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.

Guitar Heroes: KISS, Def Leppard Announce Summer Tour to Benefit USO, Other Nonprofits

On Monday, nine famous men – four in heavy makeup – said they’re taking their guitars on the road to support the troops.

Paul Stanley of KISS talks to troops in Virginia Beach, Va., in 2010. Photo courtesy of the Navy

Paul Stanley of KISS talks to troops in Virginia Beach, Va., in 2010. Photo courtesy of the Navy

Kiss and Def Leppard announced their Heroes Tour during a press event at the House of Blues in Los Angeles. The tour – which starts June 23 in Utah – will cover more than 40 dates coast-to-coast. A dollar from each ticket sold will be split among multiple military support organizations, including the USO.

Troops who want to check out the show should visit kissonline.com/heroes for discount details.

KISS – which will be inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame next month – is no stranger to supporting the military. In 2011, the USO’s Joseph Andrew Lee talked to guitarist Paul Stanley about the band’s support for wounded warriors.

Your USO at Work: February 2014 — Kellie Pickler, Stephen King and Blake Shelton Support the Troops

Country Star Kellie Pickler Brings Good Times to Deployed Troops

Country music singer Kellie Pickler poses alongside Sgt. Jeremy Harrington, left, and Sgt. Robert Epley, who built the stage the trio is sitting on for Pickler’s performance at Forward Operating Base Walton, Afghanistan. USO photo by Eric Raum

Country music singer Kellie Pickler poses alongside Sgt. Jeremy Harrington, left, and Sgt. Robert Epley, who built the stage the trio is sitting on for Pickler’s performance at Forward Operating Base Walton, Afghanistan. USO photo by Eric Raum

Kellie Pickler prides herself on her commitment to our military and more specifically, to the USO.  Since 2007, the country music star has participated in seven USO tours and 75 USO Entertainment events, quickly becoming a performer who is synonymous with the USO’s mission of lifting the spirits of troops and their families.

As part of the USO’s Every Moment Counts campaign, Pickler spent the holidays with troops stationed in Kuwait and Afghanistan, delivering cheer, glad tidings and special presents. Along with the customary meet-and-greets, Pickler treated the troops to five USO shows and visited a military hospital.

The singer also accompanied the USO Christmas Convoy, which delivers hundreds of gifts annually to some of the most remote parts of those countries. NBC News captured the convoy in action and broadcast a story on the “Today Show.” The video can be viewed at tinyurl.com/NBCUSO.

“The USO tours and programs I’ve been a part of have definitely been the highlight of my career, so I’m honored to join the USO in helping to raise awareness about the many precious moments that our troops and their families sacrifice,” Pickler said. “Every Moment Counts is especially close to my heart because it not only recognizes their personal sacrifices, but gives Americans the opportunity to thank our troops with a special gift of a moment.”

Learn how you can help us provide memorable moments for troops by visiting usomoments.org.

Iconic Author King Visits Deployed Troops in Germany

Stephen King shares a moment with Navy Lt. j.g. Pablo Yepez at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. USO photo by Mike Clifton

Stephen King shares a moment with Navy Lt. j.g. Pablo Yepez at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. USO photo by Mike Clifton

Stephen King’s words have always moved readers along an emotional roller coaster, but during his USO tour stop at Ramstein Air Base in Germany in November, he also learned how quickly spirits can be lifted with just a handshake and a smile.

“I never realized until earlier this week just how important everyday moments with our nation’s troops and their families really are,” King said. “Volunteering with the USO and spending time with our men and women in uniform was an eye-opening experience that I hope to be able to do again soon. I stand behind the USO’s Every Moment Counts campaign and encourage others to join the USO in supporting our troops.”

As part of his European book tour in support of his latest best-selling novel, “Doctor Sleep,” King teamed with the USO for a day with deployed troops and the medical professionals who care for our wounded heroes. King passed out free copies of the book during visits to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center and the USO Warrior Center and enjoyed mingling with all of the personnel and families.

USO, United Through Reading Partnership Links Deployed Families for Holidays

Army Spc. James Gleason's daughter, , touches the television as she watches him read a book to her via a USO/United Through Reading video. Photo courtesy of the Gleason family

Army Spc. James Gleason’s daughter, , touches the television as she watches him read a book to her via a USO/United Through Reading video. Photo courtesy of the Gleason family

Once a month, Army Spc. James Gleason walks into the USO at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan and picks out a book to read to his 2-year-old daughter, Jameson. He makes extra reading trips for special occasions like Halloween and Christmas.

While Gleason wasn’t with his little girl during the holidays, his presence was still felt in their California home, thanks to United Through Reading’s Military Program.
Many USO centers downrange have private rooms with a collection of books where troops can record themselves reading a story to their children back home. The USO then ships each book and recording to their families. The program has been keeping military families connected during deployments since 2006.

“My daughter absolutely loves the books,” wrote Gleason. “Every time she gets one she has the same reactions. She always asks for me and kisses [my image on the screen].

“It surprised her when she heard my voice. … She said, ‘Hi Daddy! Thank you for reading to me!’”

The program partnership helps create holiday moments that Gleason—who is on his first deployment to Afghanistan—and thousands of American troops with families back home will remember.

“It means everything to me,” he wrote. “I’m fighting for my girls and those reactions are priceless.”

The USO needs your help to connect troops to their families back home. Visit uso.org/donate4troops to learn how you can get involved.

Wounded Warriors Receive Business Training Through USO/Georgetown Program

“You worked twelve hours and you slept two. You worked twelve hours and you slept two. In the military, that was just a given,” said Michael Phillips, a 10-year Army veteran and successful UPS Store franchisee.

“Owning your own franchise won’t be much different at first,” the guest speaker told a classroom of transitioning wounded warrior students at Georgetown University School of Continuing Studies. “But now that I’ve got almost five stores bringing in money every day, I’m here to tell you that it’s well worth it.”

In November, the USO collaborated with Georgetown University to offer a certificate in franchise venture planning to wounded warriors, their caregivers and surviving spouses.

Led by Dr. Ben Litalien at Georgetown’s Washington, D.C., campus, the condensed, six-day course was designed to teach wounded, ill and injured soldiers, their caregivers and surviving spouses the fundamental skills needed to start a franchise business.

“We understand that any transition can be difficult, and that injuries, illness or the loss of a loved one can make it even more so,” said USO President/CEO John Pray. “That is why the USO is so committed to our transitioning troops.”

The program focused on both the initial decision to invest in a franchise as well as the operational, tactical and strategic decisions needed to run a successful business. Guest speakers also shared their expertise on the process of transitioning from a career in the military into franchise ownership.

Litalien led students through an intense week of case studies, lectures, guest speakers and meetings with professionals who support our active-duty and veteran communities in business efforts.

At the graduation ceremony, Associate Dean Edwin Schmierer announced the continuation of the program in 2014, and reminded graduates to apply their knowledge and skills in service to others.

“The value of your Georgetown education doesn’t come from how it benefits you,” said Shmierer. “It comes from how you will use it to serve others, and as service members and families of service members, you’re more than familiar with such a sacrifice.”

JCPenney Raises Holiday Cheer, Support for USO

JCPenney’s Jingle Mingle campaign made it easier to spread cheer during the holidays.

Singer Blake Shelton and USO President and CEO John Pray attend a surprise holiday event courtesy of JCPenney on Dec. 19 at Greeley Square Park in New York. Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

Singer Blake Shelton and USO President/CEO John Pray attend a surprise holiday event courtesy of JCPenney on Dec. 19 at Greeley Square Park in New York. Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

The company invited everyone to record videos of themselves singing “Silent Night” at jcp.com. Singers could add their videos to an online choir gallery and share them with friends and family. As an incentive to participate, JCPenney donated $20 to the USO for each video submitted to the gallery. Even country music superstar Blake Shelton joined in, teaming up with the USO Show Troupe for a performance in New York City.

As the featured JCP Cares charity partner in December, customers were also invited to round up their in-store or jcp.com purchases to the nearest dollar and donate the difference to the USO. The proceeds raised will support USO programs and services that provide memorable moments for troops and military families around the world. JCPenney’s combined efforts raised more than $2.2 million for the USO.

“Our overall goal is to be a contributing factor to the overall success of the USO,” said Crystal King, senior manager of philanthropy at JCPenney. “Our partnership with the USO really allowed us to discover ourselves as a company. Founder James Cash Penney had an affinity for the military and supported personnel who were deployed and those who returned with injury. It’s our intent to stay true to our roots and continue that relationship, and supporting the military means supporting the USO.”

USO Osan Air Base Duty Manager Dedicated to Serving Troops

USO Osan Air Base Duty Manager Ju-Yeon Park. Courtesy photo

USO Osan Air Base Duty Manager Ju-Yeon Park. Courtesy photo

For many troops and families arriving in South Korea, USO Osan Air Base Duty Manager Ju-Yeon Park is often the first smiling face they see.

“Every day working with the USO provides new and exciting opportunities and challenges,” said Park, whose husband is a senior noncommissioned officer in the South Korean military.  “There is often no guidebook on how to do things, which allows for personal creativity to come up with ideas to entertain [troops] or to make them smile or … make them feel more like they are at home.”

Born and raised in the South Korean capital of Seoul, Park always wanted to work for an international organization, so when a community relations position opened up at the USO in her hometown, she jumped at the opportunity.

“I like that the USO not only supports the U.S. military, but also plays an important part between the military and the local community,” she said. “I wanted to work at the USO more than just about any other [place].”

Park, who started working at USO Camp Kim in 2008, loves to travel and enjoys experiencing new places and trying different foods. She spent five months backpacking around Europe on her own after graduating high school and said the journey gave her new levels of respect and admiration for other cultures and countries.

She has applied some of the lessons learned on that trip to her work with the USO.

“I have had many experiences meeting many people from different nations and different places,” Park said, referring to her job with the USO. “Almost every day I learn new things. I find myself growing, and it’s a feeling that is really nice.”

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

Presenter Encourages Military Caregivers to Promote Positive Emotions

According to Steve Shenbaum, the root causes of video game addiction aren’t that complicated.

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Steve Shenbaum, founder and president of game on Nation, speaks Monday at the USO Caregivers Conference at Camp Pendleton, Calif. USO photo by Michael Clifton

It seemed like an odd thing to bring up in front of a room full of military caregivers, but Shenbaum was on the way to a powerful point: the lessons we can take from knowing why kids spend hours mashing buttons in front of televisions can be applied successfully major life endeavors like fortifying relationships in times of stress.

Shenbaum is the founder and president of game on Nation, a firm specializing in communication, leadership, character development and media training. He traveled to the USO Caregivers Conference at Camp Pendleton, Calif., on Monday to talk to a room full of spouses, parents and devoted friends who play crucial roles in the care of their wounded, ill and injured loved ones.

His theory is that video games enthrall people because they satisfy four emotional cravings: empowerment, mystery, competition and humor.

“As we interact with people, I think it’s important to show [we care] before we say it,” he said.

Shenbaum spent the rest of his time showing the caregivers in the audience how they could target those four cravings to grow their relationship with their recovering family members by providing interactions where those same emotions were experienced. He engaged in roleplaying with the audience in games like “Expert Speaker” – an fun routine where both participants built confidence through boastful banter – and “Dimmer Switch,” where participants practice ramping their mood up and down to accommodate certain situations.

By the time he finished, Shenbaum had passed on several tips on how to help navigate the stressful caregiver lifestyle.

“As a caregiver, too, a lot of times, you’re the pilot,” he said. “And we don’t want pilots to say ‘I hope we get there.’”

–Story by Eric Brandner, USO Director of Story Development