Fort Drum Youth Volunteer Gives USO Tip of the Cap at High School Graduation

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

For USO Fort Drum volunteer William Zenyuk, decorating his graduation cap with USO Every Moment Counts stickers seemed like the most logical way to spice up his outfit for the big day.

“I spend the large majority of my time at the USO,” Zenyuk said.

Zenyuk, who was honored as this year’s Fort Drum Youth Volunteer of the Year, is one of USO Fort Drum’s most active young volunteers, and has volunteered over 1,000 hours in the past year and a half.

What initially began as a way to rack up service hours for the National Honor Society eventually turned into regular routine, Zenyuk said. From volunteering at USO Fort Drum events to helping with daily duties at the center, Zenyuk said he’s made his service to the USO a part of his every day life.

“My favorite part is listening to [troops], their stories and explain how their days are going,• and just talk,” Zenyuk said. “Cause a lot of them just like when you listen.”

Zenyuk, a who’s father served in the military, plans on attending Syracuse University in the fall to study pre-law and American history. He also said he’s planning to enroll in Syracuse’s Army ROTC program in hopes to become a JAG officer one day.

“I’m gonna go [Army] Reserves while I’m in college and hopefully choose to go active duty once I complete law school,” Zenyuk said.

Your USO At Work: June 2014 — Deployed Dad Surprises Son With Video at Graduation

Pedro Cruz III watches a video message from his father on iPad moments after graduating from New York University on May 23. Cruz’s father, New York Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Pedro Cruz Jr., is deployed to Kuwait and was unable to attend the ceremony, but he worked with the USO to figure out how he could be the first to congratulate his son. NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering photo by Elena Olivo

Pedro Cruz III watches a video message from his father on iPad moments after graduating from New York University on May 23. Cruz’s father, New York Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Pedro Cruz Jr., is deployed to Kuwait and was unable to attend the ceremony, but he worked with the USO to figure out how he could be the first to congratulate his son. NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering photo by Elena Olivo

USO Helps Deployed Father Send Surprise Message to Son at Graduation 

Pedro Cruz III wasn’t sure why the television cameras were approaching.

A moment earlier, he’d walked across the stage at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York, to receive his construction management degree from the New York University Polytechnic School of Engineering. When he reached the dean, Cruz was handed his diploma along with an iPad Air, a plaque and a folded American flag.

As his classmates streamed across the stage behind him, the camera lights flicked on and reporters encircled the new graduate. Then he looked down at the iPad – queued up to a video of his deployed father – and pressed play.

“Hey son, surprise,” New York Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Pedro Cruz Jr. said in a pre-recorded video. “Right about now you should be on stage picking up your degree. I wanted to be the first to congratulate you on this special day.”

Shortly thereafter, the younger Cruz was talking to his father – like he does almost every day – reliving the moment.

“I think he called me before he even got back to his seat,” Cruz Jr. said in an email exchange with the USO. “I don’t think he could have gotten a better finale for this day.”

The elder Cruz knew when he deployed to Kuwait that he wouldn’t be in New York to see his only son walk across the stage on May 23. After some consideration, he approached USO Camp Buehring’s Jason Lewis about coordinating a graduation surprise to let his son know he was there in spirit. A week later, USO Camp Buehring center manager Tiffany Banks emailed Cruz Jr. and they started to formulate a plan.

“He wanted to do something special for his son, and the first place that he’d gone … was to the USO,” Banks said the day before the ceremony took place. “I’d gotten in contact with the graduation coordinator for NYU to see what we could do.”

One father’s gesture turned into a national story, as Cruz III smiled for the New York media and talked about what it meant to get a message from his dad on one of the biggest days of his young life.

“I was confused and had a feeling it may involve him,” Cruz III said in an email interview with the USO. “It was awesome. I was overjoyed.”

“To see the Joy on his face [in the photos taken at the graduation] is priceless,” Cruz Jr. wrote. “I find myself sometimes still [staring] at the pictures.”

 Volunteers, Sponsors and Celebrities Help the USO Make Dreams Come True for Military Teens

When fashion designer Sherri Hill donated hundreds of thousands of dollars in prom dresses to military teens, volunteers and sponsors from around the nation stepped up to make the event as special as possible. How many exactly?

Fashion designer Sherri Hill, left, “Duck Dynasty” star Sadie Robertson and hundreds of others helped make the USO’s Operation That’s My Dress a huge success for military teens. USO photo by Matthew Ziegler

Fashion designer Sherri Hill, left, “Duck Dynasty” star Sadie Robertson and hundreds of others helped make the USO’s Operation That’s My Dress a huge success for military teens. USO photo by Matthew Ziegler

Two hundred seventy-two volunteers donated 4,294 hours of their time and dozens of sponsors donated goods, services and cash totaling $750,000 to make the New York City version of USO Operation: That’s My Dress a huge success.

Forty-five Miss USA and Miss Teen USA contestants flew into Manhattan on their own dime to model the dresses in a runway show produced by the USO and TAJ Events with music by celebrity DJ Marlon Bizzy. The models also served as stylists, assisting teens in picking out the perfect prom dress and fashion jewelry.

Fourteen celebrities carved time out of their schedules to make appearances, including Sadie and Korie Robertson from “Duck Dynasty” and the reigning Miss USA Erin Brady. A dozen hair stylists and makeup artists from L’Oreal USA and jewelry donations from Fashion Delivers helped the teens glow and glitter.

And of course there was Hill, who has been part of every USO Operation: That’s My Dress to date and has donated more than $1 million in apparel for the events.

“It means a lot to be able to make this many girls happy,” said Hill. “Prom is a special moment for any girl. To be able to help make moments like this for hundreds of military teens is amazing to see – their eyes just light up when they find that perfect dress.”

Show your support for our military members and their families by visiting USOmoments.org.

Coca-Cola and the USO Honor Fallen, Celebrate Service at NASCAR Race

The USO teamed up with NASCAR at the Coca-Cola 600 to unfurl something big over Memorial Day weekend.

“That something big is [our goal] to break the Guinness World Record for the number of signatures on a flag,” said John Falkenbury, President of the USO of North Carolina.

Service members unfurl a section of the USO’s Every Moment Counts flag before the start of the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte, North Carolina, in May. USO photo by Joseph Andrew Lee

Service members unfurl a section of the USO’s Every Moment Counts flag before the start of the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte, North Carolina, in May. USO photo by Joseph Andrew Lee

The USO has a long tradition of working with Charlotte Motor Speedway and Speedway Motorsports, Inc. to bring troops out to the track for the race, which is sponsored by USO Presidents Circle Partner Coca-Cola. All told, more than 1,200 troops and their families were honored at the race. Most received free tickets and the USO of North Carolina helped them travel from their bases to the track for the exciting weekend event.

“This is a time that brings America together,” said Falkenbury. “All walks of life, all colors, all creeds, to do one thing—salute America—because at the end of the day … we are there making every moment count.”

After a free concert by country music star and USO tour veteran Brantley Gilbert, more than 120 service members unfurled the center of the USO’s Every Moment Counts flag on the infield during the national anthem. Earlier, troops, race fans and NASCAR drivers offered their support in the form of a signature on the flag.

“Over the years, Charlotte Motor Speedway has set the standard when it comes to showing our support of the armed forces,” Marcus Smith, president and general manager of Charlotte Motor Speedway,  said in a NASCAR press release. “We want to give all the men and women who have served in the past and who continue to fight for our freedom today a great big bear hug and let them know how much their service means to our country.”

USO and Full Circle Home Pack Surprises for Mother’s Day at VP Residence

The USO and Full Circle Home joined forces in May to pack 2,000 Mother’s Day boxes for military moms, wives and special women in the lives of deployed troops. Dr. Jill Biden, co-founder of Joining Forces and wife of Vice President Joe Biden, welcomed USO volunteers and spouses of congressional and senior military leaders to her home to put the packages together.

“We wanted to make sure that all these brave men and women and their families know that we all recognize the sacrifices they made,” Dr. Biden said.

The boxes, delivered in time for Mother’s Day, were filled with items like lotions, flower seeds and a necklace, in addition to a personalized note from their deployed service member.

“Most of the moms and loved ones who are staying at home are always geared towards sending the care packages to their loved ones wherever they’re deployed around the world,” said USO President and retired Air Force Brig. Gen. John I. Pray, Jr. “It’s really great for them to have an opportunity to get something from their [deployed] loved one.”

Since the inaugural Mother’s Day Service Project in 2012, the USO and Full Circle Home have distributed more than 3,500 gift boxes that create memorable moments for deployed troops and their families.

BIC Honors the USO With $1M Donation

On March 31, BIC Consumer Products USA presented the USO with a $1 million donation during a ceremony at the new USO Warrior and Family Center on Naval Support Activity Bethesda, Maryland, home of the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

BIC’s generous contribution is a result of a 9-cent donation from the sale of each of its “Support the Troops” series lighters and the donation will be applied towards the center’s outdoor grilling area.

“To see that the sales of this special edition series of BIC lighters, whose designs honor America’s troops, have helped to provide an opportunity where our military personnel … can take a moment to relax and enjoy quality time barbequing with their loved ones, is incredibly moving,” noted Chris Mills, President of BIC Consumer Products North America.

In addition to serving active-duty troops, the USO Warrior and Family Center at Bethesda will provide a home away from home where wounded, ill and injured troops can heal with honor.

 Commitment to Service Drives USO’s Matthews

As a former officer in Britain’s Royal Air Force, Jonathan Matthews understands what it means to serve. Since 2006, the former intelligence analyst and pilot has continued serving through his work with the USO.

Jonathan Matthews, the USO’s director of logistics & facilities. USO photo

Jonathan Matthews, the USO’s director of logistics & facilities. USO photo

“Volunteering and working for USO has been the only experience, other than serving in the military, where I’ve been able to instantly witness the results of my efforts improving the lives of others,” said Matthews, who started his USO career as a volunteer at Camp Virginia in Kuwait in 2006.

With professional experience in construction and brick masonry, Matthews helped USO staff members build the Camp Virginia center and was soon compelled to join the organization full time.

“During my volunteerism in Kuwait I was working for a military contractor, delivering the Army’s [morale, welfare and recreation] function, but I was able to have more interaction with and contribute to the welfare of the [troops] through the USO, so I wanted to continue that positive impact.”

In 2007, Matthews was hired as a programs manager at Camp Buehring, Kuwait, and is now the director of logistics & facilities for USO and works at our headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. He’s been fortunate to visit many centers around the world and he’s noticed a common thread shared by each location.

“In my mind, all USO Centers, staff and volunteers worldwide deliver on the same promise but possess their own unique way of supporting deployed and transitioning troops, their families, the wounded, ill, and injured and families of the fallen.”

 

National Volunteer Week: Frank and Helen Marsh

Frank and Helen Marsh represent the lifeblood of the USO: our volunteers. Frank served as a parachute rigger in the Marines from 1955 to 1957, and was promoted to the rank of sergeant before he got out. He and his wife Helen found their USO volunteer opportunity through the Knights of Columbus, where Frank has been a member for almost 50 years.

We caught up with the Marshes at the USO Marine Corps Trials at Camp Pendleton, Calif.,  where they handed out energy bars, snacks and refreshments to wounded warriors competing in the archery event.

Volunteers Keep Spirits High (and Somewhat Dry) During USO Kandahar Flash Flood Cleanup

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

When you deploy to the desert, flooding isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. Still, a group of USO volunteers and staff bailed out USO Kandahar from a messy situation over the weekend when flash flooding filled some of the center’s rooms with ankle-high water.

“We had a great group of volunteers that were quick to help us get all the furniture and boxes upstairs and to the theatre, which was higher ground and less likely to be affected by the water,” USO Kandahar’s Deborah Ayers wrote in an email. “Within an hour and a half, the water was about 3 inches deep in two of the back rooms, and had pushed forward about halfway through the tent. At that point, the tent had been cleared out except for the volunteers, who went out front to assess the damage.

“[USO Kandahar] has experienced floods almost every year, so this was somewhat expected, and thanks to the amazing cooperation and coordination of the volunteers and staff we got away with minimal damage and we’re up and running again!”

Girl Scouts Give 731 Books to USO/United Through Reading Library at BWI Airport

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Without books to read, the USO/United Through Reading Military Program wouldn’t last a day.

That’s why huge kudos are in order for two Girl Scouts who received their Silver Awards recently after collecting 731 books for the United Through Reading library at the USO inside the Baltimore-Washington International Airport. The program – which the USO facilitates around the world - lets troops record themselves reading books aloud to their kids and then send a copy of that reading home to their family.

Girl Scouts Grace Kinnear and Maeve Hall hosted a lemonade stand, asked for donations at their school book fair and even solicited support from local businesses in order to meet their goal.

Grace’s grandfather, Jim Kinnear, was a motivating force behind the project. The girls were introduced to USO of Metropolitan Washington-Baltimore through Jim’s work as a volunteer and were given a tour of the BWI center when they dropped off a cookie donation. This spurred their idea to replenish the United Through Reading library there.

When Grace and Maeve arrived with a cart full of books Jan. 27, they had an entourage of nearly 30 family members, including parents, siblings, aunts, uncles and grandparents. Even the principal of their school came to celebrate their service. It was an uplifting scene as family and friends gathered around for the presentation, teary with pride for the girls and our troops.

–Story gathered by Lauren Hebert, USO of Metropolitan Washington

USO Duty Manager in Kuwait Dodges Zombies, Helps Troops

Christina Ambrose, a duty manager at USO Camp Buehring, Kuwait

Christina Ambrose, a duty manager at USO Camp Buehring, Kuwait

Christina Ambrose has always been a strong supporter of American troops, even before she became a duty manager at USO Camp Buehring in Kuwait.

Her family volunteered at USO South Carolina and she fell in love with the organization once she started joining them. When asked if she was interested in a full-time position in Southwest Asia, she jumped at the opportunity. She’s been a USO employee for more than a year and loves coming into work every day.

“We have such an amazing staff and our volunteers truly are the heart of our center. They never cease to amaze me with their humor, creative ideas and their passion for our mission.”

The USO staff and volunteers organize lots of fun events and programs for troops at Camp Buehring, but one in particular sticks out for Ambrose.

“I had literally just arrived in Kuwait earlier in the week, and [the Halloween Zombie 5K Run] was the first event I took part in. So, I started off my USO career being chased by zombies.”

Thankfully, those zombies never got to her, and Ambrose is still fully committed to lifting the spirits of troops and their families.

“I love everything that the USO stands for, and to be a part of such an incredible organization and help fulfill our mission is such a rewarding feeling.”