WASHINGTON, Dec. 20, 2011 – Returning home today from his first multi-country USO holiday tour, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff continued a popular tradition that's become part of the United Services Organization's 70-year legacy.
Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey arrived at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., this morning after hosting a tour that featured seven-time NBA champion Robert Horry, singing sensation Jordin Sparks, actress Minka Kelly and comedian and co-host of “The Steve Harvey Morning Show,” Thomas "Nephew Tommy" Miles.
Robert Horry, Jordan Sparks, Minka Kelly and Nephew Tommy pose for a photo after performing a show on Camp Buehring, Kuwait, during this year's USO holiday tour, Dec. 14, 2011. DOD photo by D. Myles Cullen
While Dempsey met troops in Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Germany during the whirlwind trip, the performers provided the entertainment.
The USO tour, Dempsey's first as the top U.S. military officer, is part of a decades-old tradition. Through its history, the USO has brought Hollywood celebrities and volunteer entertainers to perform for the troops – including the beloved Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Ann Sheridan, James Cagney, Jimmy Stewart, Fred Astaire, the Andrews Sisters and more.
At its high point in 1944, just three years after its founding, curtains were rising on USO shows 700 times a day.
That popularity seemed almost unimaginable when the USO was founded Feb. 4, 1941, and opened its first center in a small storefront smack in the middle of New York's Times Square.
The organization was founded at President Franklin D. Roosevelt's request with the solid mission of lifting the spirits of service members and their families, Brian Whiting, president and CEO of the USO of Metropolitan New York, told American Forces Press Service.
It was a unique experiment that brought together six service agencies that had been working independently to support the military. The six stars on the USO logo continue to pay tribute to these organizations: the Salvation Army, National Catholic Community Services, National Jewish Welfare Board, National Travelers Aid Association, and the YMCA and YWCA.
Ultimately growing to about 3,000 centers during World War II, the USO provided a “home away from home” for the military, Whiting said. USO centers hosted dances,
social events, movies and music. They also offered quiet refuge where troops could write a letter home or enjoy a free cup of coffee and a snack.
Now with operations consolidated into about 160 centers, the USO continues to serve its historic mission of caring for military members, their families, and especially forward-deployed troops, Whiting said.
The tiny, initial USO facility has relocated to a larger space in the busy Port Authority Bus Terminal complex, he said, but remains focused like a laser beam on its original mission.
“First and foremost, we are about making sure that we can provide any- and everything that we possibly can to troops and their families,” he said, whether through the USO or another not-for-profit organization.
Like many USOs that now operate at airports to provide an oasis for and assist military travelers, the New York one keeps busy helping military tourists as they visit the Big Apple.
In addition to information about places to go and sites to see, one of its most favorite offerings is free and reduced-price theater tickets. The New York USO provides nearly $3 million in discounted and complementary tickets every year, Whiting reported.
In addition to providing tickets to nearly impossible-to-get-ahold of productions such as Phantom of the Opera, and thousands of tickets to Mary Poppins, the USO has arranged more than 16,000 troops to enjoy private showings of the Christmas spectacular at Radio City Music Hall.
The USO staff participates in every deployment and homecoming in the area, and partners with a broad range of organizations to provide other services. Among them is the United Through Reading program that enables troops away from their loved ones to record a storybook and send it to a son or daughter at home. In another effort, the USO distributed thousands of donated bicycles to local military children.
Since the 9/11 terror attacks here, the New York USO's most regular patrons are members of the New York National Guard supporting the Empire Shield security mission. When they're not manning their posts or patrolling busy transportation hubs, they seek refuge in the comfort and quiet of the well-appointed USO facility, or at smaller USO break rooms in Grand Central Station and Penn Station.
“This is where they can come in with their weapons and other personal belongings, and they can take off the nearly 100 pounds that they are carrying and be able to enjoy a sandwich,” Whiting said. “They are here morning, noon and night.”
Throughout the USO's history, volunteers have been the glue that has enabled it to stay true to its original mission, he said.
Among those at the Times Square center is Army Capt. Jacquie Jordan, who puts in time at the reception desk in between Master's degree studies at nearly Colombia University to prepare her to teach at the U.S. Military Academy.
Jordan called her service at the USO a chance to stay connected with service members while she's temporarily away from the ranks, and an opportunity to repay some of what the USO has provided her over her career.
“The thing that keeps me in the Army is soldiers, and this is a way to be able to give back to them,” she said. “I love that we [at the USO] can help them in what can be an overwhelming city, and provide them a home away from home.”
Tom Flagg, a six-year volunteer in New York, first learned about the USO when his son, Air Force 1st Lt. Tyler Flagg, raved about the services he received during a long airport layover in Denver. Flagg checked out the New York USO facility that he'd walked past for 30 years, and soon started volunteering his services, followed by his wife.
“This is the best-kept secret in New York,” he said. “You are safe here. The coffee is free.
“And the best part is, we get to do for [military members] who have done so much for us,” he said. “They are the ones out there doing the heavy lifting. This is the least I can do for them.”
Joan Ashner, a volunteer at the Times Square center, recently was singled out from about 18,000 USO volunteers nationwide as the 2011 USO volunteer of the year. Ashner is a fixture at the New York center, volunteering her services about 35 hours a week. When a blizzard crippled the city last year and brought mass transportation to a standstill, she single-handedly opened and operated the center for five days straight to help more than 800 stranded service members and their families, Whiting reported.
Army Sgt. Sergio Rodriguez, a New York National Guard member supporting the Empire Shield mission, credited the USO volunteers and staff for providing the same level of support and respite Roosevelt had in mind 70 years ago.
“Whenever I go anywhere, I look for the USO,” he said. “They make you feel at home and can guide you in the right direction.
“Plus,” he said, pausing as he bit into a cookie, then looking up with a smile, “they have awesome snacks.”
Army Staff Sgt. Neftali Perez, a member of the New York National Guard's 27th Brigade Combat Team, called the USO “the best thing going for the military.”
“The USO is our family,” he said. “We can rely on them for anything. They support the troops, and have been doing it for many years.”
Slideshow of the 2011 USO Christmas tour in Kuwait
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
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