A Holiday Gift Guide for Our Troops

DOD photo

The holidays are here.

If you didn’t see them coming it before this week, a pile of mail with circulars and glossy catalogs probably brought them into focus. By Thanksgiving night, your inbox will be as stuffed with email sales pitches aimed to get you to do a little Christmas shopping while you’re riding out that turkey coma.

And while we think everyone should treat themselves to that new coat or gadget if they can, we do have one more holiday shopping suggestion. There’s a group of folks out there who protect our freedoms who can’t just decide to buy a plane ticket online and come home for the holidays. And for a little cash, you can give them a gift that can significantly benefit their lives.

Keeping Families Connected

The USO is a home away from home for deployed troops. But what gets lost in that phrase is the connection those troops get back to their families through our centers. Check out this video about a North Carolina couple who connected just in time for one of life’s most precious moments. This holiday season, it’s easy to support the USO’s efforts to keep troops downrange connected with phone calls home or online video connections back home from war zones.

Homecomings

The USO is also there for spouses back at home during deployment. Here is a story of how one spouse — who is also a USO volunteer — coped during her husband’s deployment in part by tapping into the USO community on Fort Drum, New York.

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USO2GO

Not every service member in the field has access to the basics, much less amenities to pass the time. That’s where USO2GO comes in. Service members like Army 1st Lt. Ben Lyman contact the USO directly from their forward operating base or combat outpost and put in an order to receive customized shipments of everything from furniture to snacks to sports equipment, TVs and even video games. You can donate toward great services like that here, or sponsor an entire shipment via USO Wishbook.

Families of the Fallen

Everyone reacts differently when the unthinkable happens. London Bell’s brother — Marine Staff. Sgt. Vincent Bell — died in Afghanistan in 2011. She was heading into what she thought would be a difficult holiday season in 2013 when the USO called, offering her a USO/TAPS getaway to New York City where she could bond with others who’d lost family a military family member.

“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.” It’s one of several ways the USO helps military families when they need us most.

Your USO at Work: November 2014 — USO, Sesame Street Celebrate 500,000 Smiles

The Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families celebrated a major milestone with families at Fort Benning, Georgia, on October 3 when the tour entertained its 500,000th military family member. USO photo by Dave Gatley

The Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families celebrated a major milestone with families at Fort Benning, Georgia, on October 3 when the tour entertained its 500,000th military family member. USO photo by Dave Gatley

Sesame Street/USO Experience Reaches 500K Milestone

It’s always a sunny day on Sesame Street, but Elmo, Cookie Monster and the Muppets had an extra special reason to sing and dance with all their friends last month. The Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families entertained its 500,000th military family member.

“The fact that we hit that particular number is a giant milestone for us,” said Nicole McClendon, tour manager for the USO/Sesame Street Experience for Military Families.

The Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families has toured since July 2008 and has taken its message of facing fears and embracing change to more than 500,000 troops and military families. With help from Katie, a military child who is moving to a new place, and all of her friends, the tour has performed more than 893 shows on 147 military installations in 33 states and 11 countries.

“Five hundred thousand represents the number of smiles Elmo and Katie have brought to military kids and their families … as the tour has traveled around the world,” USO President and CEO Dr. J.D. Crouch II said in a release. “We thank our friends at Sesame Street for helping to make this possible and we look forward to seeing many more smiling faces as the tour continues its journey.”

USO’s Every Moment Counts Flag Breaks World Record

The USO's Every Moment Counts flag is displayed at The Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati on Sept. 11. USO photo by Mike Theiler

The USO’s Every Moment Counts flag is displayed at The Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati on Sept. 11. USO photo by Mike Theiler

With signatures gathered from all 50 states and seven countries, USO announced in September that it broke the Guinness World Records title for most signatures on a flag with 115,405 gathered digitally and in-person around the world. The USO shattered the current record set in 2012 by more than 82,132 signatures.

As part of its Every Moment Counts campaign, the USO rallied Americans to show support for troops and their families through the simple act of saying thank you with their signature.

“Every signature on the Every Moment Counts flag is a symbol of a grateful nation’s appreciation for all that our men and women in uniform and their families do for us on a daily basis,” said J.D. Crouch II, USO President and CEO.

Go to USOmoments.org to show your appreciation for our troops and their families.

Al Roker Sets Weather Forecast Record in Support of the USO

With six minutes to go in #Rokerthon, the expression momentarily drained from Al Roker’s face as his co-anchors piled into his small New York City studio.

NBC's Al Roker headlined the "Today"/USO Comedy Tour in Afghanistan in October. USO photo by Fred Greaves

NBC’s Al Roker headlined the “Today”/USO Comedy Tour in Afghanistan in October. USO photo by Fred Greaves

“I don’t think there are enough people in here,” Roker deadpanned. More than 33 hours  — and despite several jokes suggesting the contrary — he was still lucid.

And then he delivered more temperatures.

Roker, a USO tour veteran, set a Guinness World Record on Nov. 14 for the longest continuous televised weather forecast at 34 hours. He did it to raise awareness for the USO, asking a national audience, a litany of NBC affiliates and livestream viewers to visit his still-active Crowdrise page, where he raised more than $75,000 for the organization by the time he went off the air.

He had a lot of help while he was on the air, too. #Rokerthon was often the No. 1 trending topic on Twitter, with thousands of viewers (including USO centers around the world) tweeting in questions about the weather to keep Roker’s forecasting streak alive.

USO, Renovating Hope and Gary Sinise Foundation Repair Home of Wounded Vet

After returning from Afghanistan with PTSD and a traumatic brain injury, medically retired Army Nurse Corps officer Jim Gardon came home to a surprise.

Unfortunately it wasn’t the good kind.

“When Jim was deployed to Afghanistan, I hired a contractor to remodel the back two rooms of the house,” said his wife Cece Gardon. “He came in, pulled out the electricity, did a haphazard job of sheet rocking and left and never came back.”

Stuck with a huge bill for incomplete work, they didn’t have the money to invest in the project a second time. The USO introduced the Gardons to Paul Hoffecker, the CEO of Renovating Hope, after Cece attended a USO Caregivers Conference. Renovating Hope secured grants from the USO and the Gary Sinise Foundation to make sure the job could be completed once and for all.

“The USO has been better than the 15 different medications the VA has tried to improve my attitude,” Jim Gardon said. “This is something that actually physically, emotionally and socially helps the soldier.”

Visit USO.org/donate to learn how you can support our healing heroes and their families.

USO Supports Fort Drum Spouse Through Deployment – and Homecoming

Ashley Sandgren

Ashley Sandgren

Ashley Sandgren’s smiles said as much as her words. Sometimes anxious. Other times confident.

Either way, she knew her wait was almost over.

Just 24 hours away from reuniting with her husband, Army Sgt. Jeremy Sandgren, after his nine-month deployment to Afghanistan, the Virginia native talked through the emotions of what it was like to wait out the couple’s first overseas deployment.

“I think putting it out of your mind is helpful in some sense, but you shouldn’t live your life in denial that they’re in danger, because they are,” she said.

Not that she didn’t have plenty to do. A trained cosmetologist, Sandgren balanced her work with coordinating a family readiness group at Fort Drum, N.Y., and volunteering with the USO, where many Fort Drum spouses have found a home away from home while their significant others were deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade.

“I think this USO has such a huge heart,” Sandgren said. “I think it’s extremely important to have the community and the different groups to lean on when your soldier’s deployed. It helps in the sense that you realize that you’re not alone.”

BNSF Helps the USO Support Transitioning Veterans with a Landmark Donation

Job searches are never easy. The task can be even more daunting for veterans looking to land their first civilian position.

That’s where the USO and supporters like the BNSF Railway Foundation step in.

On July 24, the BNSF Railway Foundation announced a $3 million pledge to support USO Warrior and Family Care employment programs for active-duty troops transitioning out of the military. The first-of-its-kind, three-year pledge will fund USO programs designed to assist transitioning troops – including those who are wounded, ill or injured – entering the civilian workforce.

Former Army Officer Makes a Difference for USO, Troops

USO Houston Center Director Liz Vallette

USO Houston Center Director Liz Vallette

USO Houston Center Director Liz Vallette understands what it’s like to be far from home.

With a tour in South Korea and a deployment to Iraq, the former Army officer and West Point graduate also knows that the USO is able to deliver a piece of home to deployed troops around the world.

“I was eager to join an organization that I had directly benefited from during my service, from relaxing in airport USO centers … to enjoying a touch of home from entertainers,” said Vallette, who started with the organization in 2011.

She arrived at USO Houston after serving six years in the Army and another two working with an economic development group in Afghanistan. Having daily opportunities to positively impact the lives of troops and their families was a driving factor in her decision and working with outstanding, motivated colleagues is an added benefit, she said.

Under Vallette’s leadership, USO Houston is piloting innovative programs that connect transitioning troops and their families with high-profile companies in the city’s booming industries. Oil and Gas 101 – a free, two-day orientation to the oil and gas industry – helped troops network directly with Houston-area hiring managers. Vallette and her team are planning another session for 2015 and hope to help more troops prepare for life after the military.

Go to USO.org/donate to support our nation’s transitioning troops and their families.

#Rokerthon Complete! Al Roker Sets the Guinness World Record for Longest Televised Weather Forecast in Support of the USO

"Today" co-anchor Al Roker receives his Guinness World Records certificate. Screengrab from NBCNews.com livestream

“Today” co-anchor Al Roker receives his Guinness World Records certificate. Screenshot from NBCNews.com livestream

With six minutes to go in #Rokerthon, the expression momentarily drained from Al Roker’s face as his co-anchors piled into his small New York City studio, creating a din of noise over the livestream and momentarily blocking the camera’s view of the NBC “Today” co-anchor.

“I don’t think there are enough people in here,” Roker deadpanned. After 33 hours and change — and despite several jokes suggesting the contrary — he was still lucid.

And then he delivered more temperatures.

Roker — a USO tour veteran — set a Guinness World Record a shade after 8 a.m. EST Friday morning for the longest continuous televised weather forecast at 34 hours. He did it to raise awareness for the USO, asking a national audience, a litany of NBC affiliates and livestream viewers to visit his Crowdrise page, where he’d raised more than $70,000 for the organization by the time he went off the air.

Roker stayed on the air at NBCNews.com (simulcast on USO.org) save five-minute breaks he was allowed to bank for extended time off. Around 12:30 a.m. Friday, Roker signed off for his final extended break of the telecast, returning a little before 2 a.m.

He had a lot of help while he was on the air, too. #Rokerthon was often the No. 1 trending topic on Twitter, with thousands of viewers (including USO centers around the world) tweeting in questions like this about the weather to keep Roker’s forecasting streak alive:

Screen Shot 2014-11-14 at 8.30.28 AM

Marie Callender’s USO Kitchen Renovation Brings Comforts of Home to Troops in Germany

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Even the smallest things — like home-cooked meals — make a big difference when it comes to helping military families.

That’s why Marie Callender’s renovated the kitchen at the USO Warrior Center at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, giving troops a spacious, state-of-the-art place to re-create the culinary comforts of home. In addition to featuring two ovens, the new kitchen is also equipped with more storage space and beverage coolers.

As part of its Comforts From Home Project, Marie Callender’s also brought its famous pot pies to wounded, ill, and injured troops at a special picnic at the USO Warrior Center.

You can watch videos of the USO kitchen renovation and behind the scene footage of Marie Callender’s picnic in Germany here.

But that’s not all.

Marie Callender’s also teamed up with Chef Robert Irvine and Gary Sinise to thank a hero in Hawaii and give him the homecoming he deserved. The event was showcased on Nov. 11 on Food Network, HGTV, DIY Network, Travel Channel, Great American Country and Cooking Channel’s special Veterans Day program, “A Hero’s Welcome.”

To top it all off, you can still support the Marie Callender’s Comforts From Home Project just by buying the products you already eat. Through Jan. 31, for every code* entered off specially marked packages at ComfortsFromHome.com, Marie Callender’s will donate 50 cents to USO2GO, a USO program that brings electronics, sports gear, books, games, and more to troops stationed in remote locations.

*For every entry by Jan. 31 of an 8-digit code found on participating products, Marie Callender’s will donate $.50 to the USO2GO program. Guaranteed minimum donation $100,000. Maximum donation $250,000. Limit five code entries per person/computer each day. Valid in U.S. Only.

–By Kate Vasko

29 Facts You May Not Know for the Marine Corps’ 239th Birthday

Everyone knows the meaning of semper fidelis. But today, the USO takes a look at 29 other Marine Corps facts that may surprise you on the service’s 239th birthday:

Marine Rank

Now he can wear it on the outside. DOD photo

1. Marines often pin their next promotable rank onto their uniforms as a motivator. They usually hide it in their cover or under a pocket flap.

2. The Marine Corps’ first amphibious raid was only weeks after its creation when Marines successfully stormed a British weapons cache in the Bahamas.

3. The Marines’ first land battle on foreign soil was in Libya, where 600 Marines stormed the city of Derna to rescue the crew of the USS Philadelphia from pirates.

4. Male Marine recruits attend boot camp in one of two locations, depending on which side of the Mississippi they’re from: Marine Corps Recruit Depot (MCRD) San Diego for West Coast recruits (which is a separate facility from Camp Pendleton) and MCRD Parris Island for East Coast recruits.

5. Female recruits only attend MCRD Parris Island.

6. MCRD San Diego can be seen from the air if you fly into San Diego International Airport, causing recruits to wonder if the airport was built there to torment them.

Marine Drill Sgt

Nothing makes for a great photo like boot camp. DOD photo

7. Because MCRD Parris Island was the first of the two depots, Marines who attend MCRD San Diego are often called “Hollywood Marines” by Parris Island Marines. Hollywood Marines don’t have a name for Parris Island Marines because they feel bad about the sand fleas.

8. Since then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta ordered the military to integrate women into combat arms occupations in January 2013, more than 18 female infantry officer candidates have attempted the qualification course. To this point, all 18 have failed to qualify.

9. Marines regularly train with their international counterparts from more than 15 different nations. See if you can hear/see the similarities between these Tongan Marines and U.S. Marines.

10. U.S. Marines also let their hair down at times while training with allied forces. Check out this drum battle with the South Korean Army band.

2012 Warrior Games (Practice 2)

A medically retired Marine at Warrior Games. DOD photo

11. The Marines have won four out of five Warrior Games competitions. This year marks their first loss to the Army.

12. Terrance Ford, brother of Harrison Ford, leads a photography program for wounded transitioning Marines at Wounded Warrior Battalion West on Camp Pendleton, called fStop Warrior Project.

13. Marine recruits are finished eating the moment their drill instructor is finished. This is why Marines eat so fast.

Watch out for the fist behind the beard. DOD photo.

Watch out for the fist behind the beard. DOD photo.

14. Fewer than 100 people have received the title of honorary Marine, a title that can only be bestowed by the Commandant of the Marine Corps. Here are a few of their names and ranks in order of seniority:

  • Chuck Norris (rank unknown but also unneeded)
  • Brig. Gen. Bob Hope
  • Master Sgt. Bugs Bunny
  • Cpl. Jim Nabors, star of Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.
  • Gary Sinise

15. “Hurry up and wait” is what happens when each leader down the chain of command tells his or her Marines to be there 15 minutes prior to the senior’s directive. This is why Marines arrive early to their destinations.

16. The license plate of the Commandant of the Marine Corps reads “1775.”

17. Marines in uniform are not authorized to put their hands in their pockets.

18. Only female Marines are authorized to carry umbrellas in uniform.

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19. The rank of Marine “gunner” is the only Marine Corps rank that requires different insignia on the left and right uniform collars (*The rank of colonel requires the eagles on each collar to be mirror images of each other, so they are also technically different insignia).

20. In the Corps, because of the total hours off, a three-day weekend is called a “72” and a four-day weekend is called a “96.”

Chesty always gets respect - and hugs. DOD photo

Chesty always gets respect – and hugs. DOD photo

21. The Marine Corps mascot is an English bulldog named Chesty, after Marine Lt. Gen. Louis B. “Chesty” Puller, the only Marine to earn five Navy Crosses.

21. Even though the Corps is an amphibious force, swim qualification is one of the few annual qualifications that doesn’t count toward a Marine’s promotion to the next rank.

23. A three-volley salute performed at funeral ceremonies is often confused with a 21-gun salute. The three-volley salute is the firing of three rifle volleys (rounds) over the graves of fallen armed forces members and political leaders and can be traced to the European dynastic wars, when fighting was halted to remove the dead and wounded. Once an area was cleared of casualties, three volleys were sent into the air as a signal to resume fighting. Three, five or seven Marines can perform a three-volley salute.

24. Every year, Thai Marines instruct U.S. Marines in a day of jungle-survival training as part of the annual exercise Cobra Gold. The training culminates with the U.S. Marines participating in a Thai warrior ritual that involves cutting a cobra’s head off and drinking its blood.

Marine John Glenn25. Marine Corps Col. John Glenn was the first *American to orbit the Earth.

26. According to Marine sniper superstition, there is ultimately one round destined to end the life of a Marine, and that is “the round with your name on it.” Until that round is fired, the person for whom it is intended remains invincible. If the sniper carries the round with him at all times, it can never be fired and the sniper is therefore untouchable. Out of school, a Marine sniper carries the colloquial title “PIG,” or a Professionally Instructed Gunman, until he has killed an enemy sniper in combat and removed the round with his name on it from the enemy sniper’s magazine. That round is then worn as a necklace and symbolizes his new status as a HOG, or “Hunter of Gunmen.”

27. Ever since Vietnam, Marine amtrac crews will not eat apricots, as they’re considered bad luck.

28. Marines also think it’s unlucky to eat the CHARMS that used to come in packs of meals ready to eat.

29. Marines are often called jarheads because of their high-and-tight haircuts, but some Marines take this cut to the extreme. Unauthorized haircuts include the horseshoe and the mohawk.

After 73 Years, USO Fort Drum Bids Farewell to Longtime Volunteer Mary Parry

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After 73 years, Mary Parry’s volunteer mission at the USO is officially complete.

Earlier this month, Parry, 91, moved to a retirement home in Ohio to be closer to her daughter, Barbara Miller, and will no longer be able to serve at the USO Fort Drum center in upstate New York.

The Geneva, New York, native, who has volunteered at many different USO centers, will be sorely missed.

“I think of Mary as a national treasure,” USO Fort Drum Director Karen Clark wrote in an email. “She started volunteering for the USO in 1941, worked at the Watertown Chamber for years, and volunteered with Rotary, the Salvation Army and Red Cross.”

Parry’s volunteer career at the USO began in 1941, just after she graduated high school.

As the American Profile reported in 2008:

Parry was 18 when she and her girlfriends signed up to help at a USO center housed in a former automobile showroom in her hometown of Geneva, N.Y. (pop. 13,617).

“The fellas were all joining the military,” she says. “So we thought, ‘Hey, we’ll go down there and dance. What else are we gonna do?’ Were we in for a rude awakening.”

[…] Over the decades, the jovial Parry has volunteered at several USO centers while living in various towns in the Northeast with her husband, Walter. In fact, when she moved to Watertown in 1959, Parry spotted a USO sign in a downtown window and soon she was running the place. When the building closed, she operated the organization out of her home, hosting cookouts for servicemen and sometimes taking in weary soldiers for the night to give them a small taste of home.

USO Fort Drum Director Karen Clark poses in front of a portrait of Mary Parry in 2008. The portrait still hangs in the USO Fort Drum center today. USO photo by Jason Cutshaw

Parry’s daughter, Barbara Miller, who’s father served in the Navy, says Parry loved every moment she spent volunteering for the USO and has many stories from her years of service.

“The USO was her life. It was totally her life,” Miller said.

Thank you, Mary Parry, for your decades of service to troops and their families.

Want to learn more about Marry Parry and her service? Check out this 2010 USO blog post about honoring Parry and thanking her for her service.