Meet Bandit: The Comforting Canine at USO Fort Leonard Wood

FORT LEONARD WOOD, Missouri—When Kelly Gist adopted Bandit three-and-a-half years ago, she didn’t expect him to become a healer.

Sickly, underweight and suffering from a number of health issues before adoption, the great dane pup looked like he needed more help than he would ever be able to give.

But as Bandit grew stronger and healthier, and started accompanying Gist to her job at USO Fort Leonard Wood, Gist saw Bandit was more than an average rescue dog.

“We would bring him into the USO, and as he grew, his interactions with the troops were unbelievable and we realized he had something else to give [and decided to train him as a therapy dog],” said Gist, the USO Fort Leonard Wood center director.


Bandit lays on Army Sgt. 1st Class Kevin Albrecht. USO photo by Sandi Moynihan

Whether it’s visiting patients at the hospital, comforting troops at the Warrior Transition Unit or hanging out with military families at USO Fort Leonard Wood, Gist says Bandit is always ready to comfort those in need.

“If anyone can spend five minutes with him, even two, they’ll realize the difference he can make in someone’s day,” Gist said.


Caregivers of Wounded, Ill and Injured Troops Get Lessons in Resiliency at USO Seminar

Brooks, left, chats with another caregiver attendee.

Angela Brooks, left, chats with another caregiver attendee.

FORT LEONARD WOOD, Missouri—Angela Brooks can’t remember the last time she put herself first.

Between working, taking care of her children and caring for her disabled Air Force veteran husband of 20 years —who struggles with PTSD — there’s little time left at to address her personal needs.

“I literally have the world on my shoulders,” Brooks said. “[Caregivers like me] do a lot and it’s not so much physical anguish, it’s mental anguish, and that’s hard, hard.”

So when Brooks heard Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, was hosting a USO Caregivers Seminar — a day of interactive programming designed to address the immediate needs of those who care for wounded, ill and injured service members — she knew she had to attend.

Brooks, second from the right, plays a icebreaker game between sessions

Brooks, second from the right, plays a icebreaker game between sessions.

“I came because I wanted it to be about me [and my needs for a change],” Brooks said.

After participating in the two morning sessions, which featured gameon Nation Vice President Blair Bloomston and Stronger Families Executive Director Noel Meador, respectively, Brooks — who’d never attended any type of caregiver-centric programming before — was already glad she came.

“I felt very isolated up until today,” Brooks said. “[But today at the USO Caregivers Seminar] I feel comfortable. I feel safe and I feel like I’m not going to be judged.”

Brooks, far right, takes a selfie as part of an icebreaker activity.

Brooks, far right, takes a selfie as part of an icebreaker activity.

Brooks even felt comfortable enough to share details about her daily challenges with the entire room during a communications skill development activity. Brooks admits she relished in the rare opportunity to talk about the sometimes-difficult task of being a caretaker with other people who are experiencing similar situations.

“I just want to learn more and be open and this environment is very opening and freeing,” Brooks said. “What I was talking about earlier, [my personal story], there was no way I would have said that in certain [other] settings.”

“I just really really appreciate people thinking of us,” Brooks said.

Bloomston, second from left, plays a game with a caregiver

Bloomston, second from left, plays a game with a caregiver.

According to Bloomston, even the simplest, quietest games can have a profound and lasting impact.

Take the game of Coins for example. To play, Bloomston asked attendees to think of a list of things that made them smile, shine and feel valuable. There was one catch: none of the participants’ ideas — which are called Coins in this game — can include things that were related to their role as a caregiver. For example, a standard list of acceptable Coins might include favorite foods, favorite places or simply the role of being a sibling, friend or family member.

Attendees play the game of 'Zip Zap Za' at the game on Nation session.

Attendees play the game of ‘Zip Zap Za’ at the game on Nation session.

Once attendees had their list, Bloomston asked them to pause and focus on their Coins for a moment. Many caregivers in the room started to smile. Then, after the time was up, Bloomston asked participants write down or remember their Coins so they could always carry them, metaphorically, in their pocket for empowerment the next time they face a difficulty as a caregiver.

Although it might not seem like much, Bloomston says the game, along with other gameon Nation games, can lead to huge improvements in how caregivers approach their challenges.

“You can tell somebody a statement like ‘Be confident’ or, you can put them through and experience and feel what it’s like to be confident and the spirit of play and the science of game dynamics makes that moving experience happen in a very quick way,” Bloomston said. “Caregivers can use these skills … to do their job with excellence and stay revitalized and give oxygen back to themselves.”

In fact, Bloomston’s already seen the positive impact on previous USO Caregivers Seminar attendees who have participated in gameon Nation sessions.

“The best part of the feedback is when I return to a base or when I return to a post years later and people come up to me and say ‘I still have my coins in my pocket,'” Bloomston said.

Get Down and Dirty with the USO of Missouri Mud Run!

Want a twist on the usual charity athletic fundraiser?  Then look no further than USO of Missouri’s 5K Cross Country Mud Run.  Part obstacle course, part road race, this unique event can be run by individuals or teams of 5, with the goal of raising money for the organization.

USO of Missouri runs two facilities at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport.  The James S. McDonnell USO, located on the lower level of Terminal 1 across from baggage carousel M6, never closes. The doors are open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.  The  Terminal 2 Satellite facility, located on the lower level of Terminal 2 across from entrance ET11, is open 7 AM – 6 PM, Monday – Friday.  There is also a mobile unit and a center at Ft. Leonard Wood.

Two recent stories by Teri Maddox for help explain just how much these centers mean to the military community.  A group of families found themselves waiting in the dining hall at Scott Air Force Base for 31 members of an Illinois Air National Guard 126th Air Refueling Wing Security Forces squadron to return from Iraq.  USO volunteers showed up to help pass the time.  “I love the USO,” said [one serviceman’s sister] Jennifer Stroup, 27, of Scott Air Force Base. “They were here for the (squadron’s) deployment, and they gave all the kids teddy bears. It was really nice.”  Click here to read the full story

The Mud Run helps support events like that homecoming and so many more.  Still not convinced?  Check out the quick video below for inspiration!  See you in the mud…

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