USO and TAPS Come Through for Army Family After Son’s Suicide

Corey Smith was a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom who committed suicide in 2012

Corey Smith, a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, committed suicide Dec. 29, 2012. Courtesy of the Smith family

Like every Saturday morning, Kathy Smith expected a phone call from her Army veteran son.

But on this Saturday, it was a call from someone else.

“Corey Jon Smith, what did you do? Oh my God kid! What did you do?” she recalls shouting aloud from her bathroom before gathering the family at her oldest son Travis’ house to share the tragic news.

Their beloved Corey, her youngest child who had struggled with post-traumatic stress for years after serving in Iraq and who was close to graduating with a psychology degree with the intention of helping others going through similar problems, had committed suicide at his home in Anchorage, Alaska.

“You know what, God,” she recalled saying, “I absolutely do not agree with this plan. I don’t like this plan and I don’t agree with it.

“But I believe in you and I trust you, and I’m trusting that you’re going to take care of us now, because we have to get to Anchorage.”

Corey Smith on deployment in Iraq, 2006. Courtesy photo

Corey Smith during a 2006 Iraq deployment.

Kathy said the family had recently spent the last of its savings on her nursing school tuition and were trying to figure out how to get gas and food for the week. There were no funds to get to Anchorage.

“When TAPS stepped into the picture with the USO, they covered all of those areas,” she said. “When I told you they were the answer to a prayer, I wasn’t kidding. They answered our prayers to a ‘T.’ There’s not a day that goes by that we don’t think of the people at TAPS and the USO.”

On Dec. 29, 2012, TAPS (Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors) received a call from a friend who lived near the Smith family in Big Lake, Minnesota, explaining the Smiths’ need to get to Anchorage quickly to comfort their 26-year-old now-widowed daughter-in-law and 3-year-old granddaughter.

TAPS moved quickly to make that happen. The only available flight plan included an overnight layover in Seattle, which meant asking the USO to act as a concierge for the family. Within days, the Smiths were on their way to Alaska, arriving at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport just as the ball was dropping to start 2013 in New York City.

“We were so exhausted,” Tim Smith said. “In a situation like that, you wouldn’t know what you want if you wanted it, your brain is so scrambled and confused — kind of just hanging in limbo.”

USO SeaTac Director Bill Baker greeted them and guided them to the USO, where they stayed until their 6 a.m. flight.

“It was a heartbreaking week to say the least,” Baker said. “My volunteers did an amazing job taking care of them and made them feel so comfortable and welcome when they asked if they could stay in the USO instead of a hotel so they could be closer to military troops.”


With an early flight and Kathy nursing a broken foot from dropping her laptop bag on it that day, they decided staying at the USO was the most convenient decision.

“I remember we went to bed at about 1:30 or 2 a.m. but the gentleman on duty at the USO said he had an alarm set for us, and that he and another woman would be up all night to look over us” Kathy Smith said. “I know for a fact that they were because I saw them come in and check on us. I couldn’t sleep, so I watched her pull the covers up over my daughter.”

The Smiths made it to Anchorage for the funeral proceedings and back to their home outside Minneapolis without further incident, all the while being watched over by TAPS and USO volunteers.

“Throughout the whole time we would get calls from TAPS asking us if we needed anything or if we forgot anything,” Kathy Smith said. “They called to make sure we got to the USO safely and we got calls shortly after we arrived. Every step of the way they made sure that we weren’t stranded anywhere at any point in time.

“In that moment and in so many others, USO volunteers made a grieving family feel more comfortable and gave them such care during a very difficult time,” said Bonnie Carroll, President and Founder of TAPS. “It’s the perfect example of why and how our organizations rely on each other to care for military families during their most difficult moments.”

His sister Autum set up a peer support foundation called, to memorialize Corey by connecting veterans with each other and by connecting the families dealing with the aftermath of PTSD-related suicides. Corey believed in “Faith, Family, Friends, and Freedom,” but at his heart he was an adventure-seeker who believed in the brotherhood of one soldier to another. The Smiths believe the key is to facilitate outdoor adventures and activities where veterans and families can meet and connect.

“I miss him very much,” Kathy Smith said. “But there are still Saturdays when I wake up thinking Corey’s going to call today.”

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.

A New Floor Plan: USO Northwest to Lay Decking from WWII-Era USS Colorado in Airport Center

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USO Northwest was gifted a piece of history Thursday. The USO center at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport received planks from the teak decking from the USS Colorado, a ship that patrolled the waters of the Pacific during World War II. The decking – a gift from Boeing, which possessed the boards for more than 50 years – will cover roughly 1,500 square feet of floor inside the USO’s Sea-Tac center.

“We are very excited the Boeing Company has chosen the USO Northwest to be the recipient of this great piece of history,” USO Northwest Executive Director Don Leingang said, according to the Tukwila Reporter. “Our organization truly understands the significance of this donation and is honored to be the new caretaker of this teakwood planking for as long as the USO exists at SeaTac Airport.”

A New Name and a Remodeled Center for USO Northwest

The USO’s footprint in the Northwest has increased.

A look inside the renovated Shali Center at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington. USO Northwest photo

The USO Puget Sound Area operation is no longer defined by the waterways of Washington State. Troops and their families in Alaska, Idaho, Oregon and throughout Washington State will now benefit from programs and services offered by the newly rebranded USO Northwest.

The announcement of the name change was made Nov. 8 at a ribbon cutting ceremony for USO Northwest’s remodeled Shali Center on Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

USO Puget Sound Area’s board of directors and staff made the unanimous decision to make the name change in June.

“The closest USOs to USO Northwest are USO Wisconsin to the east and USO San Francisco to the south,” USO Northwest Executive Director Don Leingang said. “My goal is for our USO Mobile Canteen to visit Idaho at least once per year and Oregon two to three times annually or as requested. Although we physically will not be able to drive our Mobile to Alaska, we have already assisted units there through the Helping Hands Grant.”

USO Northwest’s Helping Hands Grant provides access to funds for military events such as homecoming parties, pre-deployment events, command functions and other camaraderie-building events.

More than 3,500 service members will be deploying through the center—which received $375,000 in renovations—before the end of November.

“The center was remodeled because the features were outdated and the design didn’t provide the maximum flow to support our massive troop deployments that are inherent by being the third-largest military installation in the U.S.,” Shali Center Manager Andrew Oczkewicz said.

The Shali Center includes a commercial-grade kitchen, dining room, bathrooms, five flat screen TVs, a United Through Reading room, laptops with Skype capabilities and a gaming lounge with Xboxes. It will continue to provide free food such as hot dogs, made-to-order sandwiches, snacks, fruit and drinks.

“I have no doubt our volunteers and staff can move mountains for our local service members,” Leingang said. “Each one of them sees military personnel as family. They have a great love for what they do. Why else get up at two in the morning to make sandwiches?”

The Shali Center is named after USO Northwest Board Member Joan Shalikashvili and her late husband, Army Gen. John Shalikashvili, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The Shalikashvilis have built their lives around service to the U.S. and enriching the lives of local military and their families.

–Meaghan Cox, USO Northwest