Your USO at Work: October 2015 — 8 Ways the USO Connects Troops To Home


Here’s How the USO Keeps Service Members Connected to the People and Places They Love

From the moment they step into boot camp to the time they transition back to civilian life, troops rely on the USO to help them stay connected to their friends and family. Here are eight 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 Wi-Fi for people who bring their own devices. Even our Mobile USO units are Wi-Fi 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 used this USO service when his wife Laura delivered the couple’s second child, Ethan Whitefield, via a USO-provided Skype connection at Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan.

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.

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

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 a 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 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.

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 of special parties and events around those red calendar days.

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, the USO there to celebrate military families finally reconnecting after a long deployment apart.

Visit USO.org/donate to help keep America’s military members connected to the comforts of home.

USO and SiriusXM Bring ‘The Highway’ to Troops in Alaska

Storme Warren took his SiriusXM show and fellow USO tour veterans Rodney Atkins and The Swon Brothers with him on the road to Alaska.

Usually a host on The Highway, SiriusXM’s flagship channel for new country music, Warren emceed USO concerts at Eielson Air Force Base, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson and U.S. Coast Guard Base Kodiak during the weeklong tour. He also broadcasted exclusive behind-the-scenes commentary from the military installations on The Highway.

“My goal in putting together this year’s trip to Alaska was to not only lift the spirits of troops and their families, but also bring that rich USO experience directly to our SiriusXM listeners in hopes of shedding light [on] the important work our troops and military families do for us back home,” Warren said.

The Swon Brothers and Atkins welcomed the opportunity to express their gratitude. “The sacrifices our service men and women in uniform make for us each and every day are great and anything we can do to say ‘thank you’ or show our appreciation, we are there,” Zach Swon said.

USO Expands its Mission to Military Entrance Processing Stations

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

From the moment they enter the Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS), most recruits sit through aptitude testing, medical screening and job selection that sets 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 providing some entertainment to break the monotony.

Recruits starting their military journeys take advantage of the amenities offered at the USO center inside the San Antonio Military Entrance Processing Station. USO photo

Recruits starting their military journeys take advantage of the amenities offered at the USO center inside the San Antonio Military Entrance Processing Station. USO photo

The USO is opening new centers inside several 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 careers. These new centers, which will feature entertainment like televisions, 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.

The USO plans to open centers inside eight MEPS this year in addition to the six that are already serving new recruits in Columbus, Ohio, Cleveland, Dallas, Houston, Milwaukee and Fort Lee, Virginia.

The USO and RP/6 are Showing Transitioning Troops the Way Forward 

Even the most experienced soldier can use a hand when leaving the Army.

“After 28 years I was certain that I had this whole thing down,” said retired Army Sgt. Maj. Lee Baleme, now an RP/6 Fellow. “It was an eye-opening experience to think that I was going to make that transition — smoothly — and then realize that I wasn’t.”

RP/6, part of the new USO Transition 360 Alliance, connects service members and their families with resources and organizations in their community that support their transition. This approach incorporates several USO Transition 360 Alliance partners (including Hire Heroes USAStronger Families and the Comfort Crew for Military Kids) in an effort to cover both the personal and professional issues military families face when moving to the civilian world.

The USO plans to incorporate RP/6 services at some of its stateside locations in the near future.

“[Veterans and transitioning military] can come [to RP/6] and find that person [who] will point them in the direction of the resources that they need,” Baleme said. “From housing issues to employment, school and even family issues, transition from active duty to the civilian has never been an easy nut to crack and I think RP/6 found a great partner in the USO.”

Belgard Hardscapes’ Campaign Helps Welcome Troops Home

Belgard Hardscapes knows what it means to make a house a home, and through its new partnership with the USO, the company is extending a warm message of gratitude and appreciation to service members across the country.

BELGARD-LOGOThe company’s Welcome Home giving initiative runs through Veterans Day and it’s your chance to support our military and beautify your home at the same time. From now until Nov. 11, Belgard, a leading provider of interlocking pavers, paving stone and wall products, will donate $100 to the USO for every patio, driveway or walkway installed. The company aims to provide up to $150,000 in both financial donations and in-kind services to the USO.

“To those who put their lives on the line to defend our country, and the family members who sacrifice so much in their absence, we want to express our sincerest thank you,” said Jackie Paulsen, marketing director of Belgard Hardscapes.

Visit belgard.com/home to learn more about Belgard’s Welcome Home initiative.

USO Center in Kuwait Desert is an Oasis for Deployed Troops

Lisa Choi started working at the USO in 2011, but that wasn’t her introduction to the organization. Choi, now a duty manager at USO Camp Arifjan in Kuwait, was a USO volunteer before signing on full time.

Lisa Choi, a duty manager at USO Camp Arifjan in Kuwait, said her role at the center helped her become a “jack of all trades.” USO photo

Lisa Choi, a duty manager at USO Camp Arifjan in Kuwait, said her role at the center helped her become a “jack of all trades.” USO photo

“I enjoyed helping out with the special events and programs [as a volunteer.] So when a job opportunity came up, I applied,” she said. “The job seemed like an interesting opportunity to [support] troops while experiencing the fruits of my labor directly and immediately.”

Choi, who grew up in a military family and lived in South Korea and Japan as a child, said the well-rounded work environment is the most enjoyable part of her job.

“You are constantly on your feet and interacting with people, she said. “Throughout all those interactions, you learn a little bit about everything and instantly become a jack of all trades.”

She’s also worked at USO Camp Walker near Daegu, South Korea, a city of 2.5 million. By comparison, the USO center on Camp Arifjan is an oasis in the middle of the desert. There are virtually no off-base entertainment options for service members, so the center is a hub of activity and social interaction.

“Many troops cannot leave base here,” she said. “The USO center is the main place where people come to kick back and relax.” The isolated-but-busy center allows service members to let loose in an environment where everyone is connected by service and separation from the people and places they love most.

“We offer a large variety of programs at Camp Arifjan and you’ll notice that military members here are more willing to partake in activities or programs that may be a bit out of their comfort zone,” Choi said.

Visit USO.org/donate to help connect deployed service members to family, home and country.


‘Completely Committed’: Families Share Stories that Shaped this Year’s USO Honorees

The 2015 USO Service Members and Volunteers of the Year have several stories of selfless service.

The honorees at Tuesday’s USO Gala will be lauded for their lifesaving actions on the battlefield or for the extraordinary way they put themselves before others. But they also have compelling back stories that show how they got to this point. We asked their parents, friends and mentors to share stories about what the 2015 USO honorees were like before they joined the military. Here are three entries from what they sent us back.


Christian and Jessica Sheers. Courtesy photo

Spc. Christian Sheers, USO Soldier of the Year

Sheers, an Army combat medic, was selected as USO Soldier of the Year for actions earlier this year in Afghanistan, when he put his life on the line to save others and eliminate the threat during an April 8 surprise attack on a U.S. diplomatic delegation.

According to his mother, Cynthia Sheers, he’s been looking out for people from a young age.

“Christian’s father is an academic physician in Akron,” Cynthia Sheers wrote in a recent email. “As a child, when Dr. Sheers would round – or see patients in the hospital on the weekend – his sons would sometimes tag along. Christian had a special desire to help others. His interest in serving is illustrated by two anecdotes.

“As a small child, he once disappeared from where he was drawing at the nurses’ station while his father saw a patient in their room. Noticing his son was missing, Dr. Sheers went to the corridor and listened. He followed the sound of laughter, and found 3-year-old Christian tucked beside an 80-year-old patient in her bed, both laughing as she asked what he was doing in the hospital all alone. ‘Rounding’ was his answer.

Photo courtesy of the Sheers family

Photo courtesy of the Sheers family

“Several years later, Dr. Sheers would occasionally griddle pancakes for his office staff for breakfast. Hearing of this, a nurse asked why he had never cooked breakfast for the floor nurses. Knowing he was assigned to round on Christmas Day, he left with all three of his sons in tow at 4:30 a.m. and they provided pancakes, eggs and bacon for the appreciative staff on Christmas morning. What was supposed to be a one-time event, however, was not enough for Christian. The following year, he insisted that they repeat this act. This began a tradition of thanking the floor staff on the sixth floor at Akron Children’s Hospital for their service.

“As Christian began dating his wife, Jess, he dragged her along on Christmas morning. When he enlisted in the Army and arrived home on leave, he again returned to flip pancakes. This last year, prior to deployment [and despite struggling with a fever and pneumonia], he got up Christmas morning to go again. Only his wife and father’s plea that his attendance would actually put people at risk dissuaded him from attending his eighth Christmas breakfast in 10 years. Those nurses and staff have seen him grow from a boy ’rounding’ into a soldier serving.”

The Brantley family. Courtesy photo

The Brantley family. Courtesy photo

Senior Airman T.J. Brantley, USO Airman of the Year

Brantley was selected as the USO Airman of the year in part because of his actions in Afghanistan in May 2014 that saved the life of a wounded Army officer. But long before that, he was a kid in Muleshoe, Texas, who followed his heart.

“From early on when he received the principal’s award for taking care of a handicapped classmate to present he follows his heart,” Curby and Kay Lynn Brantley wrote in an email. “He can be as stubborn as they come or cry with the best of them. No matter what he does he is completely committed.

“T.J. received the Fighting Heart Award in athletics his senior year, not because he was the best athlete. It was the way he played every sport and the way he treated others. His actions on and off of the playing field made everyone realize there was just something special about him. …

“T.J attended over three years of college before he told us his life was not really going where he wanted to go. He had a girlfriend at the time and nearly a college degree, but there was something missing. He came to us on a Christmas Eve with the idea he would join the military and grow up. He joined and several months later he proposed to the love of his life, Staci.

“He always follows his heart, never worrying if things will be hard or not. He always knows that with hard work and a caring, tender and driven heart he will be OK. Soon to be parents, T.J. and Staci will have the opportunity to instill those same loving heats in their child.”

Eric Chun shortly after graduating basic training.

Eric Chun, center, is the USO’s 2015 Overseas Volunteer of the Year. Courtesy photo

Eric Chun, USO Overseas Volunteer of the Year

Chun, who recently entered military service, spent the last several years volunteering at USO Guam. To hear USO Guam Duty Manager Jadine Lujan tell it, he’s always been drawn to service.

“He is a soda stacking wizard, T-shirt rolling beast, cupcake connoisseur and champion of the crane game,” Lujan wrote in an email. “Of the many things that can describe Eric Chun, the most unforgettable impression he leaves is being someone you can always count on. He has been an incredible USO Guam supporter throughout his three years of volunteer service.

“Eric’s favorite way to spend his free time was volunteering for the USO and helping troops and families fall in love with the center and the island. He could listen to veterans tell stories and share experiences all day. There was never a task too small or too big for him to accomplish. He enjoyed being challenged and firmly believed that anything worth doing was worth doing right. He would find creative solutions to any issues and often volunteered to lead the most laborious tasks that he joked served as his PT. He was always courteous and always there whenever guests or fellow volunteers needed him most.”

Editor’s note: Family quotes slightly edited and condensed for style.


Mailing Something to Deployed Troops for the Holidays? The Postal Service Offers Guidelines and Discounts

Pfc. Lucero Garcia, a native of Fort Worth, Texas, works hard and long hours as a frontline Soldier and still at the end of her shift is able to put on a smile. The mail Garcia has received today is spirit lifting and a welcomed sight from family members back home sending to their loved one. Garcia is deployed with Bravo Company, 949th Brigade Support Battalion, 10th Sustainment Brigade Troops Battalion, 10th Sustainment Brigade in support of Multi-National Division Ð Baghdad.

Army file photo

Thousands of troops will still be deployed when the holidays get here. And if you want to send them care packages or gifts, you need to know the deadlines.

The U.S. Postal Service (USPS)has issued delivery guidelines for when you should ship your package to make sure it gets to the recipient by Christmas.

According to a USPS release, the postal service will also offer discounts for packages sent to APO/FPO/DPO addresses. A special $15.90 rate will be applied to their largest Priority Mail Flat Rate box and $2 will be discounted off every other standard box shipment.

To ensure delivery by December 25, the postal service recommends the following:

  • Mail all Standard Post Packages by Nov. 7
  • Mail all PAL (Parcel Airlift Mail) by Dec. 3
  • Mail all SAM (Space Available Mail) by Nov. 25
  • Mail all PMEMS (Priority Mail Express Military Service) packages by Dec. 17
  • Mail First Class Letters, Cards and Priority Mail by Dec. 10 for all ZIPs except 093
  • For ZIP Codes 093, Mail First Class Letters, Cards and Priority Mail by Dec. 3

Almay Simply American Tour Supporting the USO Wraps Up in Texas

A participant gets her makeup done inside the Almay bus. Photo courtesy Almay

A participant gets her makeup done inside the Almay Simply American tour bus. Photo courtesy Almay

Almay wrapped up its nationwide Simply American road trip earlier this month after spending the summer celebrating female service members, military wives and their families.

Visitors to each fair and tour stop had the chance to win samples, buy products and even receive a free makeover inside the Almay Simply American tour bus. Almay handed out over 53,698 samples and gave 5,362 makeovers during the tour.

“As a brand we feel incredibly proud to be sponsoring the USO and partnering with them and raising money,” Almay Vice President of Marketing Jill Krakowski said at the second-to-last tour stop in Fort Hood, Texas.

Patrons also had the chance to take photos and share them on social media with the #SimplyAmerican hashtag.

In total, Almay donated $252,452 to the USO through its Simply American campaign.

“When they come off the bus and they’re made over … and then there’s the American pride component … it’s memorialized [with the photo and hashtag],” Krakowski said. “And its kind of a really cool way to activate and engage people.”


‘It Still Feels Kind of Surreal’: USO, Carla Hall and ABC’s ‘The Chew’ Create a Moment for a Military Family

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When sisters Ca’Bria Parker and Jazz’Myn McKenzie attended a USO cooking class for military families this June — which was hosted by celebrity chef and star of ABC’s “The Chew” Carla Hall — they couldn’t wait to recreate the dishes they learned in their home kitchen.

“That night [after the class] we went home and cooked [the dish she taught us for the rest of our family],” Ca’Bria said. “Carla was very friendly and nice and open and awesome. … It was just a great experience.”

“It was very nice because I got to see a famous person and cook with them and learn from them,” Jazz’Myn said. “And she also called me her ‘Mini-Me.'”

Ca’Bria and Jazz’Myn live near Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado, with their father, Army Staff Sgt. Reginald McKenzie, mother, Patrica McKenzie, and brother, Dashiell McKenzie. The family places a premium on volunteerism, and has spent several hours helping out at USOs over the years.

The girls never thought they’d get another opportunity to cook alongside Hall again. Then the USO and “The Chew” called.

“The Chew” asked the McKenzies to travel to New York City and appear on the show’s season premiere. While on the show, the McKenzies cooked meat and veggies alongside Hall and other families.

“It was very organic, it felt very natural. Just like … cooking with old friends, you know, or extended family,” said Patrica McKenzie, who is an Navy veteran.

At one point during the episode, Hall asked the McKenzies about their life as a military family and how they deal with deployments, frequent moves and other issues unique to military life. Hall also shared her reflections on hosting USO events at military bases around the country.

The McKenzie’s received one more surprise while filming the episode: a $10,000 check from Ikea to renovate their home kitchen.

“It still feels kind of surreal,” Patrica said. “It hasn’t really hit us.”