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
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
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.
popularity seemed almost unimaginable when the
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,
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,
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
“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.”
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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