And The Winners Are: Top USO Centers Announced at the TellUSO Awards

A service member signs in at the USO Las Vegas center at McCarran International Airport.

A service member signs in at the USO Las Vegas center inside McCarran International Airport.

What’s your favorite USO center? The USO asks troops and families to pick their favorite center each year through the TellUSO Survey and announces the winners at the annual USO Leadership Conference.

This year’s top overall center went to USO Las Vegas. It’s the second year in a row the Las Vegas airport center took home top prize. They earned the award for receiving the highest overall survey scores in categories like satisfaction, staff helpfulness and value.

But Las Vegas wasn’t the only center to take home a trophy last week. Here are the other winners by category:

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Juice And A Snooze: How The USO Helped Ease One Military Mom’s Travel Woes

McClanahan

The McClanahan family. Photo courtesy of Michelle McClanahan

When Michelle McClanahan headed to Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport on her way to Pennsylvania, she didn’t anticipate spending the rest of the day in the Atlanta airport.

But since she and her daughter, Sophia, were flying on a non-reservation status to her grandfather’s funeral — thanks to a perk Michelle’s husband, Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Jacob McClanahan, had in an earlier job —  they had to wait until seats became available on a plane from Atlanta to Allentown, Pennsylvania.

It was a long wait.

After several hours of boredom mixed with the sadness and stress of losing her grandfather, Michelle spoke to her husband, who suggested she head to the airport’s USO center.

Not expecting much, Michelle decided to take his advice and went to the USO Jean Amos Center at the Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

When she arrived, a volunteer helped her sign in and gave she and her daughter some food. A USO volunteer even went out to purchase some juice for Sophia, since the center only had water and soda at the time.

“I was blown away at how welcoming they were to my family,” McClanahan wrote in an email. “They even comforted me when I started crying over my grandfathers passing!”

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After enjoying the refreshments and a much-needed nap, Michelle says a few volunteers even offered to play with Sophia and walk around the center with her.

“I will definitely be using the USO again,” she said. “It represents to me a safe place to go when you feel like you don’t have any options. It represents a family environment.”

Former Airman Found His Way Home Thanks to Chance Meetings at USO Centers

Former Air Force Capt. Jeff Smith poses for a photo. Photo courtesy of Jeff Smith.

Former Air Force Capt. Jeff Smith poses for a photo. Photo courtesy of Jeff Smith.

Former Air Force Capt. Jeff Smith has started some of his most memorable travel adventures at airport USO centers.

But they weren’t planned that way.

On one trip, Smith was traveling home to Ohio to attend a friend’s funeral. A delay forced him to miss his connecting flight at Washington Dulles International Airport. After trying to reschedule for the following day, he realized he might not make it home in time for the service. He went to the airport’s USO center to clear his head. While relaxing at the center, Smith started chatting with a Marine who he recognized from his first flight.

“I talked to him and found out that he was going to his grandmother’s funeral on the same day, but one town over,” Smith said. “We figured out that if we took turns sleeping and driving, we could make it to Ohio by morning.

“We went from being complete strangers, to renting a car together and driving seven hours and 400 miles across the country.”

And it wasn’t the last time this happened. On another trip home, this time to see his family for the holidays, Smith found himself sitting in the Destin-Fort Walton Beach airport USO facing a similar situation.

Due to a series of flight delays, Smith and two soldiers he met at the USO were stuck at the Florida airport and were told they should anticipate missing their connecting flights home from Atlanta the next morning. Instead of spending their holiday time at the airport, the trio decided to rent a car and drive to Atlanta so they could catch their connecting flights.

“We all made our flights and got to see our families for Christmas instead of just New Year’s,” Smith said.

Another USO visit also led Smith to talk with a major who helped spark his involvement in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. Smith has been mentoring his Little Brother for over a year now.

“I’m very grateful that the events turned out the way they did, because I probably wouldn’t have met him any other way,” Smith said.

“Some of my best memories from nine years in the Air Force were in airport USO facilities,” Smith wrote in a Facebook post.

Why Volunteer? Denee Hammond Explains Why She Gives Her Time at USO New England

Whether it’s about patriotism, family or being part of something bigger than themselves, USO volunteers each have personal reasons for giving their valuable time.

USO New England volunteer Denee Hammond took a moment recently to talk about why she does it.

“When they see the USO in an airport thousands of miles from home, they come back to that one moment when they may have met a USO volunteer,” she said. “Maybe they saw us at a Patriots game, maybe they came with us on a Polar Express event for their kids Š but they remember those letters and it immediately brings them back home, and they feel connected.”

How Bob Hope Impacted Two Troops in Vietnam (Without Actually Seeing Them)

Bob Hope interviews a service member on stage in Vietnam in 1966. USO photo

Bob Hope interviews a service member on stage in Vietnam in 1966. USO photo

Bob Hope did more for American troops than he probably realized.

If you know the USO, you know about Hope’s decades entertaining troops. You’ve probably seen footage from his televised USO specials, too, where he entertained service members in dangerous spots around the world. But what you likely don’t know about is the personal impact he had on some of those troops — even those whose duties prevented them from attending the shows.

Here are two stories* sent to us by former service members who fought in Vietnam and were touched by Hope in unique ways without actually seeing him.

Donald Scott

I had been in country less than a month when Bob Hope and his crew visited Cam Ranh Bay Air Base, Vietnam, in December 1966. They did a show at South Beach for the Army and Navy and one at the air base.

Being new in country, I was on duty as an aerial port duty officer and did not get to attend a show. That evening, as they took off and were flying to their next destination, we called the plane (call sign Sky King) from our [airlift control element] and spoke to Bob. He summoned Anita Bryant to the [microphone] and she sang “Silent Night” to us as they flew through the dark, black skies of Vietnam.

I will never forget this little act of kindness for a small group of about five guys who could not attend the big show.

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Jerry Tobias

The U.S. Air Force Fairchild C-123K Provider was a tactical airlift workhorse during the Vietnam War. I flew the C-123 out of Phan Rang Air Base in Vietnam, and crisscrossed the length and breadth of the war zone on a regular basis. This gave me the opportunity to observe the realities of war and the impact of combat on the people involved.

One very noticeable constant was the resignation and despair that I saw on the faces of the battle- and boredom-weary soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen that shuffled on and off of my C-123 each day. The war and its painful byproducts seemed to erase all other expressions from the faces of most of them. It’s not hard to understand why. Most of these men … were not there because they wanted to be, but because they had to be. Many had also already known a buddy — or at least had been aware of someone — who had been killed in an ambush, maimed by a booby trap, or caught in the web of cheap and easily accessible drugs. Tragically, all of them were also aware of the loud and negative segment of the population back home that neither cared about them nor cared about what they were going through day after day.

Photo courtesy of Jerry Tobias

Photo courtesy of Jerry Tobias

Those facts all helped to make my flights on Dec. 24 and 25, 1971, even more significant.

My C-123 unit had asked for volunteers to fly troops to and from the Bob Hope USO shows in Bien Hoa those two days. I decided that, rather than sit in my room and be even lonelier on Christmas, flying in support of those shows would be a great alternative. So, I signed up to fly as many sorties as necessary. I eventually flew 13 sorties back and forth to Bien Hoa. Every flight was packed with as many troops as we could legally carry aboard the C-123. …

The flights to the shows were pretty much normal troop transport flights. The troops were still mostly expressionless; they were just glad to get a break from the war. But, each return flight from the shows was absolutely not normal. … The emotional weight of the airplane seemed to be thousands of pounds lighter. Also totally different was the restored expression of life on the troops’ faces. It was amazing. It was as though Bob Hope had turned the light back on in their souls. That, I believe, was not the result the men having been entertained, but of their having been appreciated. …

The very genuine care and appreciation that Bob Hope and the rest of his cast expressed to the troops in a couple of hours during each USO show was, therefore, probably quite literally more encouragement and support than many of these young men had experienced before, during or — sadly, in some cases — even after their tours of duty.

[Bob Hope] entertained, yes, but he also imparted sincere value and respect to men and women who had not received much of either for a long, long time. We, as a nation, owe him and those who have followed after him in USO endeavors more than we could ever repay.

My flying schedule did not allow me to attend a Bob Hope USO show myself … but that didn’t matter. What mattered was that I personally witnessed and will never forget the incredible impact that he and those with him had on the morale of the U.S. military. What also mattered was that I had the tremendous privilege of providing several hundred others with airlift to the appreciation that they desperately needed and so very richly deserved.

Editors Note: Stories have been edited slightly for length and style.

USO Centers Around the World Host Eggstravagant Easter and Spring Celebrations

As flowers begin to bloom and birds begin to sing, USO centers are busy planning and hosting special Easter- and spring-themed events for troops and their families.

Here’s a look at what USO centers are doing around the world.

Europe

USO Grafenwoehr, Germany
On Easter Sunday, USO Grafenwoehr will host the Hippity Hoppity Easter Festival featuring crafts, Easter basket drawings, an Easter egg hunt and photos with the Easter Bunny. Military families attending the event can also enjoy a barbecue festival.

USO Kaiserslautern, Germany
On March 28, USO Kaiserslautern supported the 10th AAMDC Easter Egg Hunt on Rhine Ordinance Barracks with its mobile canteen. The USO provided attendees plenty of food to enjoy between hunting for eggs and taking photos with the Easter Bunny. USO Kaiserslautern served a menu of hot dogs, popcorn and cotton candy made in its brand new cotton candy machine.

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USO Stuttgart, Germany
USO Stuttgart hosted an Easter egg hunt Thursday for military children ages 5 and under. The Easter Bunny even made a special visit by the center to help the little hunters search for Easter treats.

USO Naples, Italy
USO Naples hosted a children’s activity event March 28 at the local MWR’s Easter Eggstravaganza. Over 1,000 people stopped by the USO tent, which featured face painting, pin the tail on the Easter Bunny, a can toss, bean bag games, a bunny hop relay and more.

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USO Rome, Italy
On March 28, USO Rome participated in the annual Easter Egg Hunt event at the U.S. ambassador’s residence. More than 100 children and their families attended the event and enjoyed the games, prizes, balloons and face painting.

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Pacific

USO Yokosuka, Japan
USO Yokosuka hosted a special egg-dying event Thursday. All of the painted eggs were donated to be part of an egg hunt at an orphanage near Camp Fuji.

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USO Kadena, Japan
Military families looking to ring in the spring season can stop by the Four Diamonds Softball Complex on Saturday for USO Kadena’s annual Eggsplosion event. Visitors can enjoy a giant Easter egg hunt, inflatables, pictures with the Easter Bunny and more from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. local time.

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Southwest Asia

USO Camp Buehring, Kuwait
On Easter Sunday, troops can stop by USO Camp Buehring at 6 p.m. local time for a special Easter Eggstravaganza celebration.

USO Kandahar, Afghanistan
To celebrate Easter and the start of spring, USO Kandahar will host a special spring pancake event Sunday at noon local time. Troops can enjoy a home-cooked meal of flapjacks and maple syrup while relaxing at the USO.

Stateside

USO Colorado Springs, Colorado
On Saturday , USO Colorado Spring will host a special Easter egg hunt for military children ages 1 to 10 from 1 to 3 p.m. local time. In addition to searching for Easter treats, kids can take pictures with the Easter Bunny and Ernie the Eagle, enjoy entertainment by the Shriner clowns and Cartoon Bill, and enjoy crafts, pizza and other snacks.

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USO Fort Hood, Texas
USO Fort Hood was on the ground at the Fort Hood Warrior Transition Unit’s Spring Fest last weekend, where more than 200 military members celebrated the arrival of spring. As part of the festivities, attendees enjoyed Easter egg hunts, face painting and visiting with the Easter Bunny.

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USO of Wisconsin
The USO of Wisconsin will kick of spring with a bang at its annual USO Easter Eggstravaganza at Cudahy High School on April 11 from 11:45 a.m. to 2 p.m. local time. This family event, which is open to the public, will feature games, crafts, egg hunts, pictures with the Easter Bunny and more. All proceeds raised from the day’s festivities will go towards supporting military families through the USO of Wisconsin’s various programs. You can register for the event here.

USO San Diego
The Easter Bunny stopped by USO San Diego’s Downtown Center on March 29 to meet with military families over a spring-themed breakfast. Families enjoyed waffles, eggs, bacon and fruit prepared by GR Catering/Gourmet Rotisserie Events before story time with United Through Reading and meeting the Easter Bunny. There was music from the Hullabaloo band, balloon artists and baskets of toys for each child in attendance.

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