Coca-Cola 600, Ride 2 Recovery Memorial Challenge Highlight Memorial Day Weekend

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Kat and Staff Sgt. Aaron Causey at the Coca-Cola 600. USO Photo by Katie Whitlow

Army Staff Sgt. Aaron Causey, his wife, Kat, and USO Senior Vice President of Operations Alan Reyes represented the organization Sunday at the Coca-Cola 600 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway in Charlotte, N.C.

Causey – who was wounded in Afghanistan – served as the event’s grand marshal and, along with his wife and Reyes, got to yell “drivers: start your engines” at the beginning of the race.

It’s the third straight year Coke has invited the USO to be the race’s grand marshal. The two American institutions have been partners since 1941.

“At Coke, we’ve always supported the military through the USO,” said Erika Von Heiland Strader, Director-Community Marketing for Coca-Cola North America, in an interview last week. “That’s why we make sure the USO is an integral part of the Coke 600.”

Ride 2 Recovery Memorial Challenge

USO partner Ride 2 Recovery held its Memorial Challenge on Monday in Washington. The ride – which was 41 miles from Arlington to Manassas, Va. – was another avenue through which the organizations help our wounded, ill and injured troops retake control of their lives.

Part of the physical health and recreation initiatives sponsored by the USO Warrior and Family Care, Ride 2 Recovery helps improve the health and wellness of America’s healing troops through challenge races that test endurance as a way to build physical confidence.

Program partners since 2007, the USO provides funds for bikes for some Ride 2 Recovery participants (both traditional and adaptive) along with day-of-event support. In 2012, the USO supported seven Ride 2 Recovery events with snacks and rest areas. Throughout the year, USO centers will host events – including dinners and fun activities – for Ride 2 Recovery cyclists as they come ride through their geographic areas.

‘Little C.H.A.M.P.S’ Author Fink Shares Stories from USO Tour to Japan

Debbie Fink – co-author of “The Little C.H.A.M.P.S – Child Heroes Attached to Military Personnel” is currently on a USO tour of the Pacific talking to children from military families. Here is a blog post about her trip:

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Author Debbie Fink, center, is on a USO tour in Japan. USO photo

A sandy-haired child scoots out of line after a Little C.H.A.M.P.S event to ask me “But what if I don’t feel any of those emotions ever?”

We had discussed the importance of identifying our emotions. Happy. Sad. Scared. Angry. Worried. Surprised. Embarrassed. Confused. In Denial (with explanation).

Now here’s a Champ who, at the very least, has endured multiple moves and parental deployments and homecomings. And yet he views himself as emotionless.

Anyone who has taken Psychology 101 would recognize that there is some suppression of emotions going on here. I have less than a minute with him to respond before he’s swooped into the exit line.

“Okay. You’re tuning in. Now is a good time to talk about your thoughts with a trusted adult. Keep communicating. You could visit your guidance counselor. I suggest you share with her what you shared with me.”

And he was gone.

Right behind him a bubbly, brown-eyed boy bumped along, saying, “My dad is deploying. Aaaaaagain. Now I know I can tell him that I’m feeling worried. And angry. And scared, too.” I have mere moments to say, “Good! It will help you and your dad to talk about how you’re feeling. Keep communicating.”

And he was gone.

After another performance, a giggly group of girl Champs approached me. The ‘spokesgirl’ said, “We love our ‘Little C.H.A.M.P.S’ song! We listen to it over and over! And your ‘Heart Smart’ song is awesome!” Then their stream of questions tripped over each other: “Did you really write it for your kids? Did you really fix it for us? Was that really your daughter singing? Is it on YouTube? She’s got a pretty voice! So does the USO lady who sang!” Chuckling, I answered, “Yes; yes; yes; not yet, though it’s posted on OperationChamps.org – but ask a parent to look for it with you. And thanks – I’ll tell them you said they have pretty voices!“

And they were gone.

Then there was the Champ who asked quietly as she passed, “Am I really special? Do I really have a spark?” Following my emphatic, reassuring “YES! YES!!” response, she was gone.

A last moment engraved in my soul was the precious li’l Champ who, on her way out, looked at me and said, “Can I hug you?  ‘Cuz I feel like you hugged me!” After our real hug and shared moment, she was gone.

These vignettes capture the li’l hearts and minds of the incredible Champs encountered during our first 10  “edutainment” performances in mainland Japan.   While these Champs came and went, heading back to life-on-the-move, they are emblazoned in my heart forever.

Thanks to the USO and its teamwork with the Department of Defense Education Activity (DODEA), each of the 6,000 Champs we visit in mainland Japan and Okinawa is receiving a copy of “The Little C.H.A.M.P.S” book – a story that celebrates their selfless service and sacrifice, while giving them coping tools that further fortify their resiliency and character.

One overwhelming takeaway is how beyond impressed I am by the exemplary professionals handling all the logistical details that go into planning and executing this Little C.H.A.M.P.S tour. The USO’s stalwart and skillful team in the Pacific and stateside – working alongside DODEA’s dedicated and committed staff and educators – fills me with the greatest admiration and respect. I must also give a shout out to the USO volunteers who have helped behind-the-scenes to make all this happen!

Sixteen performances await us in Okinawa. Circling back to emotions, I’m so happy to be spreading the goodness and gratitude together with the USO and DODEA; and am already so sad to think that soon I will also . . . be gone.

Though, as is sung in “The Little C.H.A.M.P.S” song, “Goodbyes are not forever / goodbyes are not the end / they simply mean we’ll miss you / until we meet again.”  Farewell, Japan’s Champs! Hello, Okinawa’s Champs! Ready or not, here we come!   Go Champs!

–Debbie Fink

USO Comforts Family of Korean War Soldier

Army Pfc. Roosevelt “Jack” Clark's Yearbook Photo

Army Pfc. Roosevelt “Jack” Clark’s Yearbook Photo

Four volunteers reported for duty hours before dawn this morning at Los Angeles International Airport’s Bob Hope Hollywood USO to greet the remains of a fallen soldier.

As the flag-draped coffin containing the remains of Army Pfc. Roosevelt “Jack” Clark slowly rolled from the rear of the plane, his family could hardly contain their joy to finally bring him home.

It’s not that they’re happy he died. His family’s grief has lasted nearly 62 years. Clark was first reported missing-in-action while fighting with the 35th Infantry Regiment in North Korea in 1950. He was just 18.

His remains were recently identified among 208 boxes of human remains turned over to the United States by North Korea in the early 1990s. It was determined that he had died just three days before he was reported missing, when his position was overwhelmed by elements of the Chinese People’s Volunteer Forces.

“A dignified transfer is usually a very somber event,” said Bob Kurkjian, executive director of USO Greater Los Angeles Area. “We are always there to support families of the fallen, but this time was different.”

The USO is committed to supporting families of the fallen through our centers and partnerships with airport and service honor guards, as well as organizations such as the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS). USO staff and volunteers provide comfort for family members along the journey to the final resting place of the service member.

“This was the celebration of a soldier’s return home,” added Kurkjian. “We helped bring his family the closure they haven’t had for decades.”

Two of Clark’s cousins and his great-niece were there — alongside USO volunteers, airport police and firefighters — to welcome Clark’s remains.

“It’s a closure for us,” his cousin, Rennie Hunter, told KABC-TV. The hardest part about having a family member go missing, she said, is that “you just never know what had happened or if they will ever come back home.”

Clark grew up close to his cousins in rural Arvin, located just southeast of Bakersfield, Calif., and though it was his mother’s lifelong dream for Clark to return home, neither of his parents lived to see it.

Clark’s remains will be buried Friday in Bakersfield, KTLA-TV reported.

Questions about the USO’s support for families of the fallen can be directed to Wendy Fish, Families of the Fallen Support program manager, at wfish@uso.org. - Joseph Andrew Lee, USO Staff Writer

In-Kind Donors Provide Huge Benefit to USO Warrior and Family Center at Fort Belvoir

 

Building a house from scratch has a lot of hidden costs. Building a 20,000-square-foot home away from home for wounded, ill and injured troops and their caregivers takes a lot more than a weekend trip to Lowe’s.

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The golf simulator – donated by Full Swing Golf – has been one of the most popular attractions during previews of the USO Warrior and Family Center at Fort Belvoir, Va. USO Photo by Eric Brandner

The USO Warrior and Family Center – which held its grand opening Tuesday – cost more than $12 million to build. However, it would have been infinitely harder and costlier to assemble without in-kind donations from multiple companies, organizations and individuals.

“It’s so unique that we have varied donors,” USO of Metropolitan Washington Chief Operating Officer Cheryl Laaker Hall said. “For these companies to give us things that our their signature items, it means a lot for our organization.”

The following companies, listed alphabetically, made significant in-kind donations to the USO Warrior and Family Center at Fort Belvoir, Va.:

  • Activision: 16 video game titles
  • AMTICO International Inc.: 3,015 square feet of Urban Metal bronze vinyl tile
  • Bed Bath and Beyond, Inc.: Hundreds of items including appliances (toasters, vacuums, etc.) to kitchen cookware, utensils, place settings and towels
  • CISCO Systems, Inc.: Computer hardware, software and services totaling more than $110,000
  • Curt Kolcun: Microsoft Xbox consoles
  • Dow Chemical: 6,000 square feet of vegetative roofing insulation
  • EA Sports: 25 video game titles
  • Gull Swing Golf: A golf simulator valued at $50,000
  • Lafarge North America: Gypsum drywall
  • Microsoft: IT Academy software for technology education
  • Omnifics: Furniture storage
  • Petersen Aluminum Corporation: Metal roof panels
  • Robert Bost Associates: One lot of acoustic material for second floor areas including the music room
  • Roppe Flooring Products: Rubber stair treads, tile and nosings
  • Traveling Guitar Foundation: Guitars
  • The Valspar Corporation: 520 gallons of paint
  • Verizon Federal Inc.: Internal wiring and installation
  • Whirlpool Corporation: Maytag appliances for the kitchen (cooktop, dishwasher, refrigerators, etc.) and a washer and dryer

–Story by Eric Brandner, USO Director of Story Development

A New Center For Our Warriors

The Sports Lounge in the USO Warrior and Family Center at Fort Belvoir is almost ready for our wounded troops and their caregivers and families to enjoy.

The Sports Lounge in the USO Warrior and Family Center at Fort Belvoir is almost ready for our wounded troops and their caregivers and families to enjoy.

More than 40,000 troops have been visibly wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan, and more than 300,000 troops suffer from invisible wounds, like post-traumatic stress or traumatic brain injury. In addition, the Pentagon said the military reached a record high of 349 suicides in 2012, highlighting the need for increased mental and emotional care for America’s returning troops. While these numbers are upsetting, we have to face the fact that returning troops need us now more than ever. It is a particularly important time for recovering troops to have a stress-free and supportive environment as they heal and reintegrate into civilian life.

Since 1941, the USO has been there for our troops. As we continue to adapt to meet the needs of our military and their loved ones, we are thrilled to open the doors to a new center – designed especially for our recovering troops, their families and caregivers – in just a few days.

Located steps away from the Fort Belvoir Community Hospital, the USO Warrior and Family Center at Fort Belvoir, Va., will offer activities for recovering troops, their families and caregivers that will help them relax, have fun and reintegrate into society. Specifically, the programs and classes offered will align with the USO’s Continuum of Care. The center will have programmatic offerings in the areas of physical health and recreation, family strengthening, behavioral health, employment, education and community reintegration. Inside the center, guests will have access to more than 20 areas, including a movie theater, respite suite, sports lounge, business center, music room and a healing garden outdoors.

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The Game Room will be a place for recovering troops to relax and enjoy the latest games with state-of-the-art video game consoles and screens.


During the difficult journey toward recovery, this center will be a place for support, relaxation, a peaceful environment for families to come together and an opportunity to prepare for a fulfilling and happy life ahead. Men and women dealing with the aftermath of deployment can learn how to transition into a new and different role, find hope and embrace the change. Like all USO centers, the mission remains the same – to lift the spirits of America’s troops and their families.

A second USO Warrior and Family Center is currently being constructed at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., and is scheduled for completion in early 2014. The Warrior and Family Centers at Fort Belvoir and in Bethesda are possible because of the USO’s Operation Enduring Care campaign and our generous volunteers. We could not do this without you! – Sarah Camille Hipp, Communications Specialist

Filling Their Needs: A Look Back at How the USO Warrior and Family Center at Fort Belvoir was Conceived

At the end of every journey, it’s always interesting to look back and see how you got there.

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The USO Warrior and Family Center at Fort Belvoir, Va., will officially open Feb. 5. USO photo by Eric Brandner

The USO ends a very small part of its Warrior and Family Care journey on Feb. 5, when it officially opens its first Warrior and Family Center. The Fort Belvoir, Va.-based center – the largest center the USO has ever constructed – will be a home away from home for wounded, ill and injured troops during their recoveries.

In most ways, the ribbon cutting will be a day of firsts. But there was a lot of analysis before the first shovel was stuck in the ground.

The USO and STUDIOS Architecture conducted extensive research in 2010 to develop a strategy for not just what the building would look like, but also what services it would offer. Here are three of those findings – and their resulting implementations. 

  • The 2010 Tell USO Survey asked wounded, ill and injured troops to rank a list of needs according to their level of importance. The item receiving the largest percentage of “very important” responses was access to “online college and professional development classes.” The USO responded by working with STUDIOS to design the Learning Center, a four-room setup inside the Warrior and Family Center that brings the connectivity and resources of a university library to their campus. Free computer and Internet access in the Classroom – along with an interactive white board and space for guest lecturers – should make taking a variety of online and in-person classes easy. The Study and Learning Center Office offer private spaces for interviews, career counseling or more intimate learning experiences. Meanwhile, the Learning Center Lounge provides open space for group activities.
  • Hundreds of thousands of troops who deployed to the Mideast since 2001 have returned suffering from varying degrees of post-traumatic stress. This can lead to anxiety issues, especially in crowded, public spaces. The architects at STUDIOS identified this as a potential problem early in the design process and addressed it by making large, open, multipurpose spaces. The Warrior and Family Center will be flooded with natural light through several windows, adding to the open feel. In correlation, the structure emphasizes natural elements like an exposed wood ceiling and a stone fireplace. The natural light and design features are the antithesis of the top two things Tell USO survey respondents didn’t want to see in the centers: artificial plants and florescent lights.
  • At the time of our initial research, four out of five wounded, ill and injured troops lived on or near the installation where they’re receiving treatment. However, at least two in five of those troops didn’t have easily accessible kitchens. Well, no one’s going to go hungry at the Warrior and Family Center. The sizable kitchen features around-the-clock access to snacks and beverages, along with a stout offering of staples and appliances to cook with. The handicap-accessible space will also host cooking classes for recovering troops and their caregivers who are looking not only for new dinner ideas, but also for tips on navigating the kitchen after a physical injury.

–Story by Eric Brandner, USO Director of Story Development