There on the First Day: USO Expands its Mission to Military Entrance Processing Stations

The USO center inside the San Antonio Military Entrance Processing Center. USO photos

The USO center inside the San Antonio Military Entrance Processing Station. USO photos

A recruit’s first few days in the military can be tedious.

From the early morning moment they enter the Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS), most recruits sit through hours of aptitude testing, medical screening and job selection that set the path for their military careers. Between these steps, there’s little to do but sit around or read.

It’s a day begging for a distraction. So the USO is bringing some.

The USO is opening several new centers inside MEPS around the United States in 2015. It’s part of the organization’s commitment to support service members and their families through their military career – a career that often begins at a MEPS station. These new centers – which will feature entertainment like televisions and video games, snacks and support services – are aimed at comforting recruits and their families during the entrance process. They also introduce recruits and families to the services the USO offers.

USO_SanAntonio_MEPS“It’s a chance for us to provide some respite to the [recruits] and families who go to the MEPS and experience these long wait times,” USO Vice President of Field Operations Kristen Baxter said. “By placing ourselves in the Military Entrance Processing Stations across the U.S., we have an opportunity to … educate troops and families [about the USO].

“[We want to show them] how the USO can be a part of their life and help them through various phases.”

The USO plans to open eight centers inside MEPS this year in addition to the six that were already serving new recruits in Cleveland, Columbus, Ohio, Dallas, Houston, Milwaukee and Fort Lee, Virginia. USO San Antonio held a soft opening for its MEPS center earlier this month.

The majority of these centers will be near locations where the USO already has an established presence, like Nashville, where the MEPS center is slated to open in October.

“By having an official footprint inside of MEPS we are really able to take care of them in those hours [they’re] sitting become a new service member,” said USO Fort Campbell Center Director Kari Moore, who will oversee the USO Nashville MEPS center. “We get to let the new service members know how we can support them.”

USO Houston Operations Supervisor Sarah Parris said the USO volunteers are also on site at the MEPS centers to provide emotional support to family members of new recruits who might be upset, confused or worried about their relative going through the entrance process. Before the USO was on site, concerned relatives had to direct their questions to MEPS personnel who might not have been able to easily balance answering questions while doing their job.

“The employees of the MEPS building, they’re very excited to see us there because we help the family members cope through the process,” said Parris, who helps run the newly opened USO Houston MEPS center. “It’s a very emotional process that [the family members are] going through.

“A lot of times what our volunteers will do is just be there for a shoulder to lean on.”

8 Ways the USO Connects Troops To Home

A service member uses the internet at the USO.

From the moment they step into boot camp to the time when they transition to civilian life, troops rely on the USO to help them stay connected to their to friends and family. Here’s eight of the ways the USO does it.

1. Getting troops online: Free Internet access is one of the most popular services at USO centers today. While some USO centers offer computers for troops to use, nearly all of them offer free WiFi for people who bring their own devices. Even our Mobile USO units, like the ones we sent to Brooklyn to comfort troops cleaning up after Superstorm Sandy, are WiFi-enabled so troops serving in remote locations can get online.

2. Skyping into the delivery room: Did you know that the USO helps expecting military dads Skype into the delivery room for their baby’s birth, even if they’re abroad? Marine Capt. Nick Whitefield experienced this USO service first-hand when he watched his wife Laura deliver the couples’ second child, Ethan Whitefield, via a USO-provided Skype connection at Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan.

“The fact that I could be there, electronically, over Skype was huge,” Nick said. “It was great. It was a phenomenal experience.”

A troop makes a call from the USO in Bagram, Afghanistan. USO photo by Dave Gatley

3. Free phone calls home: In 2003, the USO launched Operation Phone Home to provide troops with free phone cards so they can call their loved ones at no cost — even when they’re in remote locations. Some USO centers abroad also offer troops access to a private phone network so they can call home on a safe, secure and reliable line inside the center.

One of these free phone calls even helped a new dad hear his baby girl’s first cries in 2006.

“The USO made that call possible for me,” said former Marine Alexander Carpenter. “And to this day I have never said thank you. … Thank you USO.”

4. Keeping story time alive: Thanks to the USO partnership with United Through Reading, deployed troops can record themselves reading a storybook at a USO center and send the DVD recording back home for their children to watch and digitally connect with them in their absence.

Navy Lt. Matthew Stroup records himself reading a book to his children during a United Through Reading event in Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of Matthew Stroup

Navy Lt. Matthew Stroup records himself reading a book to his children. Photo courtesy of Matthew Stroup

While preparing for a deployment form Japan to the Middle East in 2012, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Victor Glover told his squad about the United Through Reading program and received an overwhelming number of requests to participate. He even recorded stories for his own children.

“It was important. They really got a kick out of being able to see me,” Glover said. “At the end of the recordings, I said a message to them. I used each of their names and I said something to the effect of ‘I love you, be good, be supportive to your mom and goodnight’ because I imagined they’d do the books right before bedtime.”

5. Giving the gift of gaming: Video games are one of our younger service members’ favorite ways to unwind. That’s why most USO centers have gaming stations featuring popular video games like “Call of Duty” and “Halo.” At some centers, service members can even play the games against friends and family around the globe online in real time.

But troops aren’t always stationed near brick-and-mortar USO centers. With that in mind, the USO developed the Mobile Entertainment Gaming System (MEGS) so service members can enjoy video games no matter their location.

6. Serving up comfort foods from home: Sometimes, all it takes to make service members feel connected to home is taste of their favorite foods. That’s why USO patrons can always find a variety of snack, drink and meal options at centers around the world. Some centers, like USO Great Lakes, provide a free, home-cooked meals for troops, while others, like many Southwest Asia centers, always seem to be churning out comforting sweet treats, like homemade ice cream.

A Halloween/Thanksgiving USO Holiday Box from 2011.

A Halloween/Thanksgiving USO Holiday Box from 2011.

7. Bringing the holidays to troops abroad: Being deployed during a special holiday can make troops feel even further from home. That’s why many USO centers host a number special parties and events around those red calendar days.

Troops in remote areas far from a USO center can even get in on the fun, too, thanks to the USO Holiday Boxes program. These special seasonal boxes, filled with games, decorations and other festive supplies are designed to help service members celebrate the year’s special days in any location. There are four seasonal boxes units can request throughout the year, including a Halloween/Thanksgiving box that helped a handful of service members have a spooky Halloween back in 2011.

8. Welcoming troops home: Even though a homecoming is already a joyful occasion for military families, the USO has a history of stepping in to make the day even more memorable. From helping arriving troops freshen up before reuniting with their loved ones to coordinating surprise homecomings like this, this, and this, the USO there to celebrate military families finally reconnecting after a long deployment apart.

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.”

Photos: USO Supporting Wounded Warriors at the Marine Corps Trials

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CAMP PENDLETON, California–The road to the Warrior Games starts here.

More than 300 wounded Marines, veterans and international troops from 10 countries are competing at the Marine Corps Trials in Southern California. When they’re done, the top 50 Marines across all sports will advance to compete against wounded warriors from the Air Force, Navy, Army and a team of special operators in June at the Warrior Games in Quantico, Virginia.

Hosted by the Marine Corps Wounded Warrior Regiment and support by the USO, the Marine Corps Trials select the best wounded Marine athletes in Paralympic sports including seated volleyball, cycling, shooting and archery.

The event runs through Wednesday and is opened to the public. For more information, go to woundedwarriorregiment.org.

USO Rhein Main Gives Gaming Troops The Ultimate Ticket to Gamescom 2014

Troops smile outside of the gamescom convention. USO photo.

Troops smile outside of the Gamescom convention. USO photo.

It’s no secret troops love video games. In fact, if you step inside any USO center, one of the first things you’ll likely see is a service member sitting in front of a TV, controller in hand, battling enemies in the latest blockbuster releases.

So when USO Rhein Main staff members heard about Gamescom, a German convention devoted to the latest and greatest innovations in the video game industry, they knew that they had to find a way to get troops there.

“Gaming ranks highly on most troops’ list of hobbies, so why not take them to experience that largest gaming convention in Europe?” said USO Rhein Main Area Operations Manager Ashley Grassl.

As part of its Food and Fun for Free program, which focuses on providing free programming for single and unaccompanied service members,  USO Rhein Main sent 20 soldiers to Gamescom 2014 in Cologne, Germany, earlier this month. From its popular Taco Nights to quarterly cultural tours to explore Germany, the Food and Fun for Free program gives troops a chance to step outside their barracks and enjoy their local surroundings.

Although the trek required troops to wake up early on a Sunday morning, Grassl said they had no trouble filling up the 20 van and bus seats, and even had a waiting list for the trip. Once the service members arrived at Gamescom, USO volunteers gave each of them a wrist band — which allowed them to play any game available — explained the layout of the convention center and let them loose to explore.

“Gamescom boasts that visitors will experience ‘the next generation of gaming,’ and our service members got to experience all of that and more,” Grassl said. “They had the opportunity to experience hands-on game play of games that won’t come out until later this year like ‘Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare,’ ‘Borderlands,’ ‘Battlefield’ and ‘Destiny.’”

From participating in multiplay online tournaments to stocking up on promotional freebies, Grassl said Gamescom offered something to keep any gaming enthusiast entertained.

“Gamescom was amazing. The masses came out for a great event. There was seriously something there for everyone,” said Army Spc. D’Lexis Cooley, president of Better Opportunities for Single Soldiers (BOSS) at U.S. Army Garrison Wiesbaden. “BOSS soldiers said that they were going to get their nerd on by gaming. And they did. “

Activision Sends Battleship Gaming Goodness

A video game based on a movie loosely based on a board game… sounds complicated! But to troops stationed at the US Naval Forces Central Command Headquarters in Afghanistan it was simple: a little bit of time to relax and have some fun!

The men and women from the US Naval Forces Central Command Headquarters Afghanistan played the Battleship game on the side of a rocket attack bunker.

Activision Publishing, Inc. donated copies of the new Battleship video game to fourteen USO Centers, USO2GOs and MEGS in Southwest Asia. The game combines first person action and naval strategy for hours of fun and a little touch of home for our troops.

“It was a breath of fresh air in a combat zone to see the USO take the time out of their busy schedules to come and set this up for us.  The game was a blast, graphics were awesome, and it provided a nice change of pace…  The USO has certainly outdone themselves with the care they have shown towards the troops.” said YN2(SCW) Matthew Nolan.

Time to kick some alien butt!

Thanks Activision for helping the USO deliver a little gaming goodness to our troops overseas! – Vyque Elessar, USO Director of New Media