8 Ways the USO Connects Troops To Home

A service member uses the internet at the USO.

From the moment they step into boot camp to the time when they transition to civilian life, troops rely on the USO to help them stay connected to their to friends and family. Here’s eight of the ways the USO does it.

1. Getting troops online: Free Internet access is one of the most popular services at USO centers today. While some USO centers offer computers for troops to use, nearly all of them offer free WiFi for people who bring their own devices. Even our Mobile USO units, like the ones we sent to Brooklyn to comfort troops cleaning up after Superstorm Sandy, are WiFi-enabled so troops serving in remote locations can get online.

2. Skyping into the delivery room: Did you know that the USO helps expecting military dads Skype into the delivery room for their baby’s birth, even if they’re abroad? Marine Capt. Nick Whitefield experienced this USO service first-hand when he watched his wife Laura deliver the couples’ second child, Ethan Whitefield, via a USO-provided Skype connection at Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan.

“The fact that I could be there, electronically, over Skype was huge,” Nick said. “It was great. It was a phenomenal experience.”

A troop makes a call from the USO in Bagram, Afghanistan. USO photo by Dave Gatley

3. Free phone calls home: In 2003, the USO launched Operation Phone Home to provide troops with free phone cards so they can call their loved ones at no cost — even when they’re in remote locations. Some USO centers abroad also offer troops access to a private phone network so they can call home on a safe, secure and reliable line inside the center.

One of these free phone calls even helped a new dad hear his baby girl’s first cries in 2006.

“The USO made that call possible for me,” said former Marine Alexander Carpenter. “And to this day I have never said thank you. … Thank you USO.”

4. Keeping story time alive: Thanks to the USO partnership with United Through Reading, deployed troops can record themselves reading a storybook at a USO center and send the DVD recording back home for their children to watch and digitally connect with them in their absence.

Navy Lt. Matthew Stroup records himself reading a book to his children during a United Through Reading event in Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of Matthew Stroup

Navy Lt. Matthew Stroup records himself reading a book to his children. Photo courtesy of Matthew Stroup

While preparing for a deployment form Japan to the Middle East in 2012, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Victor Glover told his squad about the United Through Reading program and received an overwhelming number of requests to participate. He even recorded stories for his own children.

“It was important. They really got a kick out of being able to see me,” Glover said. “At the end of the recordings, I said a message to them. I used each of their names and I said something to the effect of ‘I love you, be good, be supportive to your mom and goodnight’ because I imagined they’d do the books right before bedtime.”

5. Giving the gift of gaming: Video games are one of our younger service members’ favorite ways to unwind. That’s why most USO centers have gaming stations featuring popular video games like “Call of Duty” and “Halo.” At some centers, service members can even play the games against friends and family around the globe online in real time.

But troops aren’t always stationed near brick-and-mortar USO centers. With that in mind, the USO developed the Mobile Entertainment Gaming System (MEGS) so service members can enjoy video games no matter their location.

6. Serving up comfort foods from home: Sometimes, all it takes to make service members feel connected to home is taste of their favorite foods. That’s why USO patrons can always find a variety of snack, drink and meal options at centers around the world. Some centers, like USO Great Lakes, provide a free, home-cooked meals for troops, while others, like many Southwest Asia centers, always seem to be churning out comforting sweet treats, like homemade ice cream.

A Halloween/Thanksgiving USO Holiday Box from 2011.

A Halloween/Thanksgiving USO Holiday Box from 2011.

7. Bringing the holidays to troops abroad: Being deployed during a special holiday can make troops feel even further from home. That’s why many USO centers host a number special parties and events around those red calendar days.

Troops in remote areas far from a USO center can even get in on the fun, too, thanks to the USO Holiday Boxes program. These special seasonal boxes, filled with games, decorations and other festive supplies are designed to help service members celebrate the year’s special days in any location. There are four seasonal boxes units can request throughout the year, including a Halloween/Thanksgiving box that helped a handful of service members have a spooky Halloween back in 2011.

8. Welcoming troops home: Even though a homecoming is already a joyful occasion for military families, the USO has a history of stepping in to make the day even more memorable. From helping arriving troops freshen up before reuniting with their loved ones to coordinating surprise homecomings like this, this, and this, the USO there to celebrate military families finally reconnecting after a long deployment apart.

Deployed Guardsman Witnesses Birth, Builds Relationship with Child, Thanks to USO

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When his Marine father deployed during Desert Storm, 3-year-old Joseph Rainbolt had no idea he would one day nearly miss moments with his own child.

“He was in Saudi Arabia for nine months when I was only 3, so I can only imagine,” said Rainbolt, now a 26-year-old sergeant in the Louisiana National Guard who might have missed the birth of his first child had it not been for the USO.

Knowing his wife Brittany would be giving birth just five months into a year-long deployment, Rainbolt told the USO and his command of his situation when he arrived in Afghanistan. When she went into labor, the USO set him up with an Internet-connected computer and Skype.

“I was able to stay [at the USO] for hours and be with my wife and see my daughter,” he said.

April Rose, now 8 months old, didn’t just get to see her father the day she was born. Rainbolt also took advantage of the USO’s Tiny Tots program and the USO/United Through Reading Military Program for the seven months that followed, allowing him to keep a presence in his daughter’s life.

“The [Tiny Tots] gift bag was fabulous,” said Brittany Rainbolt, a 26-year old high-school English teacher. “It came with some really awesome stuff. There’s some soap in there, a USO bib, a onesie and some other general baby care products. We used all of it.”

In fact, little April-Rose has even worn the bib immediately before going on stage at a “Red White and Blue” beauty pageant, where she took first place.

“It’s her lucky USO bib,” Brittany Rainbolt said. “United Through Reading was also fabulous. We got so many books for April before she was born and after she was born and I think hearing his voice helped her to make a connection with him. When she saw him the first time she went straight to him. I was like, ‘go to Daddy’ and she held out her little arms for him. It was so cute.”

“Being away was really hard,” Rainbolt said. “As National Guard, I’m usually home. Being away is not my thing. But through the USO we definitely got to have a relationship together.

“I got to talk to her every day, not just every now and then,” he added. “We’ve come a long way since the ‘80s and ‘90s. The USO was great in helping us be able to keep communicating. Even though I wasn’t there, I still got to feel like I was involved in her life, and that meant everything to me.”

Your USO at Work: February 2014 — Kellie Pickler, Stephen King and Blake Shelton Support the Troops

Country Star Kellie Pickler Brings Good Times to Deployed Troops

Country music singer Kellie Pickler poses alongside Sgt. Jeremy Harrington, left, and Sgt. Robert Epley, who built the stage the trio is sitting on for Pickler’s performance at Forward Operating Base Walton, Afghanistan. USO photo by Eric Raum

Country music singer Kellie Pickler poses alongside Sgt. Jeremy Harrington, left, and Sgt. Robert Epley, who built the stage the trio is sitting on for Pickler’s performance at Forward Operating Base Walton, Afghanistan. USO photo by Eric Raum

Kellie Pickler prides herself on her commitment to our military and more specifically, to the USO.  Since 2007, the country music star has participated in seven USO tours and 75 USO Entertainment events, quickly becoming a performer who is synonymous with the USO’s mission of lifting the spirits of troops and their families.

As part of the USO’s Every Moment Counts campaign, Pickler spent the holidays with troops stationed in Kuwait and Afghanistan, delivering cheer, glad tidings and special presents. Along with the customary meet-and-greets, Pickler treated the troops to five USO shows and visited a military hospital.

The singer also accompanied the USO Christmas Convoy, which delivers hundreds of gifts annually to some of the most remote parts of those countries. NBC News captured the convoy in action and broadcast a story on the “Today Show.” The video can be viewed at tinyurl.com/NBCUSO.

“The USO tours and programs I’ve been a part of have definitely been the highlight of my career, so I’m honored to join the USO in helping to raise awareness about the many precious moments that our troops and their families sacrifice,” Pickler said. “Every Moment Counts is especially close to my heart because it not only recognizes their personal sacrifices, but gives Americans the opportunity to thank our troops with a special gift of a moment.”

Learn how you can help us provide memorable moments for troops by visiting usomoments.org.

Iconic Author King Visits Deployed Troops in Germany

Stephen King shares a moment with Navy Lt. j.g. Pablo Yepez at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. USO photo by Mike Clifton

Stephen King shares a moment with Navy Lt. j.g. Pablo Yepez at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. USO photo by Mike Clifton

Stephen King’s words have always moved readers along an emotional roller coaster, but during his USO tour stop at Ramstein Air Base in Germany in November, he also learned how quickly spirits can be lifted with just a handshake and a smile.

“I never realized until earlier this week just how important everyday moments with our nation’s troops and their families really are,” King said. “Volunteering with the USO and spending time with our men and women in uniform was an eye-opening experience that I hope to be able to do again soon. I stand behind the USO’s Every Moment Counts campaign and encourage others to join the USO in supporting our troops.”

As part of his European book tour in support of his latest best-selling novel, “Doctor Sleep,” King teamed with the USO for a day with deployed troops and the medical professionals who care for our wounded heroes. King passed out free copies of the book during visits to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center and the USO Warrior Center and enjoyed mingling with all of the personnel and families.

USO, United Through Reading Partnership Links Deployed Families for Holidays

Army Spc. James Gleason's daughter, , touches the television as she watches him read a book to her via a USO/United Through Reading video. Photo courtesy of the Gleason family

Army Spc. James Gleason’s daughter, , touches the television as she watches him read a book to her via a USO/United Through Reading video. Photo courtesy of the Gleason family

Once a month, Army Spc. James Gleason walks into the USO at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan and picks out a book to read to his 2-year-old daughter, Jameson. He makes extra reading trips for special occasions like Halloween and Christmas.

While Gleason wasn’t with his little girl during the holidays, his presence was still felt in their California home, thanks to United Through Reading’s Military Program.
Many USO centers downrange have private rooms with a collection of books where troops can record themselves reading a story to their children back home. The USO then ships each book and recording to their families. The program has been keeping military families connected during deployments since 2006.

“My daughter absolutely loves the books,” wrote Gleason. “Every time she gets one she has the same reactions. She always asks for me and kisses [my image on the screen].

“It surprised her when she heard my voice. … She said, ‘Hi Daddy! Thank you for reading to me!’”

The program partnership helps create holiday moments that Gleason—who is on his first deployment to Afghanistan—and thousands of American troops with families back home will remember.

“It means everything to me,” he wrote. “I’m fighting for my girls and those reactions are priceless.”

The USO needs your help to connect troops to their families back home. Visit uso.org/donate4troops to learn how you can get involved.

Wounded Warriors Receive Business Training Through USO/Georgetown Program

“You worked twelve hours and you slept two. You worked twelve hours and you slept two. In the military, that was just a given,” said Michael Phillips, a 10-year Army veteran and successful UPS Store franchisee.

“Owning your own franchise won’t be much different at first,” the guest speaker told a classroom of transitioning wounded warrior students at Georgetown University School of Continuing Studies. “But now that I’ve got almost five stores bringing in money every day, I’m here to tell you that it’s well worth it.”

In November, the USO collaborated with Georgetown University to offer a certificate in franchise venture planning to wounded warriors, their caregivers and surviving spouses.

Led by Dr. Ben Litalien at Georgetown’s Washington, D.C., campus, the condensed, six-day course was designed to teach wounded, ill and injured soldiers, their caregivers and surviving spouses the fundamental skills needed to start a franchise business.

“We understand that any transition can be difficult, and that injuries, illness or the loss of a loved one can make it even more so,” said USO President/CEO John Pray. “That is why the USO is so committed to our transitioning troops.”

The program focused on both the initial decision to invest in a franchise as well as the operational, tactical and strategic decisions needed to run a successful business. Guest speakers also shared their expertise on the process of transitioning from a career in the military into franchise ownership.

Litalien led students through an intense week of case studies, lectures, guest speakers and meetings with professionals who support our active-duty and veteran communities in business efforts.

At the graduation ceremony, Associate Dean Edwin Schmierer announced the continuation of the program in 2014, and reminded graduates to apply their knowledge and skills in service to others.

“The value of your Georgetown education doesn’t come from how it benefits you,” said Shmierer. “It comes from how you will use it to serve others, and as service members and families of service members, you’re more than familiar with such a sacrifice.”

JCPenney Raises Holiday Cheer, Support for USO

JCPenney’s Jingle Mingle campaign made it easier to spread cheer during the holidays.

Singer Blake Shelton and USO President and CEO John Pray attend a surprise holiday event courtesy of JCPenney on Dec. 19 at Greeley Square Park in New York. Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

Singer Blake Shelton and USO President/CEO John Pray attend a surprise holiday event courtesy of JCPenney on Dec. 19 at Greeley Square Park in New York. Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

The company invited everyone to record videos of themselves singing “Silent Night” at jcp.com. Singers could add their videos to an online choir gallery and share them with friends and family. As an incentive to participate, JCPenney donated $20 to the USO for each video submitted to the gallery. Even country music superstar Blake Shelton joined in, teaming up with the USO Show Troupe for a performance in New York City.

As the featured JCP Cares charity partner in December, customers were also invited to round up their in-store or jcp.com purchases to the nearest dollar and donate the difference to the USO. The proceeds raised will support USO programs and services that provide memorable moments for troops and military families around the world. JCPenney’s combined efforts raised more than $2.2 million for the USO.

“Our overall goal is to be a contributing factor to the overall success of the USO,” said Crystal King, senior manager of philanthropy at JCPenney. “Our partnership with the USO really allowed us to discover ourselves as a company. Founder James Cash Penney had an affinity for the military and supported personnel who were deployed and those who returned with injury. It’s our intent to stay true to our roots and continue that relationship, and supporting the military means supporting the USO.”

USO Osan Air Base Duty Manager Dedicated to Serving Troops

USO Osan Air Base Duty Manager Ju-Yeon Park. Courtesy photo

USO Osan Air Base Duty Manager Ju-Yeon Park. Courtesy photo

For many troops and families arriving in South Korea, USO Osan Air Base Duty Manager Ju-Yeon Park is often the first smiling face they see.

“Every day working with the USO provides new and exciting opportunities and challenges,” said Park, whose husband is a senior noncommissioned officer in the South Korean military.  “There is often no guidebook on how to do things, which allows for personal creativity to come up with ideas to entertain [troops] or to make them smile or … make them feel more like they are at home.”

Born and raised in the South Korean capital of Seoul, Park always wanted to work for an international organization, so when a community relations position opened up at the USO in her hometown, she jumped at the opportunity.

“I like that the USO not only supports the U.S. military, but also plays an important part between the military and the local community,” she said. “I wanted to work at the USO more than just about any other [place].”

Park, who started working at USO Camp Kim in 2008, loves to travel and enjoys experiencing new places and trying different foods. She spent five months backpacking around Europe on her own after graduating high school and said the journey gave her new levels of respect and admiration for other cultures and countries.

She has applied some of the lessons learned on that trip to her work with the USO.

“I have had many experiences meeting many people from different nations and different places,” Park said, referring to her job with the USO. “Almost every day I learn new things. I find myself growing, and it’s a feeling that is really nice.”

Girl Scouts Give 731 Books to USO/United Through Reading Library at BWI Airport

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Without books to read, the USO/United Through Reading Military Program wouldn’t last a day.

That’s why huge kudos are in order for two Girl Scouts who received their Silver Awards recently after collecting 731 books for the United Through Reading library at the USO inside the Baltimore-Washington International Airport. The program – which the USO facilitates around the world – lets troops record themselves reading books aloud to their kids and then send a copy of that reading home to their family.

Girl Scouts Grace Kinnear and Maeve Hall hosted a lemonade stand, asked for donations at their school book fair and even solicited support from local businesses in order to meet their goal.

Grace’s grandfather, Jim Kinnear, was a motivating force behind the project. The girls were introduced to USO of Metropolitan Washington-Baltimore through Jim’s work as a volunteer and were given a tour of the BWI center when they dropped off a cookie donation. This spurred their idea to replenish the United Through Reading library there.

When Grace and Maeve arrived with a cart full of books Jan. 27, they had an entourage of nearly 30 family members, including parents, siblings, aunts, uncles and grandparents. Even the principal of their school came to celebrate their service. It was an uplifting scene as family and friends gathered around for the presentation, teary with pride for the girls and our troops.

–Story gathered by Lauren Hebert, USO of Metropolitan Washington

Touching Home from Afar: USO Volunteer of the Year Tells How United Through Reading’s Military Program Affects His Family

USO Volunteer of the Year Marine Gunnery Sgt. Jeremiah Johnson spoke to our cameras Oct. 25 at the USO Gala in Washington about the power of United Through Reading’s Military Program.

Johnson – who has deployed throughout the world and has four children and four stepchildren – knows how powerful it can be to send a DVD of himself reading a book back home.

Find out more about how one Navy dad used the program to keep up with his young sons during a deployment at sea.

Apple Valley Optimist Club Recieves USO/Optimist International Patch

Members of the Apple Valley Optimist Club at Los Domingos on April 2, 2013 (Photo Credit: Apple Valley Optimist Club)

Members of the Apple Valley Optimist Club at Los Domingos on April 2, 2013 (Photo Credit: Apple Valley Optimist Club)

The Apple Valley Optimist Club has reached their goal of raising $1000 to support United Through Reading’s Military Program. The USO along with its partner United Through Reading® give deployed troops the opportunity to record themselves reading books to their children, and the recordings are then mailed back to the family along with a copy of the book.

“Think how wonderful it would be for these children to have something so memorable, not to mention the moral support this offers to the parent at home,” Apple Valley Club Chairwoman Julie Whittingham said.

For the past year, the Apple Valley Optimist Club has tirelessly held various fundraisers to support this program. Some of the events the club held includes partnering with their local Barnes & Noble’s to gift wrap books over the holidays. The club also had a booth at a local festival fairgrounds passing out information to the general public asking them to step up and support the United Through Reading’s Military Program through the USO.

The Apple Valley Optimist Club was the first Optimist Club to receive the USO/Optimist International commemorative patch for their outstanding support of military families. All Optimist Clubs raising $1,000 or more earn this patch. Congratulations, Apple Valley Optimist Club!