A Really Dry Heat: TEAM USO Runner Trains for Marine Corps Marathon in Kuwaiti Desert

Kuwait is not the first place that comes to mind when thinking of training grounds for the 39th Marine Corps Marathon, but that’s what Jason Lewis signed up for when he joined TEAM USO. The former Marine and former USO staff member began training for his 26.2-mile trek while working at USO Camp Buehring, Kuwait.

Jason Lewis

Jason Lewis

“The heat would [get] up to 130 degrees, so it made it very hard to get motivated to get outside and do long miles,” Lewis said, adding that he’s enjoying the cooler Michigan air while finishing up his training. “I adopted the method of doing what I could and took advantage of cool mornings.”

Lewis’ firsthand knowledge of the USO’s impact on troops kept him motivated throughout the training process.

“I believe in what the USO does and want to do anything I can do to help out,” he said, recalling his time in the service. “Every time I passed through an airport, I would stop at the USO center.”

Lewis even recruited friend and fellow Marine, Ryan Taylor, to TEAM USO.

“When I asked [Ryan] to run with me, it was kind of a no-brainer,” he said. “We had been talking about getting out there and doing some runs and fitness stuff. I was like ‘Hey, we can raise some money for a great organization. I’m on the inside, so I know what the money goes to.’ So he was on board as soon as I told him that we should do it.”

Combined, the friends have raised nearly $3,000 for the USO. Lewis and Taylor are not alone in their TEAM USO fundraising efforts. So far, the team of 30 Marine Corps Marathon runners has raised more than $35,000 as part of this year’s marathon.

“I’m proud to be raising money for the USO, and hopefully, I can raise a few more dollars by the end of the year,” Lewis said.

Find out more about TEAM USO and their fundraising efforts for the 2014 Marine Corps Marathon on the TEAM USO Marine Corps Marathon homepage.

–Jessica Battaglia, USO

‘A Much Needed Shot In The Arm': Navy Commander Talks About the Impact the USO has on Deployed Troops

USO Sailor of the Year Petty Officer 1st Class Troy Cromer and his wife,

USO Sailor of the Year Petty Officer 1st Class Troy Cromer and his wife, Laura, last week in Washington. USO photo by Mike Theiler

Even bona fide heroes can use a pick-me-up.

Troy Cromer has an Army Commendation Medal, a Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal with Valor, a Combat Action Ribbon an is credited with saving multiple lives during his 2013 deployment to Afghanistan with Navy SEAL Team 10.

Last week, the petty officer first class added 2014 USO Sailor of the Year to his trophy case at the 2014 USO Gala. According to his commanding officer, it was a timely show of appreciation.

“Last week [the] USO lived up to my own personal memories of your dedication to our troops,” Navy Cmdr. Matthew Andrews wrote in an email. “EOD1 Cromer and his family are extremely appreciative for the opportunity to participate. Troy has given so much of himself, and I know that the burdens of his personal sacrifices are shared by his family. It is absolutely phenomenal that the USO recognized Troy, and even more impressive that you were also able to include [and] recognize the critical role our families play.”

According to his gala program citation, Cromer — an explosive ordnance team leader — directed suppressive fire against enemy forces while neutralizing an improvised explosive device planted between two of his team’s vehicles during an ambush in Afghanistan. On another mission, he led four vehicles through an area littered with IEDs, dismantling three of the bombs. And on a third mission, he located a system of caves, destroying the weapons inside and then making sure enemy forces couldn’t use them any longer as underground bunkers.

For Andrews, who also attended the USO Gala, the recognition brought back memories of a USO moment he had during a deployment seven years ago.

“Before this event, my most vivid experience with the ’21st Century USO’ was the reception I received at the Atlanta airport on my mid-deployment R&R layover back in 2007,” he said. “Words would not do justice to the amount of gratitude I felt for the tremendous outpouring of sincere care [and appreciation] as we marched through the airport to resounding applause. That was an extremely tough deployment for me, and that was a particularly tough time during that long deployment. USO provided a much needed shot in the arm. Thank you.”

“The support [the USO gives] the families and forward-deployed guys is above and beyond all,” Cromer said at last week’s USO Gala. “It’s a phenomenal organization.

USO Gala Mistress of Ceremonies Aisha Tyler Shares Why She’s Excited for Tonight’s Gala

Aisha Tyler, the 2014 USO Gala Mistress of Ceremonies, took a break from her pre-Gala preparations to share why she’s excited to host this year’s event.

“Tonight’s all about the troops. So for me, it’s just about honoring not just the men and women that have personally scarified for our country, but also acknowledging the fact that their families have made incredible sacrifices,” Tyler said.

This is the first time the actress, comedian author and podcaster, known for hosting CBS ‘Emmy winning show The Talk and CW’s Who’s Line Is It Anyway, has worked with the USO.

TEAM USO Army Ten-Miler Runners Raise More Than $30,000 for the USO

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

For 30 years, the Army Ten-Miler has been the unifying fitness event for members of the Army family around the world. Since 1985, more than 300,000 soldiers, service members and civilians have traveled to Washington to participate in the service’s signature race.

This year, 50 runners from around the nation dedicated their time and energy to run for TEAM USO, raising more than $30,000 that will go toward USO programs and services.

“It was an outstanding event, and everyone and everything came together perfectly,” said Ginni Guiton, USO Director of Donor Operations and Stewardship.

In addition, some 6,000 runners who couldn’t make it to the nation’s capital this year participated in Army Ten-Miler shadow races held in Kuwait, Afghanistan, Egypt and Africa.

“It is an opportunity for us here downrange to participate and be part of this great event,” Army Sgt. 1st Class Arnel Liwanagan, who is stationed at Kandahar Airfield, was quoted as saying in the Army Ten-Miler program. “It promotes camaraderie between different branches of service in the armed forces and civilians as well. It also helps build good relationships with coalition forces.”

USO Sets Up Surprise Homecoming for Soldier’s Family on “The Meredith Vieira Show”

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Last month in Manhattan, a special reunion took place on Meredith Vieira’s new talk show between an Army Reserve officer and the family he hadn’t seen in nearly a year.

First Lt. Beau McNeff and his wife Ceci had missed their last two wedding anniversaries due to deployments and work-ups. While Ceci was in on the reunion, their four kids – including their newborn daughter Lexi – got the surprise of their young lives on live television.

The USO, which benefitted from more than 250 hours of McNeff’s volunteer service while he was stationed at Forward Operating Base Fenty in Afghanistan, selected the McNeff family for the surprise reunion and also arranged three days of fun for the family in Manhattan as a thank you for his contributions to the military and the organization.

“Before deploying, the only thing I knew about the USO was that they did care packages and they were in the airports,” McNeff said. “But then I go to Afghanistan and they’re in every airport that I went through. Fellow veterans, families, people who want to help and support our veterans and our military [were volunteering at each location], and these people loved us. They treated me like family at every stop. Then I get to Afghanistan and there’s a USO on my [forward operating base].”

McNeff visited that USO almost daily, and used the USO/United Through Reading Military Program room as often as possible to communicate with his four children back home in Beaverton, Oregon. After he became one of the first fathers to participate in the USO’s Tiny Tots program (a reverse care package program where a dad requests a personalized USO newborn kit be sent to the mom back home), he became a committed USO volunteer for the rest of his deployment.

“The McNeffs are a wonderful example of how a family is able to stay connected through so many of our wonderful programs and services,” USO President and CEO Dr. J.D. Crouch II said during the show’s taping. “This truly shows how we are always by their side … from the moment they join, through their deployments and as they transition back to their communities.”

On set, Vieira concealed the show’s surprise by demonstrating how the USO keeps families together via Skype. But McNeff, who could be seen on camera in uniform, was not actually in Afghanistan. He was backstage, waiting to surprise his family.

“It was surreal,” McNeff said. “I got to go behind the scenes and see how the show was put together. I’m sitting in this green room looking down on the set of “Saturday Night Live” as they set up for the weekend’s show. They pretended like the camera feed dropped out and I came out on stage. Our two oldest came running to me and started crying. Our 2-year-old stayed crying the whole time she was out there, holding her daddy doll … and that’s when I got to meet [Lexi] for the first time.

“It was one of those moments in life when everything felt right. I’d seen pictures of her, but I finally got to hold her and she smiled at me for the first time and you can’t beat that.

“And the USO set that up for me. It was more than anything I could have asked for.”

After the show, the USO had more surprises in store for the McNeff family. Volunteers from USO of Metropolitan New York spent three days with the McNeff family, leading them on a guided tour of the Museum of Natural History, the USS Intrepid and the Statue of Liberty.

McNeff’s two little girls, 6-year-old Elena and 2-year-old Sarah, were taken to the American Girl store where they were able to design their own custom dolls, and his 4-year-old son Daniel was taken to FAO Schwarz, where he picked out “the coolest Transformer in the whole world.”

“It’s just amazing the experience the USO can bring to a soldier,” McNeff said. “Both while you’re gone, and redeployment and now coming home.”

Milestone: Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families Entertains its 500,000th Military Family Member

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

FORT BENNING, Georgia—It’s always a sunny day on Sesame Street. But Friday, Elmo, Cookie Monster and the Muppets had an extra special reason to sing and dance with all their friends: 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. “It was just so amazing to be able to work so closely with everyone here at Fort Benning to make this moment so special.”

To commemorate the milestone, Elmo and his Muppet friends posed with the audience for a commemorative photograph after their performance. Audience members also received a special cookie to take home with them in addition to other Sesame Street/USO tour goodies.

“I might have told them that they came from Cookie Monster, but [assured the kids] he didn’t eat them [all] before the show,” McClendon said.

Since 2008, this longest-running annual USO tour has delivered memorable moments to hundreds of thousands of military children and their parents through more than 735 shows at more than 140 military bases in 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.”