‘I Can See Him Here’: Mother Finds A Moment of Solace Through Visit to USO After Son’s Death

Vicki and Michael Dickinson. Photo courtesy Vicki Dickinson

Army Staff Sgt. Michael Dickinson with his mother, Vicki Dickinson. Photo courtesy Vicki Dickinson

Vicki Dickinson doesn’t remember much about the two years after her son was killed. Between the funeral, the tears and the coping, everything felt like a blur.

But she does recall one moment in perfect detail. About a year after Army Staff Sgt. Michael Dickinson II’s 2006 death in Iraq – while walking through one of a string of airports that are all fuzzy to her now – she visited her first USO.

Michael, a Battle Creek, Michigan, native, had told his mother about his visits to USO centers around the world.

“He would always try to find the USO and chill,” she said of her son, who was killed in a firefight nine days before he was supposed to come home. “And he’d say ‘Yeah mom, they’re great. They’ve always got great snacks, things to drink. They’ve got nice comfortable place[s] to lay down, take a little nap if you need it.’”

So when she had a few minutes between flights that day, Vicki went to a USO airport center to see for herself.

“It was kind of like a piece of home to him,” she said.

She walked into the center and told a volunteer about her son and his fondness for the USO. She asked to take a look around so she could see where her son relaxed between flights.

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After a volunteer offered her a quick tour and refreshments, Vicki settled into one of the cozy couches and quietly pictured her son – a husband with a total of five children and stepchildren – resting on a similar couch a few years prior.

“[I thought] ‘I can see him here. I can see him on that couch, playing a game,’” she said. “It made me feel good that my son got to do that. That he knew that he was cared about. And he knew he had a safe place to go and just relax.”

After shedding few tears, Vicki collected herself and headed out of the center to catch her flight.

The beanie baby Vicki received during her USO visit. Photo courtesy Vicki Dickinson

The camo Beanie Baby Vicki received during her USO visit. Photo courtesy Vicki Dickinson

As she was leaving, a volunteer handed her a camo Beanie Baby to remember her USO visit. She still displays that bear in her home.

“It made me feel good, it really did,” she said. “And it let me see a part of my son’s life that I’d never gotten a chance to see.”

Vicki still thinks about that quiet moment she had in the USO center.

“It’s a new memory you can make at a time when you can’t get any new ones,” she said.

Michael Dickinson II working. Photo courtesy Vicki Dickinson

Michael Dickinson II working. Photo courtesy Vicki Dickinson

 

New Center at SeaTac Airport Allows USO Northwest to Better Serve Troops and Families

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USO Northwest staff and volunteers welcomed community officials and local military leadership for the grand opening of their new 7,500-square-foot center in the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in Washington state on Wednesday.

Home to one of the largest concentrations of military personnel in the United States, USO Northwest provides critical support to more than 600,000 active-duty military and their families annually in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Alaska.

Efforts to transform the center began in 2012 with the launch of USO Northwest’s Enduring Support Campaign. That push brought in donations from more than 400 groups, businesses and individual donors, ultimately netting over $1.5 million in funds and in-kind gifts to make the expanded center possible. Three of the largest contributors were the Employee Community Fund of Boeing Puget Sound, the USO Northwest Board of Directors and the Ellison Foundation.

“This was a day that I could only dream about,” said Hossein Khorram, Treasurer of the USO Northwest Board of Directors. “When we started going through the process a few years ago, this was still just a dream. The money was hard to come by, but we got amazing donors who really stood up to make this all possible.”

From a full-service kitchen to an enlarged luggage storage space and enhanced entertainment amenities, the new center will provide a touch of home for service members and their families as they travel through the SeaTac Airport and beyond. The center will continue to offer travel assistance, sleeping facilities, showers, meals and snacks, a lounge, gaming equipment, free Wi-Fi, laptop commuters and a separate family room.All of that will now be delivered in a more comfortable and inviting space.

Highlights of the new center include the installation of the original teakwood decking from the World War II battleship USS Colorado (BB-45) as well as a Patriot Wall Brick Campaign, which features over 300 commemorative bricks from loved ones to those who previously or currently serve in the military.

“This is where it happens and this is the pointed edge of the spear of the USO,” said Dr. J.D. Crouch ll, CEO and President of the USO. “This is where we meet the men and women and their families who we are dedicated to supporting. It’s places like this all around the world … which allows us to always be by their side.”

When the ribbon was finally cut, local contributors and military personnel were invited to tour the new center,  which is located above the Delta Air Lines ticketing counters on the mezzanine level. Port of Seattle Port Commissioners Bill Bryant and Courtney Gregoire and President of the Employee Community Fund of Boeing Puget Sound Robert Malone also spoke at Wednesday’s ceremony.

“Our organization made a commitment almost three years ago to never allow another military member to be turned away at SeaTac Airport because our center was too small. Today that commitment becomes a reality,” said USO Northwest Executive Director and retired Navy Cmdr. Don Leingang. “This new USO center will allow us to provide no less than the very best services to our military and their family members.”

With support from USO Northwest staff and volunteers, the new center will continue to be open to visitors 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

USO Rhein Main Gives Gaming Troops The Ultimate Ticket to Gamescom 2014

Troops smile outside of the gamescom convention. USO photo.

Troops smile outside of the Gamescom convention. USO photo.

It’s no secret troops love video games. In fact, if you step inside any USO center, one of the first things you’ll likely see is a service member sitting in front of a TV, controller in hand, battling enemies in the latest blockbuster releases.

So when USO Rhein Main staff members heard about Gamescom, a German convention devoted to the latest and greatest innovations in the video game industry, they knew that they had to find a way to get troops there.

“Gaming ranks highly on most troops’ list of hobbies, so why not take them to experience that largest gaming convention in Europe?” said USO Rhein Main Area Operations Manager Ashley Grassl.

As part of its Food and Fun for Free program, which focuses on providing free programming for single and unaccompanied service members,  USO Rhein Main sent 20 soldiers to Gamescom 2014 in Cologne, Germany, earlier this month. From its popular Taco Nights to quarterly cultural tours to explore Germany, the Food and Fun for Free program gives troops a chance to step outside their barracks and enjoy their local surroundings.

Although the trek required troops to wake up early on a Sunday morning, Grassl said they had no trouble filling up the 20 van and bus seats, and even had a waiting list for the trip. Once the service members arrived at Gamescom, USO volunteers gave each of them a wrist band — which allowed them to play any game available — explained the layout of the convention center and let them loose to explore.

“Gamescom boasts that visitors will experience ‘the next generation of gaming,’ and our service members got to experience all of that and more,” Grassl said. “They had the opportunity to experience hands-on game play of games that won’t come out until later this year like ‘Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare,’ ‘Borderlands,’ ‘Battlefield’ and ‘Destiny.’”

From participating in multiplay online tournaments to stocking up on promotional freebies, Grassl said Gamescom offered something to keep any gaming enthusiast entertained.

“Gamescom was amazing. The masses came out for a great event. There was seriously something there for everyone,” said Army Spc. D’Lexis Cooley, president of Better Opportunities for Single Soldiers (BOSS) at U.S. Army Garrison Wiesbaden. “BOSS soldiers said that they were going to get their nerd on by gaming. And they did. “

Snow Problem? No Problem: Some USO Centers Stay Open Late for Troops Despite Weather

You may have heard it snowed yesterday on the East Coast. While news of cancelled flights and videos of dogs-playing-in-snow likely snuck into your Facebook feed, we noticed a different, heartwarming trend. Our Facebook feed turned up several photos and notes about tireless USO volunteers and staffers at centers that were able to stay open taking care of stranded troops. Here’s a sampling:

From Liberty USO, which serves Philadelphia International Airport:

The USO of Metropolitan Washington-Baltimore was able to help stranded troops at Dulles International Airport thanks to three dedicated volunteers. (The center at Reagan National Airport stayed open overnight, too, hosting seven stranded troops):

And in Fort Drum, N.Y. – where the temperature was 8 below zero at noon today – the USO continued business as usual by welcoming home returning troops earlier this week:

Like what you see? You can help America’s troops, too, by donating to support USO centers and programs.

A New Site for Wounded, Ill and Injured Soldiers

The USO Warrior and Family Center is missing its final beam!

Last week I had the honor of joining servicemen and women, donors, construction representatives, and USO staff to enjoy the topping out ceremony for the new USO Warrior and Family Center in Ft. Belvoir, Virginia.

Most topping out ceremonies celebrate the completion of the building’s structure, a milestone for the construction team. Our ceremony was more than that. We weren’t just celebrating the halfway mark of the building’s construction. We were celebrating what the new center will be for wounded, ill and injured (WII) troops, their families, caregivers and families of the fallen.

Come January, the large skeleton of the USO Warrior and Family Center will be transformed into a place where our country’s WII troops can go to escape the hospital, relax, and have fun during their journey to recovery.

The USO Warrior and Family Center will offer a caring environment where the healing that has begun, can accelerate. It will be a focal point for support; a place of respite and recreation; a place of normalcy to bring family together; and a place to prepare for a happy and fulfilling life ahead.

The final beam is placed into the USO Warrior and Family Center.

As I saw the final beam lifted into the sky and lowered into place atop the center, I couldn’t help but smile as I envisioned the center being utilized by WII troops every day. Many of the proud faces around me were delighted, too, and I thought they must be thinking the same thing.

Did you know?

  • Since the conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, more than 40,000 troops have been visibly wounded began, and more than 300,000 troops suffer from invisible wounds.
  • Only 12-14% of WII patients are injured in combat.
  • Many WII patients are injured during training.

The Fort Belvoir USO Warrior and Family Center:

  • Inside: communal kitchen, dining area, game room, theater, classroom, business center, study areas, community room, therapeutic enrichment room, respite lounge, and more.
  • Outside: grill area, terrace, and healing gardens
  • This center is designed for warriors to have easy access and mobility throughout these spaces.
  • The USO Warrior and Family Center in Ft. Belvoir is the first of two centers specifically for our nation’s WII troops. The second center will be built near the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, MD.

To join the USO in supporting these heroes please visit www.uso.org/oec

- Sarah Camille Hipp, Communications Specialist

Never Missing a Moment: USO Programs Help Military Family Connect During Birth of First Child

Chuck and Mel Hubbell. Courtesy photo.

Their first child was just one month out, and everything was going according to plan for Air Force Staff Sergeant Charles (Chuck) Hubbell and his young wife, Melissa (Mel).

They were decorating the nursery in pastels at their home in Rapid City, South Dakota. They knew a little girl was on the way. Her name would be Madelynn Rae Hubbell—Maddy for short—and she was already a daddy’s girl. At night Chuck would read her stories and press gently on Mel’s belly. Maddy would push right back. It was their goodnight exchange.

Then the phone rang. It was the 28th Munitions Squadron—Chuck’s command. He was ordered to drop everything and deploy to the Middle East in just three weeks.

The news was a blow to the young family.  In the four years the Hubbells had known each other, they’d only spent one Christmas together.

“This would be our third deployment as a couple,” said Mel, “so we were used to it. But this time it was different. Our family would be starting off without him.”

Less than a week before the baby was due, Chuck kissed his wife and pressed a soft goodbye on her tummy as he boarded a plane.

While on a layover at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, he stopped at the USO Center and recorded a message to his unborn child using United Through Reading’s Military Program.

The USO’s partnership with United Through Reading® gives active duty troops the opportunity to stay connected with their children. Troops read a book aloud while being recorded on DVD, then send the DVD and book to the child and family back home.

“In the last week before Maddy came along, I missed him so much,” said Mel. “When I couldn’t hear Chuck’s voice, I would play the recording. Maddy recognized his voice too.”

Thanks to a Skype connection, Chuck was there in the delivery room on the day his daughter came into the world last August.  Doctors and nurses passed Chuck’s floating head around the room so the camera on Mel’s laptop could pick up the action.

But that wasn’t the only way Mel planned to share the memory with Chuck. She didn’t tell her husband, but when she received the United Through Reading® DVD in the mail, there was also a coupon inside for a free photo album.

Through a partnership with RocketLife, LLC, the USO Photo Book program gives military families a chance to build and send their loved one a free, soft-cover photo album, small enough to fit in a uniform cargo pocket.

Mel took pictures of everything—from Maddy’s short stay in the Intensive Care Unit to her first bath, first meal and first outfit—all with the USO Photo Book in mind.

“What seems like every day things to us—your child rolling over or trying a new food—aren’t so mundane to a new dad 5,000 miles away from his first born,” said Mel. “Every event is a huge deal. They want to know about these things. They want to be in the loop and show their buddies pictures.”

Mel created the book online in less than an hour. Two weeks later, Chuck was flipping through pictures of the newborn daughter he’d never seen.  He took it with him everywhere. He showed everyone at his base in Qatar.

“Having pictures of my baby girl that I could look at any time… made my time apart from her so much easier to take,” said Chuck. “Technology is great, and while I was excited to be there on Skype with my wife through 15 hours of labor, that photo book put the icing on the cake.”

Staff Sgt. Hubbell returned from deployment in late February and met his daughter in person for the first time. She is now seven months old, and even though he sees her every day, he still carries his picture book with him everywhere he goes. — By Joseph Andrew Lee, USO Staff Writer

Madelynn Rae Hubbell. Photo by Amy Zochol Oyler of Legacy Photo and Design