Your USO at Work: November 2014 — USO, Sesame Street Celebrate 500,000 Smiles

The Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families celebrated a major milestone with families at Fort Benning, Georgia, on October 3 when the tour entertained its 500,000th military family member. USO photo by Dave Gatley

The Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families celebrated a major milestone with families at Fort Benning, Georgia, on October 3 when the tour entertained its 500,000th military family member. USO photo by Dave Gatley

Sesame Street/USO Experience Reaches 500K Milestone

It’s always a sunny day on Sesame Street, but Elmo, Cookie Monster and the Muppets had an extra special reason to sing and dance with all their friends last month. 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.

The Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families has toured since July 2008 and has taken its message of facing fears and embracing change to more than 500,000 troops and military families. With help from Katie, a military child who is moving to a new place, and all of her friends, the tour has performed more than 893 shows on 147 military installations in 33 states and 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.”

USO’s Every Moment Counts Flag Breaks World Record

The USO's Every Moment Counts flag is displayed at The Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati on Sept. 11. USO photo by Mike Theiler

The USO’s Every Moment Counts flag is displayed at The Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati on Sept. 11. USO photo by Mike Theiler

With signatures gathered from all 50 states and seven countries, USO announced in September that it broke the Guinness World Records title for most signatures on a flag with 115,405 gathered digitally and in-person around the world. The USO shattered the current record set in 2012 by more than 82,132 signatures.

As part of its Every Moment Counts campaign, the USO rallied Americans to show support for troops and their families through the simple act of saying thank you with their signature.

“Every signature on the Every Moment Counts flag is a symbol of a grateful nation’s appreciation for all that our men and women in uniform and their families do for us on a daily basis,” said J.D. Crouch II, USO President and CEO.

Go to USOmoments.org to show your appreciation for our troops and their families.

Al Roker Sets Weather Forecast Record in Support of the USO

With six minutes to go in #Rokerthon, the expression momentarily drained from Al Roker’s face as his co-anchors piled into his small New York City studio.

NBC's Al Roker headlined the "Today"/USO Comedy Tour in Afghanistan in October. USO photo by Fred Greaves

NBC’s Al Roker headlined the “Today”/USO Comedy Tour in Afghanistan in October. USO photo by Fred Greaves

“I don’t think there are enough people in here,” Roker deadpanned. More than 33 hours  — and despite several jokes suggesting the contrary — he was still lucid.

And then he delivered more temperatures.

Roker, a USO tour veteran, set a Guinness World Record on Nov. 14 for the longest continuous televised weather forecast at 34 hours. He did it to raise awareness for the USO, asking a national audience, a litany of NBC affiliates and livestream viewers to visit his still-active Crowdrise page, where he raised more than $75,000 for the organization by the time he went off the air.

He had a lot of help while he was on the air, too. #Rokerthon was often the No. 1 trending topic on Twitter, with thousands of viewers (including USO centers around the world) tweeting in questions about the weather to keep Roker’s forecasting streak alive.

USO, Renovating Hope and Gary Sinise Foundation Repair Home of Wounded Vet

After returning from Afghanistan with PTSD and a traumatic brain injury, medically retired Army Nurse Corps officer Jim Gardon came home to a surprise.

Unfortunately it wasn’t the good kind.

“When Jim was deployed to Afghanistan, I hired a contractor to remodel the back two rooms of the house,” said his wife Cece Gardon. “He came in, pulled out the electricity, did a haphazard job of sheet rocking and left and never came back.”

Stuck with a huge bill for incomplete work, they didn’t have the money to invest in the project a second time. The USO introduced the Gardons to Paul Hoffecker, the CEO of Renovating Hope, after Cece attended a USO Caregivers Conference. Renovating Hope secured grants from the USO and the Gary Sinise Foundation to make sure the job could be completed once and for all.

“The USO has been better than the 15 different medications the VA has tried to improve my attitude,” Jim Gardon said. “This is something that actually physically, emotionally and socially helps the soldier.”

Visit USO.org/donate to learn how you can support our healing heroes and their families.

USO Supports Fort Drum Spouse Through Deployment – and Homecoming

Ashley Sandgren

Ashley Sandgren

Ashley Sandgren’s smiles said as much as her words. Sometimes anxious. Other times confident.

Either way, she knew her wait was almost over.

Just 24 hours away from reuniting with her husband, Army Sgt. Jeremy Sandgren, after his nine-month deployment to Afghanistan, the Virginia native talked through the emotions of what it was like to wait out the couple’s first overseas deployment.

“I think putting it out of your mind is helpful in some sense, but you shouldn’t live your life in denial that they’re in danger, because they are,” she said.

Not that she didn’t have plenty to do. A trained cosmetologist, Sandgren balanced her work with coordinating a family readiness group at Fort Drum, N.Y., and volunteering with the USO, where many Fort Drum spouses have found a home away from home while their significant others were deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade.

“I think this USO has such a huge heart,” Sandgren said. “I think it’s extremely important to have the community and the different groups to lean on when your soldier’s deployed. It helps in the sense that you realize that you’re not alone.”

BNSF Helps the USO Support Transitioning Veterans with a Landmark Donation

Job searches are never easy. The task can be even more daunting for veterans looking to land their first civilian position.

That’s where the USO and supporters like the BNSF Railway Foundation step in.

On July 24, the BNSF Railway Foundation announced a $3 million pledge to support USO Warrior and Family Care employment programs for active-duty troops transitioning out of the military. The first-of-its-kind, three-year pledge will fund USO programs designed to assist transitioning troops – including those who are wounded, ill or injured – entering the civilian workforce.

Former Army Officer Makes a Difference for USO, Troops

USO Houston Center Director Liz Vallette

USO Houston Center Director Liz Vallette

USO Houston Center Director Liz Vallette understands what it’s like to be far from home.

With a tour in South Korea and a deployment to Iraq, the former Army officer and West Point graduate also knows that the USO is able to deliver a piece of home to deployed troops around the world.

“I was eager to join an organization that I had directly benefited from during my service, from relaxing in airport USO centers … to enjoying a touch of home from entertainers,” said Vallette, who started with the organization in 2011.

She arrived at USO Houston after serving six years in the Army and another two working with an economic development group in Afghanistan. Having daily opportunities to positively impact the lives of troops and their families was a driving factor in her decision and working with outstanding, motivated colleagues is an added benefit, she said.

Under Vallette’s leadership, USO Houston is piloting innovative programs that connect transitioning troops and their families with high-profile companies in the city’s booming industries. Oil and Gas 101 – a free, two-day orientation to the oil and gas industry – helped troops network directly with Houston-area hiring managers. Vallette and her team are planning another session for 2015 and hope to help more troops prepare for life after the military.

Go to USO.org/donate to support our nation’s transitioning troops and their families.

USO Volunteer Wins Keys to Brand New Jeep Wrangler

Norm Hallowell, center, poses with the USO’s Senior Vice President of Operations Alan Reyes, right, and Chrysler Chief Marketing Officer Olivier Francois, after winning a new Jeep Wrangler on Oct. 11 in Washington. (Photo courtesy of Jeep)

Norm Hallowell, center, poses with the USO’s Senior Vice President of Operations Alan Reyes, right, and Chrysler Chief Marketing Officer Olivier Francois, after winning a new Jeep Wrangler on Oct. 11 in Washington. (Photo courtesy of Jeep)

WASHINGTON – Norm Hallowell, a longtime USO volunteer and Vietnam War veteran, won a brand new A 2014 Jeep Wrangler Freedom Edition last night.

Hallowell, the winner of Jeep’s Hero at Home Award, was presented with the honor during The Daily Beast’s Hero Summit at the Newseum in Washington. The winner, who’s amassed more than 580 volunteer hours at the USO, was introduced by Chrysler Chief Marketing Officer Olivier Francois.

“Today, [Jeep] wanted to honor the heroes at home,” said Francois. “So, together with the USO, we thought about an initiative, about recognizing someone — not a hero in uniform — but one who acted as such from behind the scenes.”

To announce the winner, a video clip featuring Hallowell and some of his colleagues played on the big screen. In the video, Hallowell, who volunteers at the USO Family and Warrior Center at Fort Belvoir, Va., said, “I don’t consider myself anybody special. I’m one of 270. … That’s all.”

The award, part of Jeep’s Operation Safe Return program, was voted on by the public. Hallowell beat out two well-deserving colleagues at Fort Belvoir. His humble attitude and dedicated service surely helped him earn the votes needed to win the new Jeep Wrangler.

The USO’s Senior Vice President of Operations Alan Reyes presented Hallowell and his wife with the keys to their new vehicle.

For more information about Operation Safe Return, go here.

World War II Heroes Join in D.C. for Day of Honor

Screen Shot 2012-12-07 at 11.05.27 AMWorld War II veterans will be honored on Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day— Dec. 7—with a daylong celebration of their service, beginning with a trip down the National Mall to their memorial and culminating in a screening of the documentary film “Honor Flight” at DAR Constitution Hall. The event is sponsored by Blue Star Families and the USO.

Several veterans featured in the documentary will be in attendance, including Joe Demler of Wisconsin, a Battle of the Bulge infantryman and prisoner of war in Germany. America remembers Demler as the “Human Skeleton” in a 1945 Life magazine photo taken the day he was freed from a prisoner-of-war camp. Also attending is retired Navy Cmdr. Verner Utke-Ramsing of Washington, D.C., who was aboard the USS Drum in May of 1942 when it sunk a Japanese seaplane carrier off the island of Hushu with one torpedo hit. Without the sinking, there may have been an additional 10 Japanese submarines at Midway. As these heroes look into the twilight of their lives, now is the time to honor them.

“The number of WWII veterans is quickly dwindling, with 800 to 1,000 dying every day,” said Honor Flight Founder Earl Morse. “Honor Flight’s mission is to give these remarkable veterans the recognition they deserve: a plane flight to visit the memorials dedicated in their honor and a hero’s welcome when they return to their communities. For many, it is the trip of a lifetime.”

Washington, D.C.-area veterans who do not qualify for an Honor Flight trip due to their proximity to the memorial will be the focus of the Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day event. After attending a wreath- laying ceremony at the WWII Memorial, veterans will be honored guests at a screening of “Honor Flight” at DAR. The powerful, feature-length documentary follows a devoted team of Midwest volunteers from the Stars and Stripes Honor Flight Wisconsin chapter as they strive to send every local WWII veteran to Washington to see the memorial erected in their honor.

In addition to Demler, the film depicts veterans such as 86-year-old grocery bagger Harvey Kurtz, who witnessed the iconic raising of the American flag at Iwo Jima. Many veterans kept the atrocities of war to themselves after returning home, never revealing their experiences to spouses, children, friends or even fellow veterans. The film documents their emotional reflections of war as they visit the memorial, surrounded by their brothers and sisters in arms.

“‘Honor Flight’ is a remarkable film. Grandparents, parents and children can all appreciate the stories told in this powerful and moving tribute to WWII veterans and this country,” said U.S. Sen. Bob Dole.

The documentary has been garnering attention around the country, including a showing attended by 28,000 people at Miller Park Stadium in Wisconsin.

For tickets to the Dec. 7 Washington, D.C., screening go to:

http://www.honorflight.org/lastingtribute/index.cfm

Service After Service: Paul Andrews

To mark Veterans Day, we asked some of our volunteers who have served in America’s armed forces to share why they give their time to today’s troops by helping the USO. Here is one of their stories.

Paul Andrews and his wife volunteer during the USO Fort Campbell grand opening last year. USO photo by Christian Pelusi

Way back in 1968, 20 days after my high school graduation, I was on my way to Naval Station Great Lakes, Ill., for boot camp and more than a year of electronics school. This was my first time away from home and I was in a strange place where I didn’t know anyone or where anything was. On weekends during school, several of us would go to Chicago or Milwaukee for liberty. The USOs in both cities were our first destination, as this was the place to find out what was going on in the city for the weekend. Also, the meals they served were mostly the only food we got. They were our home away from home.

Eventually we settled on spending our free time in Milwaukee and were frequent visitors at the USO and the activities they sponsored. As E-2s and E-3s in the late 1960s, we would not have been able to see and enjoy the things we did without the USO.

I now am retired and have the opportunity to give back some of what I received. Fort Campbell, Ky. and the military are different now from when I was at Great Lakes, as the members are older and many are married with children. Some things are still the same, as many troops lack of money to do anything special. Helping these folks and their families is a great way to support our military, especially on a base that has carried a heavy burden in the present warfare.

Oh, and by the way, I met my wife when she was a volunteer with the USO in Milwaukee. We have been married for almost 43 years and now both volunteer at the USO in Fort Campbell.

–Paul Andrews
USO Fort Campbell volunteer

Service After Service: Ron Collins

To mark Veterans Day, we asked some of our volunteers who have served in America’s armed forces to share why they give their time to today’s troops by helping the USO. Here is one of their stories.

USO Delaware volunteer Ron Collins

As an 18 year old who was new to the Air Force, I remember my first trip back home to see my parents. This was an East Coast to West Coast trip. Like most of us traveling, I got delayed when changing aircraft and was stuck at a major airport for several hours. What was I supposed to do?

New at traveling and on a strict budget, I wandered around the airport. As I passed a room in the terminal with a sign over the doorway reading “USO,” I remembered hearing about how the organization supported troops and their families and I decided that I needed to check the place out.

When I entered the room I was met by two of the nicest people. Both the man and woman were senior in years, but what smiles they had. They asked me what branch of service I was in, where I was from and where was I going. They made me feel right at home.

Even better, they gave me free cookies and soda. I say again: free cookies and soda! I was escorted to a place where I could sit and watch a movie while waiting for my flight. I kept thinking to myself “Is this how VIPs travel?” The time flew by and, before I knew it, it was time to depart. The two USO volunteers said goodbye with a smile and thanked me for my service. How nice.

I couldn’t wait to tell my parents back in Oregon about my trip, especially the USO. My dad, a retired Marine, explained to me that the USO is everywhere and there to support us troops and our families. In my 28 years of active duty, I got the privilege to travel everywhere, some fun places and some not-so-fun places. The one constant to all my travels was the USO. My dad was right: they are everywhere.

While on active duty, I did my share of volunteer work from squadron booster clubs to fundraisers. After I retired, I became so wrapped up in establishing my new career that I had no time to spare. But after my first few years of military retirement, I found myself longing for an opportunity to get involved—to volunteer for something worthy and give back a little of the blessings I have received. My first thought was of those two people at the airport USO lounge those many years ago and how welcome they made me feel. What better thing to do than to volunteer with the USO, an organization dedicated to supporting our troops and their families?

I have been blessed to work with an awesome group of USO volunteers, all of whom are always looking for how can we better support our troops and their families. As I volunteer for events or at the USO lounge at the Dover Air Force Base passenger terminal, I am taken back by all the stories I hear from the troops, their families, the retirees and the other volunteers. I couldn’t imagine not giving some of my personal time to support such a great organization.

—Ron Collins
USO Delaware volunteer

Service After Service: Martin Van der Hoek

To mark Veterans Day, we asked some of our volunteers who have served in America’s armed forces to share why they give their time to today’s troops by helping the USO. Here is one of their stories.

USO South Carolina volunteer Army Capt. Martin Van der Hoek

As a service member who has had to opportunity to see the USO in action both at home and overseas, I don’t think that I can ever speak (or write) enough to emphasize the importance and selflessness of the USO and all of its volunteers.

I recall the comfort and sense of home and community that the USO was able to provide to myself and fellow soldiers. Because of this, I find that it is vital for veterans to engage themselves in their local USOs to help out.

This serves two purposes: it gives back to the organization that gives so much in the way of service to our military family and it helps create bonds between the organization and its clients. To be able to walk into a USO and see that there are people there who can connect with you, joke around and share the same common bonds is a wonderful feeling. It also helps the families, who may be separated from their loved ones due to training, deployments or a number of other reasons. They can sit down and chat with volunteers about places that they may both have lived, restaurants and vacation spots they have shared, and it can really drive home that bond and that sense that no matter where they are, the USO stands ready to serve them.

Finally—and perhaps most important—is the sheer power that veterans bring to the USO in their words, their commitment and their actions. I think if you asked around, you would find that there are no better spokesmen for the USO than our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and members of the U.S. Coast Guard. These men and women know firsthand the comfort and the countless efforts made day in and day out by USO volunteers worldwide to bring some joy to their lives and the lives of their families. Because of this, they can perfectly and succinctly explain to an interested party just how beneficial they could be by volunteering with the USO. And just like that, you have yourself another fantastic and energized volunteer!

—Army Capt. Martin Van der Hoek
USO South Carolina Volunteer