Almay Helps the USO While Highlighting the Strength and Determination of Military Women

Our blog readers will be familiar with the story of Margaux Mange, a former military police officer who suffered a traumatic brain injury and PTSD after a pair of bombings in 2006 and 2007, the second of which killed three of her close friends. Her lingering injuries put her in a constant state of pain and depression. 

But Mange has been a model of resiliency. She had nearly 130 hyperbaric oxygen treatments that have helped diminish her pain and let her be active again. In the last several years, she’s won medals at the Warrior Games, trekked to the South Pole and recently attempted to summit Denali in Alaska.

Her strength and determination mirrors the values trumpeted by USO partner Almay. The cosmetics giant is celebrating female service members with their Simply American campaign. As part of the initiative, Almay is donating $250,000 to the USO and creating a #SimplyAmerican social push to raise additional funds and awareness.

Almay was so impressed by Mange that they wanted to hold her up as an example of the Simply American spirit. So when it came time to talk about their USO partnership on ABC’s “The View” this spring, Mange was front and center.

“I was in pain trying to climb up a flight of stairs, so I thought that the couch would be my best friend,” Mange said about the years after her injuries. “But after remembering that three of my best friends died in Iraq, I couldn’t live that way for them. So, with their memories, I chose to live instead.”

Almay will continue highlighting women like Mange throughout the summer in two unique ways.

First, they’re embarking on a summer-long road trip to fairs and festivals to create what they’re calling a Simply American experience that celebrates female service members, military wives and their families.

Almay also is soliciting photos depicting “Simply American moments.” The company will donate one dollar for every like or share on social media that uses the hashtag #SimplyAmerican up to a total of $10,000.

“Almay celebrates the spirit of American beauty,” Almay Vice President of Marketing Jill Krakowski said. “This fresh, uncomplicated, all-American beauty look. And there is no better embodiment of this spirit than the women of the U.S. military.”

Special Delivery, Indeed: Air Force Spouse Leaves USO/What To Expect Baby Shower to Give Birth

Kylee Austin and Heidi Murkoff at the USO Special Delivery event, left, and then hours later at the hospital. Photos courtesy of the Austin family.

Kylee Austin and Heidi Murkoff at the USO Special Delivery event, left, and then hours later at the hospital with Kylee’s husband Air Force Capt. Josh Austin. Photos Copyright Candace Castor.

Heidi Murkoff said the room was beautiful — full of baby shower decorations and brimming with pregnant women.

Kylee Austin, an Air Force spouse and mom-to-be attending the baby shower at the Kadena Officers Club in Okinawa, Japan, had waited a year for the USO event to come back to the country after her friend raved about her experience at the 2014 edition.

“I thought my baby would come before the event and I was really sad I was going to miss out, but I figured I might register anyway just in case,” Austin said.

USO/What to Expect Special Delivery baby showers are a chance for new military moms and moms-to-be to bond with others in their community going through similar experiences, like being away from their family and coping with their spouse missing the birth of their son or daughter. The showers typically feature lunch, traditional baby shower games, supply giveaways and an intimate Q&A session with Murkoff, author of the “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” series.

But this wouldn’t be a typical baby shower.

Austin had gone to the doctor’s that morning and everything looked fine. She was enjoying the event with the other mothers and all of a sudden started having contractions. First seven minutes apart. Then six. Then five.

The USO volunteers were so worried for me, checking on me and offering to drive me to the hospital if necessary,” Austin said, “but I wanted to stick it out to hear what [Murkoff] had to say.”

Murkoff, familiar with pregnant mothers, noticed Austin pacing around the back of the room “looking very serious and talking on the phone.”

“She was doing a lot of belly clutching and holding her back,” Murkoff wrote in an email. “I thought — hmmm, that’s interesting. Sure enough, I found out during the book signing that she had been having contractions and another mama had taken her over to the hospital.”

The timing meant Kylee missed the opportunity to spend one-on-one time with Murkoff, but the USO made a point to bring Murkoff by hospital the next day to meet baby Tristan, who was born at 5:42 a.m. that morning.

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“It isn’t easy being pregnant under the best of circumstances — to do it while serving our country, far from the network of family and friends who usually help and support a mom-to-be through the journey — is exponentially harder,” Murkoff wrote. “To work with the USO to fill in some of those blanks for these mamas is an honor and an incredible opportunity. Plus I love the hugs and the baby cuddles.”

Murkoff says a special delivery during Special Delivery was bound to happen at some point. Still, this was a first for the program.

“The USO was just so sweet and supportive,” Austin said. “My favorite thing about being there was just getting to meet all the other ladies who were pregnant and getting the community support. It was such a neat experience for us and to tell our son in the future.”

True to military fashion, the Austins had their son Tristan while deployed and then less than two weeks later executed orders to return stateside, doing what military families do best.

“It was no surprise to us,” Austin said about receiving orders so soon, “but that’s why we have the USO there to help us out along the way. We take advantage of every center at every airport and that’s honestly what’s been getting us through.”

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.

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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.

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Wawa Hoagie Day Kicks Off $700,000 Fundraising Campaign for the USO

PHILADELPHIA—Wawa chose America’s birthplace on Independence Day weekend to launch its most ambitious campaign yet to support the USO.

Celebrity chef and USO tour veteran Robert Irvine joined Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, Wawa CEO Chris Gheysens and hundreds of service members, police officers, fire fighters and first responders as well as dozens of USO volunteers and Wawa associates to construct a 5-ton hoagie on Thursday. The meal – which equated to 23,000 individual sandwiches – was served for free at Independence Mall during the 23rd Annual Wawa Hoagie Day.

“There’s nothing more fulfilling to me in my life than cooking for our warriors and their families and making sure that they know that we love them,” said Irvine, who recently returned from a USO tour to Japan. “The USO is a huge part of that.”

The event, which featured a USO Letters from Home station and hoagie-building competitions between service branches and police and fire departments, marked the start of Wawa’s annual USO fundraising campaign. The campaign runs through August 30 and aims to raise $700,000. Wawa customers can to donate $1, $3 or $5 when making purchases, which will go directly to support USO programs for troops and their families.

“For July fourth there’s no other place you should be than Philadelphia,” said Joe Brooks, President and CEO of Liberty USO. “It’s a wonderful community. A community that knows and understands the service and sacrifice of our military and it’s a community that steps up in many ways, both in donations of their time and money to the USO.”

Duracell and Hilary Swank Help the USO Highlight Military Family Issues

Actress Hilary Swank, center, and USO Senior Vice President Alan Reyes participate in a panel discussion following the premiere of Duracell’s new film “The Teddy Bear” on Thursday at The Times Center in New York. Courtesy photo

Actress Hilary Swank has played several roles, but her first was as the daughter of a now-retired Air Force senior master sergeant.

Swank joined military couple Robert and Denise Nilson (Robert is an air traffic controller in the Navy), Duracell’s Jeff Jarrett and USO Senior Vice President Alan Reyes on Thursday in New York to promote the USO’s partnership with Duracell and the company’s new movie “The Teddy Bear.” The film — which you can watch below — is based on the Nilsons’ deployment experiences.

Swank poses with the Nilson family. Courtesy photo

Swank poses with the Nilson family. Courtesy photo

“One of the biggest eye-openers was watching my husband sail away,” Denise Nilson said. “I believe out of the seven-and-a-half-month deployment, we saw my husband’s face three times via Skype. And only one of them my girls were able to see.”

Denise Nilson was six weeks pregnant when Robert deployed, and they already had two young daughters — one of whom is autistic — and a pet. By the time he returned, the family pet had passed away, they’d gotten a new puppy and Denise was ready to deliver their son at any moment.

“I don’t look at it like our life has hardship. We’re a military family … this is just what we do.”

Duracell is donating $100,000 to the USO Transition 360 Alliance to support the Comfort Crew for Military Kids, which helps children deal with their parents’ deployment and other issues that come up when you’re part of a military family.

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13 Uniquely American Things to Do on July Fourth Weekend

American troops have served for more than two centuries to keep our nation free. And while we should always honor their sacrifices, it’s also important to take time to enjoy the freedoms they provide. Here are 13 ways you can do just that this July Fourth weekend.

1. Eat a hot dog (and watch the Nathan’s Famous International Hot Dog Eating Contest).

2. Ring a bell. Then-President John F. Kennedy introduced this Fourth of July concept just months before his assassination in 1963.

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3. Go lawnmower racing in Oregon.

4. Read a biography about a founding father. (Or read this much shorter piece about a founding father-inspired hip-hop musical.)

5. Cheer on your favorite at the lobster races in Bar Harbor, Maine.

6. Sign up to volunteer at the USO and have fun while you’re giving back.

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7. Make s’mores. (Fun fact: The first known s’mores recipe appeared in a 1927 Girl Scout publication.)

8. Attend the Ocean Beach Marshmallow War in San Diego. (But behave.)

9. Watch a baseball game.

10. Read the Declaration of Independence. (Bonus fact: Button Gwinnett, who signed the Declaration, has one of the most sought-after and expensive autographs in the modern world. Only 51 documents with his signature are known to exist.)

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11. Use the holiday as an excuse to dress up your dog. (We know some of you want to.)

12. Fireworks! (OK, maybe they’re not “uniquely American,” but we’re making an exception today.)

13. Visit a national park. (Seriously. They’re amazing.)