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Mission: Family: USO programs help troops in many ways

Apr. 12, 2012 - 02:20PM   |   Last Updated: Apr. 12, 2012 - 02:20PM  |  
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When you think of the USO, things that quickly come to mind are celebrity tours and airport welcome centers.

To be sure, those are still strong elements of the USO's mission to lift the spirits of troops and their families. But the organization, which just celebrated its 71st birthday, has changed with the changing needs of those it serves.

Like other nonprofits, USO officials believe the needs of wounded troops and their families will increase as the wars wind down. USO has been ramping up its support for the wounded, including building centers at Fort Belvoir, Va., and the new Walter Reed National Military Center Bethesda, Md., as well as starting programs "to ensure that when they stumble, there will be someone to give them a helping hand," USO president Sloan Gibson said.

In USO's most recent annual global survey of troops and families, those surveyed said the organization's single most important program is its support for the wounded and their families, Gibson said.

But USO is doing more than some may realize:

• Behind the scenes, it has provided support at every dignified transfer of military remains at Dover Air Force Base, Del., for the past 20 years, Gibson said. USO also uses its network of airport centers to support families as they travel to and from Dover.

• USO centers in Afghanistan provide troops about 200,000 free phone calls a month and countless hours of Internet access. USO is looking ahead to troop shifts in places such as Europe and South Korea and will realign its centers accordingly.

• In a departure from its usual tours, USO has partnered with Sesame Workshop to send Elmo and his Muppet buddies to military bases around the world; a new tour has just begun. More than four years ago, USO officials recognized the importance of providing entertainment for young military children that helps them and their parents cope with the demands of military life.

• USO has chapters in states near military installations that raise their own funds and offer their own programs tailored to the needs of their military communities.

• USO has issued public service announcements aimed at another of its missions: bridging the gap between the military and civilian communities. One recent message highlights the "invisible wounds" of war.

The PSAs "are not about the USO," Gibson said. "They are to remind America of these sacrifices and ask them to do something," however small, to show their appreciation.

"We are profoundly grateful for what service members and their families do every day," Gibson said. "USO is really America saying thank you to them."

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