Ride 2 Recovery, Project HERO Hold Training Workshop

Thirty-three representatives from Warrior Transition Units, Wounded Warrior Battalions and Veteran Affairs (VA) medical clinics came to Bethesda, Md., recently to participate in a three-day training camp to build and improve their respective Ride 2 Recovery cycling rehabilitation programs.

Project HERO (Healing Exercise Rehabilitation Opportunities) is designed as a train-the-trainer camp, where vital cycling skills such as organizing and leading rides, bike mechanics, maintenance, adaptations and safety and even bike building and fitting are taught to hospital and military representatives.

Project HERO National Director Barbara Springer said the camp aimed to empower local cycling representatives so they can promote a fuller, quicker rehabilitation for injured servicemen and women.

“These reps will go back to their locations and each will be qualified to start up a Project HERO program at their own hospital or unit,” Springer said. “Each will possess the knowledge and skills required not only to lead a ride, but also to help their unit’s healing heroes reach their highest level of function by using cycling as part of physical and psychological rehabilitation.”

Army veteran Marina Libro is developing a Project HERO cycling program with the McGuire Veterans Hospital in Richmond, Va. For her, learning how to fit riders for a bike and seeing how a maintenance shop was set up was the most useful elements of the training.

“I’ve got the people at the VA behind me now supporting a cycling program, but I didn’t have the technical knowledge or mechanical skills to make it all happen,” she said. “Now I know what I need to set up a bike room and I have the confidence to make it successful.” – Joseph Andrew Lee, USO Staff Writer

Wyakin Warrior Foundation Guides Wounded Veterans through College, Life Transitions

The road ahead can be difficult to navigate for veterans who have suffered battlefield injuries.

While the Department of Veterans Affairs has stepped up G.I. Bill benefits, the logistics of getting into school can stifle even the most determined wounded veteran.

Most veterans struggle with unanswered questions like “What do I want to do now?” Or, more often, “What can I do now?”

They wonder how they’ll sit in a classroom while dealing with post traumatic stress, anxious about the movements of people sitting behind them. Or how they’ll pass midterms after staying up all night dealing with nightmares that linger years after war.

James Donaldson (bottom right) poses for a photo with five fellow inductees at the 2012 Wyakin Warrior Foundation Induction Ceremony held at the Idaho State Capitol Building June 21, 2012.

In Idaho, 10 wounded veterans have been inducted into a new fraternity that intends to assist them during this transition and then to walk with them for life. The Wyakin Warrior Foundation—a proud USO partner—is providing scholarships, mentoring, professional development, networking and career training for severely wounded, injured troops and post-9/11 veterans who are accepted into its program.

According to Native American legend, a wyakin is a spiritual guide that advises and protects a person throughout life. As a rite of passage, young Native Americans were taken to an isolated location where they would fast alone until the wyakin—often an animal like an eagle or a wolf—appeared in a vision or dream. This wyakin guide gave them insight into their next steps in life.

Retired Navy officer Jeff Bacon and his wife, Rebecca, started the Wyakin Warrior Foundation in Boise, Idaho, with the hopes of giving direction to a generation of wounded veterans returning from combat. Inductees receive a full, four-year scholarship—including room, board and tuition—along with job training, mentoring, and a lifetime membership to the fraternity.

“This is just the beginning,” Jeff Bacon said, “and we are so proud to have the support of the USO for this journey.”

The USO provides program support to the Wyakin Warrior Foundation through funding and outreach to eligible candidates at locations near USO centers in the Washington D.C., Metro area and San Antonio. The USO has distributed scholarship applications to the program to generate awareness of this unique and high impact program.

Bacon—who acts as the foundation’s executive director—says the government doesn’t always provide the help veterans need during college. Many returning troops have physical and emotional scars and find it difficult to function outside structured military life. The organization’s on-campus support network is designed to be like a military chain of command that puts veterans in their comfort zone to ease their transition.

The first group of five veterans was inducted into the program in August 2011. Five more—including 27-year-old double-amputee Sgt. James Donaldson, U.S. Army (Ret.), a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom—were inducted in June.

Donaldson lost both his legs in an improvised explosive device blast. Today, he studies information security and digital forensics at the College of Western Idaho. He plans to transfer to Boise State to finish his bachelor’s degree.

“My whole mission is to go to school and to get a degree,” Donaldson said. “Everything else, the Wyakin Warrior Foundation is there to help take care of, and that’s awesome.”

After spending months in a military hospital, Donaldson didn’t know where to begin. He knew he needed to find a job and he wanted to go to school—but that was about the extent of it.

“I didn’t really have my mind set on a career, and that’s where the foundation really helped,” Donaldson said. “[The Wyakin Warrior Foundation] not only helped me prepare for a specific career, but they also helped out with other aspects of life, like issues with the VA, social stigmas, and stuff previous wounded guys have experienced.”

The Wyakin Warrior Foundation even worked with JoS. A. Bank to get Donaldson and the other wounded warriors free suits so they could be prepared for their first job interview.

“It’s also nice to meet regularly with other wounded guys who know what you’re going through,” Donaldson said. “The program has a really personal touch that goes beyond what I expected. I was even connected with a mentor who was a personal friend of Jeff and Rebecca’s, so it felt really comfortable—like I was part of the family.”

Jeff Bacon has unique knowledge of motivation of wounded troops from his 26 years of experience as a naval officer and cartoonist for the Navy Times.

“These first 10 warriors will lead the way for hundreds and even thousands who will follow in the path they have forged,” Bacon said.

—Joseph Andrew Lee, USO Staff Writer

Disabled Veterans Cycle From Sea to Shining Sea

Sea to Shining Sea riders embrace in the Atlantic Ocean, July 28, 2012, after cycling more than 3,800 miles from San Francisco to Virginia Beach. USO photo by Joseph Andrew Lee

For the past two months, a group of 14 disabled veterans rode bicycles, hand cycles and recumbent cycles nearly 4,000 miles through 14 states—from Sea to Shining Sea.

They started May 28th dipping their rear tires in San Francisco Bay, before heading east on their cross country journey.   Through scenic Napa Valley and over the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the World T.E.A.M. Sports cyclists rode through Lake Tahoe and endured 100-plus degree temperatures in the deserts of Nevada and Utah before pedaling up the steep inclines of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado.

They toured America at 10 miles per hour, through small towns and big cities, experiencing the sights and smells of the heartland—a pilgrimage through the country to help them understand exactly what it is they sacrificed their bodies and minds for. They rode through the Arkansas River valley into Kansas, arriving in St. Louis for the Fourth of July. In each town and city, Americans lined the streets to welcome them. They continued east through southern Illinois, Indiana, Ohio  then south through Washington D.C. and Richmond before arriving at their final destination in Virginia Beach, today.

Following the cyclists for the entire trip has been a USO Mobile RV, on a mission to provide valuable field support such as water, food and shelter from inclement weather.

“The driver of the RV—Lou—was probably [one of] the most consistent and uplifting personalities we had with us along the way,” said Army Capt. Ivan Castro, an active duty Special Operations officer who was blinded and maimed by a mortar round in Iraq. Castro rides tandem with a sighted, civilian cyclist.

“We’ve had some tough climbs, some scary descents and some crazy hot weather,” he added.  “But every morning Lou is there to shake my hand, give me some kind words of support and hand me a cup of coffee just the way I like it. It’s the same USO I know and love, but it’s always here—traveling along with us. It’s amazing the way the USO can bring comfort to an otherwise uncomfortable situation.”

“We’re here to provide any level of support these riders might need at every moment along the route,” said Emily Flint, the Special Events coordinator for the USO who traveled in the RV for the entire ride. “One day that might mean handing out waters, sandwiches, or providing much-needed logistical support. At other times the USO Mobile is literally the only respite the cyclists have from the unforgiving weather. It’s been a grueling trip at some points—especially because of the weather—but we are proud to support the endeavors of men and women who have been injured while serving our country.”

World T.E.A.M. (which stands for The Exceptional Athlete Matters) Sports has organized all kinds of athletic events for disabled and able-bodied citizens, from mountain climbing to white water rafting, biking, and more. This is the second Sea to Shining Sea ride for wounded veterans, and the first which the USO has  co-sponsored.

“We’re honored that the USO chose to support our effort to recognize the riders for both their sacrifice and resiliency,” said World T.E.A.M. Sports CEO and President Paul Tyler. “Support from an organization like the USO means so much to this group of riders who dedicated two months of their lives to crossing the country they defended.”

To learn more about the day-to-day experiences of the ride and the riders, visit the Sea to Shining Sea website and read the daily blogs by S2SS Communications Manager Richard Rhinehart and ride director Mike Claver. — By Joseph Andrew Lee, USO Staff Writer

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D-Day Vet Recalls Wartime Experiences After Honor Flight Visit to WWII Memorial

Fred Layher, right, stands for a photograph at the WWII memorial with his son, Ron, during an Honor Flight visit to Washington D.C., sponsored by Ford Motor Company on the anniversary of D-Day, June 6, 2012. USO photo by Joseph Andrew Lee

Sixty-eight years ago, Army Private Fred Layher lived through some of the most terrifying experiences of his life.

He was an amphibious engineer during the second wave of assaults on Normandy’s Omaha Beach. He fought in the waste-deep snow during the Battle of the Bulge. But among the most intimidating of all his experiences during the war in Europe in 1944 was the moment his fellow soldiers forced him on stage with actress Donna Reed—star of It’s a Wonderful Life—during one of the first USO shows in France.

“The guys they knew I was a timid type of guy, so they threw me up there on stage with her to see what I would do,” remembered Layher with a smile. “They were chanting and heckling me, and of course they just thought it was hilarious that I stood there paralyzed.”

“I was just 18 years old,” he added. “I knew how to use a weapon. I knew how to fight the Germans. But I had no idea what to do with this beautiful woman standing next to me.”

A month had passed since the Normandy invasion when the USO launched one of its most vigorous tour schedules in history—just in time for war-weary troops like Layher, who had been fighting hard to take the land from the Germans.

“I remember we really needed the comic relief at that time,” said Layher. “It was almost surreal what was happening in the war, what we’d been through and the things we’d seen.  It was all well and good that we were beating the Germans, but it came at a heavy cost. We lost a lot of guys, and the morale boost from that USO show couldn’t have been better timed.”

Thanks to a grant from Ford Motor Company, 86-year-old Layher was among 75 WWII veterans flown free of cost to visit the World War II Memorial in Washington D.C. today, on the anniversary of D-Day–the first wave of the Normandy invasion 68 years ago.

The trip was organized by Honor Flight Network, a non-profit organization on a mission to transport America’s veterans to Washington, D.C. to visit those memorials dedicated to honor their service and sacrifices.

“It’s a beautiful memorial,” said Layher. “Not quite as pretty as Donna Reed, but it does bring back the memories, which I’ll always be grateful for.”

- Joseph Andrew Lee, USO Staff Writer

A New Home

Once I started working for the USO my friends in the service began sending me text messages whenever they stopped by   a USO Center.  Usually they are just passing through an airport and only have  time to grab a cup of coffee, but the texts usually read something like “volunteers were so friendly!” or “everyone was so helpful, tell them thank you!”.  Having visited many centers through my work with the USO, this never comes as a surprise.  Our volunteers and staff are known for providing outstanding service to our nation’s men and women in uniform and their families.  Yet, on a recent trip alongside a military family, I had the opportunity to witness first-hand how our centers go above and beyond to make America’s heroes feel at home wherever they are.

The Harris family gets a look around after being greeted by Ty Pennington as the Extreme Makeover Home Edition provides a house for the Shilo Harris family outside of Floresville, Texas on January 21, 2012. Photo: Express-News, TOM REEL / © 2012

The Texas family of four was traveling to Germany as part of a special Extreme Makeover: Home Edition that will air later this year.  The mother works as an Army advocate for wounded service members and the father is an Iraq war veteran with burns covering 60% of his body.  As a result of his injuries, the father tires easily and has problems regulating body temperature which makes traveling across multiple time zones and varying climates challenging, especially with a two year old son and nine year old daughter in tow.

As part of the television production we were treated to many amazing sights, smells and tastes that Germany has to offer.  Yet, where I saw the family the happiest and most comfortable, was the final day spent at the USO Warrior Center located adjacent to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center (LRMC).  With a fire “burning” in the fireplace (it’s a faux fireplace), a movie playing, spaghetti cooking on the stove, garlic bread in the oven and homemade carrot cake being cut on the counter, it felt like home.  The staff and volunteers immediately embraced the family, enlisting the daughter’s help to serve spaghetti and swapping Army wife stories with mom.

The family knew several people at the center as the father had been treated at LRMC following the IED explosion that wounded him in Iraq.  Yet, being in the room, you would have thought you had walked in on a family reunion.   That is what the USO does.  Whether you are in a USO Center in Europe, the Pacific, Afghanistan or the states, the USO creates an atmosphere of home, inclusion and support for our nation’s heroes and their families.  Thank you, USO team – especially USO Georgia and USO San Antonio, for making this family’s journey truly a special one. - Andrea Sok, USO Communications Manager

USO | Hire Heroes USA Workshops & Career Opportunity Days

Springfield, Virginia, USA - June 10, 2011: Hiring Our Heroes veterans jobs fair for wounded warriors. Photo by Ian Wagreich / © U.S. Chamber of Commerce

Through USO Warrior and Family Care programs, the USO is building a continuum of care from the battlefield to the community to provide our wounded, ill and injured troops, their families and caregivers a broad array of programs to help them. The USO has partnered with Hire Heroes USA and the Chamber of Commerce to assist in the transition from troop to employed civilian.

Through the year, OEF/OIF veterans and wounded warrior-led workshops are held at various military installations. They focus on resume writing, mock interviews with actual employers, professional work practices and translating prior military experience into a civilian career – invaluable tools for transitioning service members!

Career Opportunity Days (COD) are another transition program for wounded, ill and injured troops, spouses and caregivers. A COD is a non-traditional career fair where employers connect with seven to 10 troops based on interest and background. Employers conduct mock interviews and provide feedback, providing an additional level of support for transitioning service members to meet with employers offering jobs. These CODs are limited to 25 employers and 100 service member attendees to maximize impact and ensure the attendees don’t get overwhelmed.

“They’re small… but to us that’s an advantage. It means putting employers that want to hire transitioning service members and unemployed veterans in a room. With just a small number, but typically better prepared, soldier, marines and veterans, the effectiveness of this type of venue has been very good,” said Nate Smith, Executive Director, Hire Heroes USA. “Typically we see participants walking away with a 25% job offer rate. So its good for the companies, its good for the participants and this is helping to solve one of the significant problems in America right now.”

Learn more about the USO’s many programs and services at USO.org and find upcoming events and resources at Hire Heroes USA.