Your USO At Work: April 2014 — Warrior and Family Center at Bethesda Opens

USO officials, military leaders and celebrities cut the ribbon to USO's Warrior and Family Center at Bethesda.  USO Photo by Mike Theiler

USO officials, military leaders and celebrities cut the ribbon to USO’s Warrior and Family Center at Bethesda. USO Photo by Mike Theiler

USO Opens New Warrior and Family Center at Bethesda

After a year of construction and several years of planning and fundraising, the ribbon was finally cut on April 1 at the USO Warrior and Family Center located on Naval Support Activity Bethesda, home of the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland.

The center – which is the sister structure to the USO Warrior and Family Center at Fort Belvoir, Va. – opened to troops, families and caregivers the next day and provided a much-needed home away from home for wounded, ill and injured troops and their families and caregivers living on the installation.

More than 200 people – including Department of Defense officials, wounded warriors, esteemed donors and even Miss America – attended the ceremony at the new center.

“This is where the future begins,” USO President and CEO John I. Pray, Jr., said. “We built this Warrior and Family Center to serve all troops and their families who pass through this healing center of excellence.”

The 16,217-square-foot center has places for recovering troops and their families and caregivers to relax and plan their futures away from the grind of the hospital. Outfitted with state-of-the-art technology, the Warrior and Family Center has a classroom for recovering troops to take college courses, plenty of computers and a fireside lounge and kitchen where they can relax and grab a bite to eat.

Troops seeking to have a good time can hit the sports lounge, where they can watch the biggest games, or visit the studio, where they can work on creative projects or jam on house instruments.

“It’s hard to capture in words what a center like this means to recovering warriors and their families,” said Adm. James A. Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “To be able to get away – in the midst of it all – to such a beautiful, peaceful and comfortable place right here on campus … is more than just nice to have. It is an essential part of recovery.”

Cheryl Laaker Hall, vice president of operations for USO of Metropolitan Washington-Baltimore, spoke with confidence when she talked about the center’s future.

“We’re very certain, after the last few days of being here, that we have a winner,” she said. “We know that troops and families want to be here. They need a place like this, where they can go and be themselves. … We’re just so proud to have this facility and be able to be that space for them.”

USO,What to Expect Foundation Host Baby Showers for Military Moms-To-Be

The time-honored tradition of celebrating the birth of a child with a baby shower is one of the moments many of our expectant military moms miss out on, especially if they live overseas. To help fill that void, the USO, in collaboration with the What to Expect Foundation and author Heidi Murkoff, brought “Special Delivery,” a very special baby shower to military moms in Landstuhl, Germany.

Best-selling author Heidi Murkoff hugs a service member at a Special Delivery baby shower held in Landstuhl, Germany, in March. USO photo

Best-selling author Heidi Murkoff hugs a service member at a Special Delivery baby shower held in Landstuhl, Germany, in March. USO photo

“Motherhood is the ultimate sisterhood,” said Murkoff, the best-selling author of “What to Expect When You’re Expecting.” “For military moms-to-be, far from their immediate family and friends, these baby showers are more than gift bags and cake. They are about connecting and sharing a common bond and creating friendships with women experiencing the same mix of emotions.”

Over three days, the USO and the What to Expect Foundation hosted three baby showers for hundreds of new and expecting military moms in Germany. Each baby shower featured food, gifts and games as well as a question-and-answer session and book signing with Murkoff.

“Military families sacrifice countless everyday moments in service to our country,” said USO Europe Regional Vice President Walt Murren. “It is such an honor for USO Europe to host a program like Special Delivery, because for many of these women this may be their only baby shower. We want to make sure it’s an experience they won’t soon forget.”

Find out how you can show your support for military moms by visiting USOmoments.org.

Longtime USO of Georgia CEO Looks Back – and Forward

As the Vietnam War was raging in late 1968, a USO ad in a newspaper caught the eye of Mary Lou Austin, who was teaching in Washington, D.C. After interviewing for a job, she was hired and sent to New York City – then the home of USO headquarters.

USO of Georgia President and CEO Mary Lou Austin. Courtesy photo

USO of Georgia President and CEO Mary Lou Austin. Courtesy photo

Forty-five years later – after holding numerous USO jobs and traveling around the world – Austin is still with the organization, serving as president and CEO of the USO of Georgia.

“I guess you can say the ad made me curious,” she said. “The organization interested me, and the mission compelled me. … I started in January of 1969, and thus began my wonderful, meaningful journey serving troops.”

She’s been able to support thousands of service members and their families over the years and taking care of them has always been her top priority—and her favorite part of the job.

“We [at the USO] have unique opportunity to provide a myriad of programs and services to the committed and courageous men and women serving our country. … You see them in happy times and in times of sadness, but at the USO, you represent a living symbol of respect and honor for their service.”

Austin said she’s been fortunate to have had such a gratifying career, and even after helping countless troops and families, she remains dedicated to our spirit-lifting mission.

“USO receives many accolades and awards, but the most meaningful part is knowing that you truly helped someone in some way, through a program, service, or even a smile.”

USO Helps Woman on Journey After Marine Brother’s Death

On Nov. 30, 2011, Marine Staff Sgt. Vincent J. Bell, 28, was killed by an IED in Afghanistan. The youngest of three children, he was on his first tour of duty in Afghanistan after having served four tours in Iraq.

“He was the sweetest, most gentle, loveable man I have ever known. He was the love and light in our family, and every day without him feels so painful,” his sister London Bell said.

London Bell poses in front of New York’s Rockefeller Center during her USO/TAPS-sponsored trip to the Big Apple in October. Photo courtesy of London Bell

London Bell poses in front of New York’s Rockefeller Center during her USO/TAPS-sponsored trip to the Big Apple in October. Photo courtesy of London Bell

In October, Bell was approaching the anniversary of her brother’s 2011 death in Afghanistan when the USO and Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) offered her a chance to take a trip with others who lost siblings to war. Weeks later, she was making unexpected friends in Manhattan. She was also finding out that she wasn’t alone.

“I started out on the journey as a lone traveler, but I left meeting several people who were really just like me,” Bell said. “It was a good way for me to bond.”

Bell lives in Chicago and relies on TAPS retreats for emotional assurance that is critical to brothers and sisters who lost so much during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. On her retreat, Bell and her fellow sibling survivors were able to enjoy a weekend in New York City together, sharing stories, sightseeing and attending a live taping of “The Daily Show.”

“I feel that it is important that I continue to reach out to TAPS to find support,” Bell said. “I’m the only person in my circle of close friends who has lost a sibling in battle and it can be very isolating.

“I need to be able to share my story as a sibling,” she said. “I do a lot to support my mom and dad and my sister in their grief, but I also need that support for myself.”

She’s learned a lot about life since Vincent died and wants to be a support to other siblings.

“I can be an ear, a hug and a friend to other sibling survivors, and I want to be able to do that for others on this journey.”

NFL Stars Jimmy Graham, Pierre Garcon and Brandon Fields Visit Troops in the Middle East on USO Tour 

While the official NFL season ended in February, a trio of professional football players continued the tradition of traveling to the Middle East for an offseason USO tour. New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham, Washington Redskins receiver Pierre Garcon and Miami Dolphins punter Brandon Fields met up with U.S. troops downrange.

From left to right, NFL stars Brandon Fields, Jimmy Graham and Pierre Garcon pose for a photo with troops during their USO tour to the Middle East in March. USO photo by Dave Gatley

From left to right, NFL stars Brandon Fields, Jimmy Graham and Pierre Garcon pose for a photo with troops during their USO tour to the Middle East in March. USO photo by Dave Gatley

“This experience for me has truly been life-changing,” said Graham, who caught an NFL-best 16 touchdowns last season. “The personal connection I’ve been able to make is something that will be with me forever. I grew up in a military home and this just makes me more of a patriot. I have more of an appreciation for the little things we have back home each and every day.”

“The best part of this trip [was] being able to spend time with the troops and interact with them,” said Fields. “We are truly blessed because of the sacrifices that our men and women of our armed forces are willing to make.”

Publishers Clearing House Prize Patrol Delivers $25,000 Check to the USO

What would you do if the Publishers Clearing House Prize Patrol showed up on your doorstep?

Staff and volunteers at the USO Warrior and Family Center at Fort Belvoir, Va., were jumping for joy in January after receiving a $25,000 check from the Publishers Clearing House recent Facebook promotion, The Give Back.

“We’re really grateful,” said USO Vice President of Operations Glenn Welling, who was presented the check by the Prize Patrol. “This was our first opportunity to get involved with the Publishers Clearing House Give Back promotion, and just to be able to be recognized by the Americans who went online each day is awesome. For 73 years, the USO has been the connection between America and her military, and donations like this one will allow us to continue doing what we are do for another 73 years.”

This year’s The Give Back event featured three charities: the USO, ASPCA and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Fans were allowed to vote for their favorite charity once per day, with the charities earning prizes based on where they finished in the voting.

“We love being able to give back to the charities our customers care about,” said Danielle Bertellotti, assistant manager for digital marketing development at Publishers Clearing House. “Our audience has been very vocal on social media, and they have made it clear that the USO is a charity they care deeply about, so we are very happy to give.”

National Volunteer Week: Frank and Helen Marsh

Frank and Helen Marsh represent the lifeblood of the USO: our volunteers. Frank served as a parachute rigger in the Marines from 1955 to 1957, and was promoted to the rank of sergeant before he got out. He and his wife Helen found their USO volunteer opportunity through the Knights of Columbus, where Frank has been a member for almost 50 years.

We caught up with the Marshes at the USO Marine Corps Trials at Camp Pendleton, Calif.,  where they handed out energy bars, snacks and refreshments to wounded warriors competing in the archery event.

Supporter Spotlight: General Federation of Women’s Clubs

GFWC_150x150The General Federation of Women’s Clubs has been there for the USO. Last May, the Statesville (N.C.) Women’s Club hosted the first ever USO Barbecue for the Troops. All told, the GFWC raised more than $20,000 in 2013 for the USO, helping our organization to do the following for America’s troops and families:

The USO thanks the General Federation of Women’s Clubs for their support.

And if your club or organization would like to support America’s troops though the USO, click here.

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.”

Publishers Clearing House Prize Patrol Delivers $25,000 Check to the USO

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What would you do if the Publishers Clearing House Prize Patrol showed up on your doorstep?

Staff and volunteers at the USO Warrior and Family Center at Fort Belvoir, Va., were jumping for joy Wednesday after receiving a $25,000 check from the Publishers Clearing House recent Facebook promotion, The Give Back.

“We’re really grateful,” said USO Vice President of Operations Glenn Welling, who was presented the check by the Prize Patrol. “This was our first opportunity to get involved with the Publishers Clearing House Give Back promotion, and just to be able to be recognized by the Americans who went online each day is awesome. For 73 years the USO has been the connection between America and her military, and donations like this one will allow us to continue doing what we are do for another 73 years.”

This year’s The Give Back event featured three charities: the USO, ASPCA and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Fans were allowed to vote for their favorite charity once per day, with the charities earning prizes based on where they finished in the voting.

“We love being able to give back to the charities our customers care about,” said Danielle Bertellotti, assistant manager for digital marketing development at Publishers Clearing House. “Our audience has been very vocal on social media, and they have made it clear that the USO is a charity they care deeply about, so we are very happy to give.”

After voting to support their favorite charities, visitors to the Publishers Clearing House Facebook page also had the opportunity to win cash for themselves. Each vote cast for a charity also served as an entry into both a SuperPrize and the Give Back Exclusive Prize.

“It was something so simple … but it gave people the chance to make a difference for a cause they love,” Bertellotti said. Maybe they don’t have the money to give; maybe they aren’t in a place where they could volunteer; but this was a way they could help out the USO from wherever they are.”

Photos: USO Volunteer who Won Contest Receives 2014 Jeep Wrangler

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Two months after winning an online contest, USO volunteer Norm Hallowell watched as Pam Horton – manager of the USO Warrior and Family Center at Fort Belvoir, Va. – pulled his new Jeep Wrangler up to the curb.

Hallowell stood in front of the recently opened center Friday afternoon with a small group of USO staff and volunteers and received the keys to his new Jeep from USO of Metropolitan Washington-Baltimore Chief Operating Officer Cheryl Laaker Hall.

The contest was part of the USO’s ongoing relationship with Jeep, which include’s the automaker’s  Operation Safe Return initiative.