Your USO At Work: April 2014 — Warrior and Family Center at Bethesda Opens

USO officials, military leaders and celebrities cut the ribbon to USO's Warrior and Family Center at Bethesda.  USO Photo by Mike Theiler

USO officials, military leaders and celebrities cut the ribbon to USO’s Warrior and Family Center at Bethesda. USO Photo by Mike Theiler

USO Opens New Warrior and Family Center at Bethesda

After a year of construction and several years of planning and fundraising, the ribbon was finally cut on April 1 at the USO Warrior and Family Center located on Naval Support Activity Bethesda, home of the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland.

The center – which is the sister structure to the USO Warrior and Family Center at Fort Belvoir, Va. – opened to troops, families and caregivers the next day and provided a much-needed home away from home for wounded, ill and injured troops and their families and caregivers living on the installation.

More than 200 people – including Department of Defense officials, wounded warriors, esteemed donors and even Miss America – attended the ceremony at the new center.

“This is where the future begins,” USO President and CEO John I. Pray, Jr., said. “We built this Warrior and Family Center to serve all troops and their families who pass through this healing center of excellence.”

The 16,217-square-foot center has places for recovering troops and their families and caregivers to relax and plan their futures away from the grind of the hospital. Outfitted with state-of-the-art technology, the Warrior and Family Center has a classroom for recovering troops to take college courses, plenty of computers and a fireside lounge and kitchen where they can relax and grab a bite to eat.

Troops seeking to have a good time can hit the sports lounge, where they can watch the biggest games, or visit the studio, where they can work on creative projects or jam on house instruments.

“It’s hard to capture in words what a center like this means to recovering warriors and their families,” said Adm. James A. Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “To be able to get away – in the midst of it all – to such a beautiful, peaceful and comfortable place right here on campus … is more than just nice to have. It is an essential part of recovery.”

Cheryl Laaker Hall, vice president of operations for USO of Metropolitan Washington-Baltimore, spoke with confidence when she talked about the center’s future.

“We’re very certain, after the last few days of being here, that we have a winner,” she said. “We know that troops and families want to be here. They need a place like this, where they can go and be themselves. … We’re just so proud to have this facility and be able to be that space for them.”

USO,What to Expect Foundation Host Baby Showers for Military Moms-To-Be

The time-honored tradition of celebrating the birth of a child with a baby shower is one of the moments many of our expectant military moms miss out on, especially if they live overseas. To help fill that void, the USO, in collaboration with the What to Expect Foundation and author Heidi Murkoff, brought “Special Delivery,” a very special baby shower to military moms in Landstuhl, Germany.

Best-selling author Heidi Murkoff hugs a service member at a Special Delivery baby shower held in Landstuhl, Germany, in March. USO photo

Best-selling author Heidi Murkoff hugs a service member at a Special Delivery baby shower held in Landstuhl, Germany, in March. USO photo

“Motherhood is the ultimate sisterhood,” said Murkoff, the best-selling author of “What to Expect When You’re Expecting.” “For military moms-to-be, far from their immediate family and friends, these baby showers are more than gift bags and cake. They are about connecting and sharing a common bond and creating friendships with women experiencing the same mix of emotions.”

Over three days, the USO and the What to Expect Foundation hosted three baby showers for hundreds of new and expecting military moms in Germany. Each baby shower featured food, gifts and games as well as a question-and-answer session and book signing with Murkoff.

“Military families sacrifice countless everyday moments in service to our country,” said USO Europe Regional Vice President Walt Murren. “It is such an honor for USO Europe to host a program like Special Delivery, because for many of these women this may be their only baby shower. We want to make sure it’s an experience they won’t soon forget.”

Find out how you can show your support for military moms by visiting USOmoments.org.

Longtime USO of Georgia CEO Looks Back – and Forward

As the Vietnam War was raging in late 1968, a USO ad in a newspaper caught the eye of Mary Lou Austin, who was teaching in Washington, D.C. After interviewing for a job, she was hired and sent to New York City – then the home of USO headquarters.

USO of Georgia President and CEO Mary Lou Austin. Courtesy photo

USO of Georgia President and CEO Mary Lou Austin. Courtesy photo

Forty-five years later – after holding numerous USO jobs and traveling around the world – Austin is still with the organization, serving as president and CEO of the USO of Georgia.

“I guess you can say the ad made me curious,” she said. “The organization interested me, and the mission compelled me. … I started in January of 1969, and thus began my wonderful, meaningful journey serving troops.”

She’s been able to support thousands of service members and their families over the years and taking care of them has always been her top priority—and her favorite part of the job.

“We [at the USO] have unique opportunity to provide a myriad of programs and services to the committed and courageous men and women serving our country. … You see them in happy times and in times of sadness, but at the USO, you represent a living symbol of respect and honor for their service.”

Austin said she’s been fortunate to have had such a gratifying career, and even after helping countless troops and families, she remains dedicated to our spirit-lifting mission.

“USO receives many accolades and awards, but the most meaningful part is knowing that you truly helped someone in some way, through a program, service, or even a smile.”

USO Helps Woman on Journey After Marine Brother’s Death

On Nov. 30, 2011, Marine Staff Sgt. Vincent J. Bell, 28, was killed by an IED in Afghanistan. The youngest of three children, he was on his first tour of duty in Afghanistan after having served four tours in Iraq.

“He was the sweetest, most gentle, loveable man I have ever known. He was the love and light in our family, and every day without him feels so painful,” his sister London Bell said.

London Bell poses in front of New York’s Rockefeller Center during her USO/TAPS-sponsored trip to the Big Apple in October. Photo courtesy of London Bell

London Bell poses in front of New York’s Rockefeller Center during her USO/TAPS-sponsored trip to the Big Apple in October. Photo courtesy of London Bell

In October, Bell was approaching the anniversary of her brother’s 2011 death in Afghanistan when the USO and Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) offered her a chance to take a trip with others who lost siblings to war. Weeks later, she was making unexpected friends in Manhattan. She was also finding out that she wasn’t alone.

“I started out on the journey as a lone traveler, but I left meeting several people who were really just like me,” Bell said. “It was a good way for me to bond.”

Bell lives in Chicago and relies on TAPS retreats for emotional assurance that is critical to brothers and sisters who lost so much during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. On her retreat, Bell and her fellow sibling survivors were able to enjoy a weekend in New York City together, sharing stories, sightseeing and attending a live taping of “The Daily Show.”

“I feel that it is important that I continue to reach out to TAPS to find support,” Bell said. “I’m the only person in my circle of close friends who has lost a sibling in battle and it can be very isolating.

“I need to be able to share my story as a sibling,” she said. “I do a lot to support my mom and dad and my sister in their grief, but I also need that support for myself.”

She’s learned a lot about life since Vincent died and wants to be a support to other siblings.

“I can be an ear, a hug and a friend to other sibling survivors, and I want to be able to do that for others on this journey.”

NFL Stars Jimmy Graham, Pierre Garcon and Brandon Fields Visit Troops in the Middle East on USO Tour 

While the official NFL season ended in February, a trio of professional football players continued the tradition of traveling to the Middle East for an offseason USO tour. New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham, Washington Redskins receiver Pierre Garcon and Miami Dolphins punter Brandon Fields met up with U.S. troops downrange.

From left to right, NFL stars Brandon Fields, Jimmy Graham and Pierre Garcon pose for a photo with troops during their USO tour to the Middle East in March. USO photo by Dave Gatley

From left to right, NFL stars Brandon Fields, Jimmy Graham and Pierre Garcon pose for a photo with troops during their USO tour to the Middle East in March. USO photo by Dave Gatley

“This experience for me has truly been life-changing,” said Graham, who caught an NFL-best 16 touchdowns last season. “The personal connection I’ve been able to make is something that will be with me forever. I grew up in a military home and this just makes me more of a patriot. I have more of an appreciation for the little things we have back home each and every day.”

“The best part of this trip [was] being able to spend time with the troops and interact with them,” said Fields. “We are truly blessed because of the sacrifices that our men and women of our armed forces are willing to make.”

Publishers Clearing House Prize Patrol Delivers $25,000 Check to the USO

What would you do if the Publishers Clearing House Prize Patrol showed up on your doorstep?

Staff and volunteers at the USO Warrior and Family Center at Fort Belvoir, Va., were jumping for joy in January after receiving a $25,000 check from the Publishers Clearing House recent Facebook promotion, The Give Back.

“We’re really grateful,” said USO Vice President of Operations Glenn Welling, who was presented the check by the Prize Patrol. “This was our first opportunity to get involved with the Publishers Clearing House Give Back promotion, and just to be able to be recognized by the Americans who went online each day is awesome. For 73 years, the USO has been the connection between America and her military, and donations like this one will allow us to continue doing what we are do for another 73 years.”

This year’s The Give Back event featured three charities: the USO, ASPCA and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Fans were allowed to vote for their favorite charity once per day, with the charities earning prizes based on where they finished in the voting.

“We love being able to give back to the charities our customers care about,” said Danielle Bertellotti, assistant manager for digital marketing development at Publishers Clearing House. “Our audience has been very vocal on social media, and they have made it clear that the USO is a charity they care deeply about, so we are very happy to give.”

Volunteers Add Healing Touch at USO Warrior and Family Center at Fort Belvoir, Va.

FORT BELVOIR, Va.-The USO Warrior and Family Center here serves a unique community, and couldn’t operate without a cadre of trained volunteers. The center caters to wounded, ill and injured troops and their caregivers and families recovering from both visible and invisible wounds of war.

“Our volunteers here are amazing,” said Pam Horton, Director of USO Warrior and Family Centers. “There is not a chance we could have done a tenth of what we’ve done if they hadn’t been here.”

The USO is proud to celebrate National Volunteer Week. Our 29,000-plus volunteers donate roughly 1.5 million hours of service each year. They’re the reason the service members and their families who walk through our doors more than 8 million times each year feel welcome.

A Critical 4th of July Mission

I need your help in a critical mission: equipping and supplying our USO Warrior and Family Center at Walter Reed Military Medical Center that’s currently under construction.

The brave troops who will use this wonderful, new center sacrificed so much for our country. We need to make sure they have everything they need to live comfortably during their recovery.

We only have until Ju‌ly 4‌th to raise the funds needed to bring this 16,217-square-foot center to life. I know we can get there but we need you to step up and lead today.

Give back to our wounded troops who’ve given so much to serve our nation. Make your “At One With The Wounded” donation today.

callout-large-v43Thousands of our young men and women are returning from war wounded, ill or injured, and you and the USO are there to comfort them from the moment they’re rushed to a field hospital and through every step of recovery as they prepare for the future.

For our wounded, their families and caregivers, our new center will be a place of healing and recuperation. It will offer every comfort they need, from comforting rest areas and recreation rooms to education centers designed specifically to be springboards to get our troops back to a full and rewarding life, which will help them face the challenges of recovery.

But as you can imagine, it takes a lot to get a state-of-the-art facility of this magnitude up and running. That’s why your participation in our “At One With The Wounded” campaign is absolutely vital.

Click here to make your “At One With The Wounded” donation right now.

Our wounded troops have laid it all on the line for our country. With Ju‌ly 4th fast approaching, I’m hoping you will show your respect for their sacrifices by making a matching gift to this very special effort.

- General Richard B. Myers, USAF (Ret.), Chairman of the Board, USO

When Riding a Bike is Not ‘Like Riding a Bike’

Recovery from catastrophic injury takes time – and patience.

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Oscar “Oz” Sanchez, shows off his Paralympics Gold Medals on March 3 at the Marine Corps Trials at Camp Pendleton Calif. USO photos by Joseph Andrew Lee

For Recon Marine and two-time Paralympic handcycling gold medalist Oscar “Oz” Sanchez — known by some as the “fastest cyclist on two hands” — recovering from a spinal injury meant accepting his paralysis and refocusing his energy on a new passion. It was about recognizing a new reality and learning how to apply a positive mental attitude to a new sport, which took time.

For others – like retired Marine Capt. Derek Liu and Australian Defence Force Signaler Gary Wilson – who are each working to overcome severe brain injuries, recovery means reminding the brain how to walk, talk, read and write. It’s relearning the old and then learning something new, which takes patience.

I met these three athletes at the Marine Corps Trials, an international Paralympic competition held by the Marines at Camp Pendleton, Calif., and sponsored by USO San Diego. The trials are held annually to select the Corps’ best wounded, ill and injured athletes to compete against its sister services at the annual Warrior Games in Colorado.

All Paths are Not Paved

With victory in his eyes and pride on his chest, “Oz Sanchez” had a certain confidence about him at the trials. Maybe it was the London Paralympics gold swinging from his neck like he was keeping time. No one could avoid catching his contagious smile.

As I listened to his story, though, I learned he wasn’t always so optimistic. After two deployments with 1st Recon Battalion, Sanchez saw his dreams of serving in one of America’s most elite warfighting units — SEAL Team 6 — wash away.

He was in the middle of making the transition from the Marine Corps to the Navy SEALs when a hit-and-run motorcycle accident left him with a severe spinal injury. A wave of depression came over him. He initially drowned his sorrows in alcohol and painkillers. It wasn’t until two years after his injury that he pulled himself out of depression and onto a handcycle.

The transition to a handcycle was challenging, but he knew recovery meant meeting challenges head on, pushing through and setting bigger goals for himself.

After winning all the local races in Southern California, he competed at the nationals in Colorado, where he was introduced to the Paralympics team.

Only five years after learning to ride a hand cycle, Sanchez won his first Paralympics gold medal in Beijing in 2008.

“Things are only as bad as you allow them to get,” he said. “Sure, you’re dealing with the inherent truth of whatever your physical state is, but that’s just your body that’s broken — not your mind.”

TBI, ABI and PMA

For Liu and Wilson — who’ve both made great strides in the year after I first met them at the 2012 Marine Corps Trials — the same concept holds true.

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Swimming coach Dawn Romero helps Marine veteran Capt. Derek Liu with adaptive swimming techniques. Liu recently participated in his second Marine Corps Trials. Photo by Pat Cubel

In 2007, Liu suffered cardiac arrest while jogging at Marine Corps Base Hawaii. Wilson was involved in a Blackhawk helicopter crash in Afghanistan in 2011. Both incurred brain injuries and were in comas for nearly two months after their respective accidents.

Most head injuries today are categorized as traumatic brain injuries (TBI), which is a broad category that always involves trauma to the brain, but can also indicate damage to structures other than the brain, such as the scalp and skull. Liu and Wilson were affected by anoxic brain injury (ABI), which is when the brain is damaged by lack of oxygen. A 2005 study demonstrated the cognitive and emotional injuries that result from both ABI and TBI are — in fact — one and the same, and the severity depends on the volume of grey matter physically compromised.

For Wilson and Liu, the damage was as severe as it gets.

“I’m no longer the person I once was and cannot do the things I did before,” Liu said. “My memory is still not trustworthy, I get confused easily, and my vision is poor.

“I’ve had to find out who the new Derek is.”

Physical Fitness is Key

For Sanchez, Liu and Wilson physical fitness plays a key role in their ability to maintain a healthy mindset.

“One of the things I missed the most, and what had me in such a doom-and-gloom state, was not being able to work out,” Sanchez said. “Once I started to get active again, I started to get some healthy thoughts back, and that effect snowballed into success. What was once me feeling like I was a product of the situation turned into me being in control of the situation.”

According to Dr. Mark Bates, Associate Director of Population Health at the Deployment Health Clinical Center, physical health and mental resiliency are closely related.

“Some of the things one can do to build psychological resilience aren’t necessarily psychological, and research suggests a strong relationship between being physically fit and mentally fit,” Bates wrote in an email. “Regular exercise increases energy, improves cognitive abilities and can help prevent or treat depression.”

Mental Health and Adaptive Sports

“Running and swimming were passions of mine,” Liu said. “So gaining back the physical strength enough to do them has boosted my confidence, and that lets me know that there is so much more I can do and achieve.”

Wilson plans to become a psychologist so he can look after people who have been through similar situations.

“I’ve been seeing a psychologist for almost two years now,” he said, “and it’s helped me heal a great deal better.

“There’s no judgment. Having someone who is genuinely interested in your progression and helping you deal with the issues that come along has been invaluable to me.”

Sanchez is exemplifying his own motto: “Know no limits.”

“It’s a long road to recovery, and it’s not always paved,” he told a group of handcyclists at the trials. “How will you get there? That’s the most difficult part, and it’s up to you. But believe me, you will get there.”

Liu builds his confidence with each new skill he masters. So far, nothing has been “like riding a bike.”

“When one is initially injured like I was, the gravity of the situation doesn’t hit you right away, but it will in five or 10 years,” Liu said. “Down the line you begin to see the outcome of your hard work and start to realize why you pushed on. The prognosis may not get better, but your adaptation to your injury and outlook on life will get a lot better.”

–Story by Joseph A. Lee, USO Staff Writer