USO South Carolina Moves Quickly to Support First Responders, Military Community Amid Flooding

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Joanie Thresher tried to explain the situation through the tears.

“The roads are gone. They’re not just covered in mud. They’re gone.

“It’s just so heartbreaking.”

At least 18 dams were breached and more than 100 bridges washed away in South Carolina after a five-day deluge of rain from Hurricane Joaquin. The weather caused more than a dozen deaths and potentially more than $1 billion in damage statewide.

The flooding has been especially hard on the state’s military community. USO South Carolina has kept its Columbia Metropolitan Airport center open to troops while providing aid to service members and families around Fort Jackson – where the Army trains more than half its new soldiers – and 1,300 National Guard first responders.

“This flood is hitting the heart of our military community,” said Thresher, the director of USO South Carolina, in a Tuesday night phone call. “There are so many military families who live in the areas worst hit, and it’s supposed to get worse before it gets better.”

Hurricane Joaquin put an all-stop to base operations Saturday, leaving dozens of troops stranded overnight at nearby Columbia Metropolitan Airport, where hundreds typically pass through the USO lounge daily on their way to and from basic training.

USO South Carolina has called on its volunteers and donors for logistical support to help deliver basic supplies like water to military families in need.

“Everyone is bringing in supplies from water to food, diapers, formula and baby wipes, everything you can imagine they are just bringing in truckloads to us to give to service members,” Thresher said. “It’s just unbelievable.”

Thresher said most of the USO support is focused on the Guardsmen working search-and-rescue missions along the coast, where water and energy drinks are crucial. Volunteers are also delivering water, food and supplies to the inland areas and communities near Fort Jackson.

Starbucks came through with almost 300 pounds of ground coffee, water and individually wrapped food. The Columbia Chamber of Commerce, GEICO, Lowes and other businesses made financial donations.

“[It’s like the USO is] the only bridge that’s still intact,” Thresher said, “because we’re blessed to be able to get onto the installations and on to the flight lines where we can help load Chinooks and sling-load pallets to be taken across the city to the people who need it because our roads are gone.”

Brewing Success: USO Partner Starbucks Helps Lead the Way on Military Transition

JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Washington—Any coffee lover can tell you how they got hooked on their favorite drink. Retired Army Maj. Steve Chavez has a story about how he got hooked on an entire coffee company.

To mark National Coffee Day, the USO is shining a light on how one of the USO’s coffee partners — Starbucks — has taken the lead in the military transition space, committing to hire 10,000 veterans by 2018.

The Seattle-based coffee giant — which has donated thousands of servings of its VIA coffee as well as thousands of pounds of ground coffee to the USO to distribute to troops around the world and is also financially supporting the USO Transition 360 Alliance — hired Chavez to work at their Joint Base Lewis-McChord location and empowered him to advance up the management chain. Watch his story.

Yandel and Leslie Grace Celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month with USO Concert at Fort Bliss

Yandel, left, and Leslie Grace played a USO show for troops and families on Sept. 26 at Fort Bliss, Texas. USO photos by Dave Gatley

Yandel, left, and Leslie Grace played a USO on Sept. 25 at Fort Bliss, Texas. USO photos by Dave Gatley

In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, Sony Music Latin Artists Yandel and Leslie Grace teamed with the USO over the weekend to play a free concert for more than 1,700 service members and their families at Fort Bliss, Texas. It was the first USO show for both 2015 Latin Grammy nominees.

“If we can make as many troops feel at home through music, in this case, Latin-american troops through Latin music … I don’t think there’s any reason why we shouldn’t,” Grace said.

Grace, also known as the “Princess of Bachata,” performed a 30-minute set followed by a high-energy arrangement by Yandel, complete with professional dancers, multi-color lights and snippets from his HBO special “Yandel: Legacy, De Líder a Leyenda Tour.”

“Thank you to all the soldiers who support me that are here at this event … I hope that they enjoy [my performance],” Yandel said from the stage.

In addition to performing, Yandel and Grace spent the afternoon at Fort Bliss meeting, thanking and taking photos with military families. Grace even took a tour of the base and visited service members at the USO El Paso’s East Fort Bliss center.

“It’s very close to home to be able to bring that sort of comfort that I know music can bring and that you guys at [the] USO focus so much on bringing to these troops,” Grace said.

Prior to performing in their first USO show, both Yandel and Grace appeared in the USO’s first bilingual PSA in support of the Every Moment Counts campaign titled “¡Gracias!” Sony Music Latin stars Arthur Hanlon, Carlos Vives, Diego Boneta, Luis Coronel, J Rythm and others also appeared in the PSA.

“I have a few friends … who serve. And I am very close to these people,” Grace said. “So, it was something that I thought was a great opportunity just to say thank you to all our troops and take that moment and let them know that they’re appreciated.”

Oname Thompson, Hee Suk Ko and Mari Villalobos contributed to this story.

Military Community Finds Strength in Gold Star Mothers

A 2012 Gold Star Mothers Day display at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. DOD photo

A 2012 Gold Star Mothers Day display at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. DOD photo

After 14 years of war, the bonds of America’s military community have been strengthened by the tempered hearts of a group of mostly civilians: Gold Star Mothers.

These mothers, along with the rest of the surviving families of service members who’ve died, often find strength in their military support network. They stay connected through organizations like the USO and TAPS, which help these families through their worst days.

“The gold stars are very small symbols and very subdued symbols in our society,” said Donna Engeman, a Gold Star Spouse and manager of the Army’s Installation Management Command (IMCOM) survivor outreach services program. “Outside the survivor community, there are not a whole lot of people who know what Gold Star means. But these symbols are so huge to the survivor community.”

The gold star symbolism goes back to World War I, when families with loved ones serving overseas displayed blue star banners in their windows. Families of the fallen then replaced the blue star banner with a gold star banner to bring awareness and honor to their lost loved one.

Gold Star Mothers Day, observed on the last Sunday in September, was established by joint congressional resolution on June 23, 1936, and has been observed each year since by presidential proclamation.

From the most junior enlisted to the most senior officer, it’s a day when all service members render a salute to the mothers who lost their children in service to America.

“We should be so proud of them and their sacrifice,” Gen. Ray Odierno told the Washington Post as he retired last month. “They love just staying connected to the Army, to the units that their children or sons or daughters or husbands were in, and for me [it’s] incredibly important that we do that.”

USO Shows in Prose: The Words, Emotions and Hard Realities of the Greatest Entertainment Mobilization the World has Ever Seen

Guitarist Tony Romano accompanies Frances Langford in an impromptu performance in 1944 as Bob Hope, lower right, looks on. Library of Congress

Guitarist Tony Romano accompanies Frances Langford in an impromptu performance in 1944 as Bob Hope, third from right, looks on. (Photo colors altered from original) Library of Congress

“An accordion is the largest piece of property the troupe carries. The evening dresses, crushed in suitcases, must be pressed and kept pretty. Spirits must be high. This is trouping the really hard way.”

Austerity at war is expected. But creature comforts—even in the farthest reaches of war zones—have advanced a little since John Steinbeck wrote those words on a ship off the English coast on June 24, 1943.

Steinbeck made his name with his novels. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1940 for “The Grapes of Wrath” and the Nobel Prize in literature in 1962 for a career that included “Of Mice and Men,” “The Red Pony” and “East of Eden.” But roughly 18 months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Steinbeck set off on a starkly different literary adventure: that of war correspondent.

His early summer dispatch for the New York Herald Tribune about experiencing a USO show from the mess hall and deck of a military ship—and the different ways the American service men on that ship were experiencing the show—paint a clear, indelible picture of not only what those USO troupers did, but what their performances meant.

And his July 26, 1943, report brought the actions of one Bob Hope, the USO’s one-man morale machine, into clearer focus.

When the time for recognition of service to the nation in wartime comes to be considered, Bob Hope should be high on the list. This man drives himself and is driven. It is impossible to see how he can do so much, can cover so much ground, can work so hard, and can be so effective. He works month after month at a pace that would kill most people.


Nearly 75 years after the USO’s creation, Hope is still legendary, thanks to the USO shows he started performing during World War II at a time when international phone calls home were impossible and Internet access wasn’t even a concept.

Hope played his first massive show for troops at March Air Reserve Base in California on March 6, 1941, as a favor to his radio producer Albert Capstaff. According to America in WWII Magazine, Hope asked Capstaff why the troops couldn’t come to the studio. Captstaff—who really wanted Hope to play a show for his brother who was stationed at March—explained that there’d be hundreds of service members there.

Capstaff was right. The troops laughed. And Hope was hooked. After that, only nine of Hope’s 144 radio shows during World War II were broadcast from NBC studios.

They know weeks in advance that he is coming. It would be rather a terrible thing if he did not show up. Perhaps that is some of his drive. He has made some kind of contract with himself and with the men that nobody, least of all Hope, could break. It is hard to overestimate the importance of this thing and the responsibility involved. … It has been interesting to see how he has become a symbol.

Comedy in wartime requires deftness. Hope’s USO shows usually employed the same tenor, though the scripts changed often so as to not duplicate the material the troops had heard on his previous week’s radio show. Still, Hope’s rise to icon status can be linked to both his prolific work rate and his unique ability to unite the service members he entertained through laughter, poking fun at universally loathed topics like boredom, homesickness and superior officers.

Hope and his band of entertainers and crew did their first extensive run of USO shows for American troops in the combat zones of North Africa and Italy in 1943. They had an incredibly close call during a tour stop in Palermo, Italy, where German bombers destroyed the docks and buildings in the area around their hotel.

“[Returning to the United States] was something of a letdown,” Hope said, according to the America in WWII story. “Hollywood was tinsel and make-believe and happy endings. Where we had been was mud and reality and horror.”

The close call didn’t deter him. Hope took a USO circuit out to the Pacific theater the following year.

John Steinbeck's World War II dispatches were eventually combined into a book titled

John Steinbeck’s World War II dispatches were eventually combined into a book titled “Once There Was A War.”

A small USO unit is aboard this troopship, girls and men who are going out to entertain troops wherever they may be sent. These are not the big names who go out with blasts of publicity and maintain their radio contracts. These are girls who can sing and dance and look pretty and men who can do magic and pantomimists and tellers of jokes. They have few properties and none of the tricks of light and color which dress up the theater. But there is something very gallant about them.

Of course, Hope wasn’t the only entertainer putting smiles on muddy, forlorn American faces in two different theaters of war. In fact, the USO’s entertainment operation grew so big so fast that it spun off into its own nonprofit—USO Camp Shows, Inc.—in late 1941, just eight months after the USO was formed.

There were plenty of big names—Bing Crosby, Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrich and dozens more stars. But there were roughly 7,000 other performers who weren’t coming home to fame and fortune when the war was over.

All together, they performed more than 425,000 USO shows around the world between 1941 and 1947.

Rarely were those shows described in more vivid detail than Steinbeck’s June 1943 New York Herald Tribune dispatch.

“Once There Was A War,” an anthology of Steinbeck’s World War II reporting, was originally published in 1958.

There was the pained smile and tense muscles of the female acrobat who tried in vain, over and over, to pull off a feat of balance on the listing ship.

There was a blues singer doing her best to overcome a busted speaker system, the quality of her voice eroding the louder she tried to sing. And there was the master of ceremonies whose jokes weren’t quite relating to the whole audience—even though the audience was more than willing to help him—until he finally struck gold with a line about military police. “Everybody likes a joke about MPs,” Steinbeck wrote.

All the performers were good enough to make it into the troupe. They were brave enough to make it across the ocean and onto that boat. They were likely even drawing a small wage for their efforts. And by the end of each performance — including a heavy dose of audience participation, coaxing and goodwill — they’d brought a piece of home to a place full of fear.

The audience helps all it can because it wants the show to be good. And out of the little acts, which are not quite convincing, and the big audience which wants literally to be convinced, something whole and good comes, so that when it is over there has been a show.

This piece originally appeared in the Fall 2015 edition of On Patrol.

Chicago-Area Kids Raise $100 for USO at Afternoon Lemonade Stand

Marty, Jimmy and Nora McNaughton and their lemonade stand.

Marty, Jimmy and Nora McNaughton and their lemonade stand.

When Erin McNaughton’s three children told her they wanted to start a lemonade stand this summer — with the proceeds going towards the USO — it was a proud parenting moment.

“It was all their own,” McNaughton said. “[You feel like] you’re doing a good job as a parent when they come up with an idea that’s going to help others.”

It started one morning in August when the children, who have an aunt and uncle that serve in the military, decided out of the blue to create a roadside lemonade stand to raise money for the USO.

“They’re around the military atmosphere and they like it and they see [why the military is important],” McNaughton said.

After about an hour of sign drawing, lemonade making and organizing, the kids were out in front of their Chicago-area house ready for their first customer. McNaughton estimates between 20 to 30 people stopped by the stand to buy lemonade that afternoon, although the majority of customers paid much more than the 75-cent list price.

“They were handing over five dollars, 20 dollars,” McNaughton said. “We had a great turnout. It was so cute. ”

At the end of the day, the McNaughton children had raised roughly $100, which they hand-delivered to the USO of Illinois office in downtown Chicago.

“The creative initiative that these young patriots demonstrated is inspired,” USO of Illinois President and CEO Alison Ruble in an email. “Embracing the true meaning of Every Moment Counts, they have provided a poignant reminder of what it means to give back to those who serve our nation.”

Rachel Feinberg, who works as a marketing associate at the USO of Illinois, said the organization only gets a few community-based, spur-of-the-moment donations a year.

“It was awesome,” she said. “The kids looked like they had a great time and it was just great to see some of the younger generation taking on the USO and helping us out.”