible drugs. Tragically, all of them were also aware of the loud and negative segment of the population back home that neither cared about them nor cared about what they were going through day after day.

Photo courtesy of Jerry Tobias

Photo courtesy of Jerry Tobias

Those facts all helped to make my flights on Dec. 24 and 25, 1971, even more significant.

My C-123 unit had asked for volunteers to fly troops to and from the Bob Hope USO shows in Bien Hoa those two days. I decided that, rather than sit in my room and be even lonelier on Christmas, flying in support of those shows would be a great alternative. So, I signed up to fly as many sorties as necessary. I eventually flew 13 sorties back and forth to Bien Hoa. Every flight was packed with as many troops as we could legally carry aboard the C-123. …

The flights to the shows were pretty much normal troop transport flights. The troops were still mostly expressionless; they were just glad to get a break from the war. But, each return flight from the shows was absolutely not normal. … The emotional weight of the airplane seemed to be thousands of pounds lighter. Also totally different was the restored expression of life on the troops’ faces. It was amazing. It was as though Bob Hope had turned the light back on in their souls. That, I believe, was not the result the men having been entertained, but of their having been appreciated. …

The very genuine care and appreciation that Bob Hope and the rest of his cast expressed to the troops in a couple of hours during each USO show was, therefore, probably quite literally more encouragement and support than many of these young men had experienced before, during or — sadly, in some cases — even after their tours of duty.

[Bob Hope] entertained, yes, but he also imparted sincere value and respect to men and women who had not received much of either for a long, long time. We, as a nation, owe him and those who have followed after him in USO endeavors more than we could ever repay.

My flying schedule did not allow me to attend a Bob Hope USO show myself … but that didn’t matter. What mattered was that I personally witnessed and will never forget the incredible impact that he and those with him had on the morale of the U.S. military. What also mattered was that I had the tremendous privilege of providing several hundred others with airlift to the appreciation that they desperately needed and so very richly deserved.

Editors Note: Stories have been edited slightly for length and style.

Peyton Manning, Stevie Nicks And Other Stars Shine at USO of Metropolitan Washington-Baltimore’s 33rd Annual Awards Dinner

ARLINGTON, Va. — For Peyton Manning, Stevie Nicks, Sebastian Junger and Seema Reza, it was a night to remember.

The four stars, along with nearly 30 Medal of Honor recipients, were honored last night for their contributions to the military community at the USO of Metropolitan Washington-Baltimore’s 33rd Annual Awards Dinner.

Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning accepts the USO-Metro Merit Award. USO Photo by Mike Theiler

Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning accepts the USO-Metro Merit Award. USO Photo by Mike Theiler

Manning, who traveled to Europe and the Persian Gulf on the USO Vice Chairman’s tour in 2013, has been an active supporter of the military throughout his entire NFL career.

“I really had a life-changing experience on my USO tour two years ago,” Manning said. “Just how they’re protecting our freedom, their service to our country, [it’s] very inspiring and I’m really glad that I took the trip.”

The Denver Broncos quarterback received the USO-Metro Merit Award for dedicating his time to help lift the spirits of troops all around the world

Stevie Nicks accepts the USO Achievement Award.

Stevie Nicks accepts the USO Achievement Award.

Five years ago, Nicks received a last-minute invitation to visit troops at Naval Support Activity Bethesda — home of Walter Reed National Military Medical Center — and has committed to spending time with wounded, ill and recovering service members ever since.

Nicks, who wrote the 2011 song, “Soldier’s Angel,” about her numerous visits with wounded troops as part of USO-Metro’s celebrity handshake tours, received the USO Achievement Award for donating her time, talent and treasure to helping bring smiles to recovering troops.

Sebastian Junger accepts the Legacy of Hope Award. USO Photo by Mike Theiler

Sebastian Junger accepts the Legacy of Hope Award. USO Photo by Mike Theiler

Junger, a war correspondent, best-selling author and Oscar-nominated filmmaker received the Legacy of Hope Award for his heart-wrenching storytelling. His most recent documentary works – “Restrepo,” “Korengal” and “The Last Patrol” – focus on the challenges military members endure during combat and upon returning home.

“I was thrilled to sort of discover that those works were very helpful to soldiers [and] emotionally useful to soldiers,” Junger said.

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Seema Reza (far left) poses for photos before the USO of Metropolitan Washington-Baltimore’s 33rd Annual Awards Dinner.

Reza, a poet and essayist, has spent years working with wounded, ill and injured service members at military hospitals and USO Warrior and Family Centers at Fort Belvoir, Virginia and Bethesda, Maryland.

She conducts art workshops for service members recovering from visible and invisible wounds and said “the work that I’ve been able to do is its own reward.”

Reza received the Col. John Gioia Patriot Award for her outstanding commitment to helping recovering troops navigate the healing process.

The Stories Behind Military Challenge Coins

CoinRack_blog

They’re one good deed and an open palm away. And they can be kinda heavy.

Challenge coins permeate the military. Almost everyone with a significant rank doles them out. Even the commander-in-chief has one.

If you’ve been in the military for a while, you probably have a case or a rack (or a vintage sea chest) to display your coins. Last week, the coins reared their heads (or tails) in mainstream culture when the popular design podcast 99% Invisible did an episode on their existence, purpose and history. The podcast even highlighted an oft-repeated awkward civilian moment: the first time a service member shakes their hand and simultaneously plants a coin in their palm.

At the USO, we know a handful of people who have a few (hundred) coins from their years both serving in the military and serving troops. And behind every coin is a pretty cool story. Here are five of them:

Rachel Tischler

Three of the scores of coins Rachel Tischler has received during her tenure as USO Vice President of Entertainment.

Three of the coins Rachel Tischler has received during her tenure with the USO. USO photos by Eric Brandner

Rachel Tischler has taken more flights into the Middle East than a lot of service members. The USO’s Vice President of Entertainment has traveled the world supporting USO tours, including 15 trips to Iraq. She’s collected a lot of coins along the way, too. Here are the stories behind the three pictured above:

Dempsey and Tischler. DOD photo

Tischler with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin E. Dempsey. DOD photo

  • Top of the World: “That’s from Greenland, from the Vice Chairman [of the Joint Chief’s of Staff] tour,” Tishler said. “You can only land there a couple times of year because the runway is frozen ice. And it’s 200 people in the middle of nowhere. I can’t even imagine [a full] deployment.”
  • Gen. Ray Odierno’s coin: “Gen. Odierno was a permanent institution. I saw him every time we went over there,” Tischler said. “I think about it as [a symbol of] all the good work the USO did in Iraq and specifically his support of the USO and entertainment.”
  • The South Park coin: “I don’t know if it’s even appropriate to have this one [on display for this story] but I do love it,” Tischler said laughing. She received the coin with a take on the signature “South Park” line on it from a unit during a USO entertainment tour to Iraq. “I just loved it because I love ‘South Park.’ … You have to admit that is a good sense of humor for [being deployed].”

Glenn Welling

USO Vice President of Operations Glenn Welling holds his personal coin, which he's carried since he deployed to Iraq in 2008. USO photo

The personal coin of USO Vice President of Operations Glenn Welling who is also a command master chief petty officer in the Navy Reserve. Welling has kept the coin in his pocket every day since he deployed to Iraq in 2008.

Glenn Welling always has a challenge coin on hand. It’s his own.

Glenn Welling

Glenn Welling

“For the first 20 years of my Navy career, I had no concept what [challenge coins were about],” said Welling, the USO’s Vice President of Operations and a command master chief petty officer in the Navy Reserve. “When I was selected to be a command master chief in the Navy, I decided it would be a good idea to have my own coin minted so I could recognize sailors that were part of my organization for exceptional service.”

Welling had 100 personal coins minted before deploying to Iraq in 2008.

“This particular coin has been in my pocket every single day since June of 2008, which is when I left for Iraq,” he said.

Welling's sea chest, where he keeps his coin collection.

Welling’s vintage sea chest, which he bought to display his coin collection.

Welling said the coin, along with a prayer stone his neighbor gave him that he also still carries each day, “provided me comfort and security while I was deployed.”

He’s scheduled to retire in October after 37 years in the Navy. But he won’t be taking his coin out of his pocket.

“I may not be in uniform anymore, but I’ll always be a sailor,” he said, smiling. “Til the day I die, I’ll carry my coin with me.”

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Dr. JD Crouch II

USO CEO and President Dr. J.D. Crouch II holds his recently minted personal coin.

USO CEO and President Dr. J.D. Crouch II holds his recently minted personal coin.

USO CEO and President J.D. Crouch II had a clear direction in mind for his first personal coin.

USO President and CEO Dr. J.D. Crouch II shakes volunteers' hands. USO photo by Gretchen Ertl

Crouch greets USO volunteers last fall. USO photo by Gretchen Ertl

“[The USO is] a strong support center for that military family – for spouses, for children as well as the people who sort of orbit around that military family,” Crouch said. “So I thought having that at the center of my coin reflects everything we do: The service members themselves and the family members that also serve in their own way.

“I wanted this to be something that was both reflective of the values [of the USO] and also reflective of the emphasis that I want to place on things while I’m here.”

Valerie Donegan and Jonathan Matthews

USO Director of Information Technology Val Donegan, left, and USO Director of Logistics and Facilities Jonathan Matthews hold up a coin they both received in 2012 for their work building the USO Warrior and Family Center on Fort Belvoir, Virginia.

USO Director of Information Technology Valerie Donegan, left, and USO Director of Logistics and Facilities Jonathan Matthews display a coin they both received in 2012 for their on the USO Warrior and Family Center on Fort Belvoir, Virginia.

Valerie Donegan and Jonathan Matthews are critical to planning the USO’s computer and facilities infrastructures around the globe, which puts them in some interesting places.

In the photo above, Donegan is holding the coin then-Joint Force Headquarters-National Capital Region commander Maj. Gen. Michael T. Linnington gave them to commemorate their roles in building the USO Warrior and Family Center at Fort Belvoir, Virginia.

Donegan holds a coin she received in Iraq in 2009.

Donegan holds a coin she received in Iraq in 2009.

Donegan and Matthews were installing the USO’s downrange satellite communication system in 2009 when they received the coin in the inset photo at then-Balad Air Base in Iraq. It was a trip they’ll never forget for sobering reasons, including their leg in Afghanistan.

“[That trip was] also where I saw my first dignified transfer,” Donegan said. “We hadn’t been at the [USO Pat Tillman Center] for two hours …”

“And everybody stopped,” Matthews interjected.

“Everybody stopped and you lined up,” Donegan said. “That was my first time ever to see a [dignified transfer] out to a flight line.

“There’s nothing as powerful as standing on that flight line watching those coffins go by. … I think that’s really the first time I understood the role [the USO] plays.”


Joseph Andrew Lee

Joseph Andrew Lee holds up the coin President Barack Obama gave him in 2011.

Joseph Andrew Lee holds up the coin President Barack Obama gave him in 2011.

Joseph Andrew Lee has a knack for being in the right place at the right time. It’s a great skill to have if you’re a multimedia journalist like Lee, a gregarious former public affairs Marine who chronicles USO stories.

Joseph Andrew Lee

On Aug. 9, 2011, Lee was working at Dover Air Force Base in the wake of the greatest single-event loss of life U.S. Special Operations has experienced. Three days earlier, a Chinook helicopter carrying 38 coalition troops — including 31 Americans — was shot down in Afghanistan, killing everyone on board. That included 25 special operators. Lee traveled with several fellow employees from the USO’s Arlington, Virginia, offices to do whatever he could to support the mass dignified transfer through USO Delaware. He took a role refilling a cooler of drinks for families, service members and senior officials.

“Our task was to get these grieving families anything they needed,” Lee said.

Three hours in and soaked with sweat after unloading another palate, someone tapped Lee on the shoulder and asked “Hey, you mind if I grab one of those?”

“I looked up and it was the President of the United States,” Lee said.

President Barack Obama took the drink Lee handed him, recognized the USO logo on Lee’s shirt, and struck up a conversation.

“The first words out of his mouth were ‘Thank you for what you do. The USO’s a great organization,'” Lee said.

Lee told Obama that his USO experiences during his 10 years in the Marine Corps were the reason he decided to work for the nonprofit.

Obama then looked over at an aide who handed him something, turned back, and shook Lee’s hand, placing his presidential challenge coin in Lee’s palm in the process.

“He said ‘Thank you for your service and thank you even more for what you do for the USO today,'” Lee said. “And I thought that was pretty special.

“Obviously that day was nothing to celebrate. … Like a lot of medals that Marines receive, it was kind of a reminder of one of the saddest days I’ve served.”

Want to share your own challenge coin story? Send it to us at usomoments.org/stories.

Coining a Legend: Richard Roundtree Talks About ‘Being Mary Jane,’ ‘Shaft’ and his USO Tour

"Being Mary Jane" cast members B.J. Britt, Richard Roundtree and Aaron Spears joined the USO during a visit to Naval Base San Diego on Tuesday.

“Being Mary Jane” cast members B.J. Britt, Richard Roundtree, center, and Aaron Spears joined the USO during a visit to Naval Base San Diego on Tuesday.

When Richard Roundtree says you’re cool, is there anything left to accomplish?

Roundtree – the actor who played the title character in the “Shaft” franchise of the 1970s – had the all-too-civilian experience of being unexpectedly coined for the first time when he visited Naval Base San Diego on a USO tour Feb. 17.

He appreciated the base commanding officer’s style.

“He shook my hand and in the palm of his hand – I have it right here in front of me – he had this [coin],” the jovial actor said of his interaction with Capt. Curt Jones. “The way he gave it to me was just too cool.”

Roundtree knows cool. He’s spent five decades exuding it on screen, including his recent run on BET’s hit drama “Being Mary Jane.” Roundtree and co-stars B.J. Britt and Aaron Spears toured the base together last month.

“I was blown away seeing up close and personal what the Navy was about,” Roundtree said. “From a civilian’s point of view, I got to see a lot and it was wonderful.

“The icing on the cake was how appreciative the enlisted [troops] were toward us. It was just great. I loved it.”

The trio of actors mingled with troops and military family members, stopping to pose for photos and talk about their show and, of course, a little nostalgia.

“[Troops] were relating primarily to ‘Shaft’ understandably,’” said Roundtree, who had two paternal uncles who served in World War II. “I tried to push [“Being Mary Jane,” and they would say] ‘Oh yeah, yeah, we know all about that, but “Shaft” …’

“Even watching the Academy Awards the other night, there was the ‘Shaft’ theme in there at one point,” he said, chuckling.

Roundtree has transformed from an action hero to the man who polices the action in “Being Mary Jane.” He plays Paul Patterson Sr., the father of series star Gabriel Union’s Mary Jane Paul. The series has received positive reviews and was recently picked up for a third season.

“The beauty of it is the universality of the story lines are just great to be a part of,” he said. “Gabriele Union – the trials and tribulations she goes through with the extended family and I have to run kind of roughshod over this whole family – very exciting work. And challenging. I’m having a great time.”

‘It’s a Great Opportunity’: Indianapolis Colts’ Chuck Pagano and Dwayne Allen Talk 2015 USO Vice Chairman’s Tour

BETHESDA, Maryland — Indianapolis Colts head coach Chuck Pagano and tight end Dwayne Allen stopped by Naval Support Activity Bethesda — home of Walter Reed National Military Medical Center — on Monday to meet recovering troops and hospital staff before heading overseas as part of the 2015 USO Vice Chairman’s Tour.

While at the hospital, Pagano and Allen met and took pictures with recovering troops along with Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, actor Dennis Haysbert, Pittsburgh Steelers lineman David DeCastro, reigning Miss America Kira Kazantsev and Adm. James Winnefeld Jr., Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

During the visit, Pagano also shared why he was looking forward to his first USO tour and the importance of giving back to the military community.

Additionally, Allen, who is also making his USO tour debut, took a moment to talk about growing up near Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and why he was looking forward to his first USO tour.