First Lady Michelle Obama Visits Troops and Spouses at a USO Event in Italy

First Lady Michelle Obama made a surprise visit to U.S. Army Garrison Vicenza on Friday for a USO ice cream social among other activities with the troops.

Obama went on to co-host a surprise baby shower for expectant moms at the base. You can see a full slideshow of her visit over at stripes.com.

“We want you to know we’ve got your backs when you’re going through this part of your lives,” she told military spouses during her visit, according to ABC News. “You’re not alone.”

USO Opens First Staffed Center in Africa

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Sometimes they are created to facilitate the changing travel needs of troops stateside. Sometimes they are erected downrange and built by the troops themselves. Whatever the case, each USO center is opened where troops need them the most. And that most recent need is on Camp Lemonnier in the Republic of Djibouti.

The United States established a strategic military presence in Djibouti in 2002, just 30 miles across the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait from Yemen. The Navy’s expeditionary base there is home to nearly 4,000 U.S. troops and serves as a hub in the fight against extremist groups as well as a staging point for counter-piracy operations in the region.

After last year’s announcement that the U.S. would spend $1 billion over the next 20 years to enlarge the base in Djibouti, the USO decided it was time to open up a permanent canteen to bring a slice of home to troops stationed there.

“Most of the troops here are unaccompanied and stay from anywhere from nine months to a year,” USO Camp Lemonnier Center Manager Michael Eyassu said. “They are very excited about [the USO] providing free phone calls to the states since they have to purchase phone cards otherwise.”

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Currently the only staffed USO center on the continent of Africa, USO Camp Lemonnier consists of two Quonset huts attached by a walkway, located in a region of the base nick named “tent city” because that’s where the more temporary housing and facilities are located.

The two tents contain a lounge area with leather chairs, a full canteen with snacks and treats from home, free toiletries and plenty of phones and computers to call home.

“We’ve got something going on every night for the military,” Eyassu said. “We have a lot of fun, and we’re getting more and more foot traffic each and every day we’re open.”

Follow the USO Camp Lemonnier Facebook page to learn about upcoming events and to see pictures from inside the center.

Little Things Often Mean the Most: How One Wounded Warrior’s Day was Brightened at the USO

Army Maj. David Keithan

Army Maj. David Keithan

After a brief surgical stay to repair the shoulder he injured during a 2006 tour in Iraq, Army Maj. David Keithan stopped into the USO Warrior Center in Landstuhl, Germany. He just wanted to “chill out and take a break for a minute” before walking the rest of the way to the Fisher House where he was staying.

After signing in, Keithan spotted a jar of spaghetti sauce and a packet of ramen on the counter and it transported him back to his childhood.

“I saw it and I just thought, ‘Man that looks good,’” Keithan said. “I know it sounds really, really weird but I used to eat that as a kid. I’d always throw the packet of flavoring in the Oodles of Noodles away because it was too salty and I’d put spaghetti sauce on it instead. It’s a quick meal and growing up I used to eat it that way all the time.”

Whether it’s the smell of fresh cooking, a familiar brand of coffee or just the “howdy” of an American volunteer, it’s often little things inside each USO center that connect troops to their communities back home.

Keithan, who has been in the Army more than 18 years, asked a USO volunteer if it was okay if his wife – who was traveling with him – cooked him some spaghetti the way he likes it.

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“It wasn’t anything gourmet, but it was exactly what I wanted at that moment,” he said. “It’s like chocolate chip cookies made by Grammie. Grammie loves her American service members, and when you eat that cookie you feel connected … and you love her like she’s your own grandmother. I don’t care how young and how tough these soldiers think they are, they all have mothers and grandmothers and they know exactly what I’m talking about.”

Being from a small town in Maine, Keithan says it’s the little things that continue to bring him back to the USO. On one USO visit, he found his favorite local brand of coffee from Boston, which reminded him of home. Another time he was just comforted by hearing a friendly northeastern accent.

“It comes from everywhere,” Keithan said. “We all have different cultures in the States and all these little things come from the people who donate to the USO and as little as those things are — it could be a packet of sauce from your favorite local fast food chain — it brings you back home in that moment.”

USO2GO Shipments Help Troops Take a Load Off in the Middle East

Troops in Qatar pose with  some gear from their USO2GO shipment. Courtesy photo

Troops in Qatar pose with some gear from their USO2GO shipment. Courtesy photo

The master sergeant really wanted chairs.

The video games, TVs and snacks were great, too. Still, years of deployments, bad weather and overall wear and tear had left the furniture at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar in bad shape.

New folding chairs were actually a pretty big deal.

“I use one of your chairs almost every day to relax outside and enjoy my cigar and destress from the daily workload,” Air Force Master Sgt. Richard Rude wrote in a May 2 email to the USO.

The folding chairs – along with bigger-ticket items like video game consoles and televisions – were part of a USO2GO shipment Rude requested earlier this year.

“When I got to my deployed location [in January], I wanted to see what I can to take care of my troops,” Rude wrote in a May 5 email. “I went to the USO website and started doing some research about what [the USO] had to offer [and] I stumbled upon the USO2GO program.”

Troops play video games - part of their USO2GO shipment - and use other USO2GO gear in Qatar. Courtesy photo

Troops play video games – part of their USO2GO shipment – and use other USO2GO gear in Qatar. Courtesy photo

USO2GO delivers some of the USO’s most popular services to troops in remote and restricted areas around the globe. Service members in remote areas can go to the USO’s website to see their options: anything from snacks, coffee and toiletries to board games, video game consoles and sporting goods.

Rude was immediately drawn to the electronics and furniture offerings. He said the younger airmen in Qatar have personal electronics with them at all times, even though they don’t always have reliable Internet. However, many of the base’s communal video game consoles had been damaged by ubiquitous sand, intense heat and constant use.

“The main attraction to deployers is electronics,” Rude wrote. “I knew that my squadron could use consoles, especially since they double as [DVD players].”

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Once he’d narrowed down his wish list using the USO2GO online menu, Rude emailed USO2GO program manager Cristin Perry to coordinate the shipment. Rude submitted the final paperwork in mid-March. Two weeks later, the shipment was filled and on April 22, Rude’s unit started receiving packages.

“It is definitely difficult to explain how amazing it feels when several boxes of equipment come in from the USO,” Rude wrote. “I guess I can explain it best to ask someone ‘How did you feel when you seen all the presents under the Christmas tree as a child?’

“I thought the packages [the USO] had setup were perfect in efforts to help bring my guys together and get to know one another. It is also a positive distractor, especially being away from loved ones.”

Alabama Baseball Tournament Unites Community, Raises More Than $60,000 Over Three Years for the USO

The check presentation. USO photo

The Hits for Heroes check presentation. USO photo

Each spring in America, colored stirrups are excavated from the bottom of sock drawers, hardened orange clay is knocked loose from cleats and home plate is dusted clean so the local baseball diamond – and community – can come to life.

In Dothan, Alabama, the game has evolved beyond America’s pastime to become the way this small town says thank you to the men and women who protect their freedom.

Organized by a self-proclaimed stay-at-home wife who “couldn’t stay at home while service members sacrificed,” Hits for Heroes Director Angela Dunning brought more than 20 teams together in her local area to participate in a two-week baseball tournament to raise awareness of the sacrifices America’s troops make and to raise money so the USO can provide them more comforts when they’re away.

Players and coaches wore camouflage Hits for Heroes jerseys at each game. And during the fifth inning, Dunning invited everyone who is a veteran or military family member onto the field to be honored.

“Our community has just wrapped its arms around it,” said Dunning, who canvassed Dothan to gather corporate sponsors and participants.

“It’s more about the cause than it is about baseball, but because you’re including baseball, we get so many more people participating. And since every single person in America needs to thank our military, it has … become the way this town says ‘thank you.’

“And when it comes to the best vehicle in which to deliver that message of thanks, the USO is a no-brainer.”

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This year’s Hits for Heroes tournament raised $23,000 for the USO, bringing the three-year total donation to more than $60,000.

“I’ve yet to meet a single person who has a relationship with the military — either through their spouse or themselves — who doesn’t have a great story to tell about the USO,” Dunning said. “So we feel honored to partner with the USO and hope we can continue this effort for years to come.”

A Lifetime of Service: Officer-Turned-Businessman Talks About Supporting USO

When retired Army officer Tom Kilgore decided it was time to give back, it was clear which organization he would support.

“I became active with the USO shortly after my retirement [from the Army],” said Kilgore, who now heads risk management for ArcLight Capital Partners in Boston. “It was one of the organizations while I was on active duty which provided great value, I thought, to my soldiers and to my family.”

At West Point, Kilgore was taught that graduates engage in a lifetime of service.

“One of the ways in which you can continue a lifetime of service is to continue to give back to the organizations [that] have taken care of us while we were on active duty,” Kilgore said. “The USO affords me an opportunity to live up to the goals that were set for me as a young man, and the goals that I embrace and continue to hopefully embrace and live to this day.”