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USO-Metro Honors Supporters of U.S. Military

By Shannon Collins
DoD News, Defense Media Activity

Air Force Gen. Paul J. Selva, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, joined USO Metropolitan Washington-Baltimore here April 19 in honoring celebrity volunteers who have supported America’s troops.

During its 34th annual awards dinner and 75th anniversary, USO-Metro paid tribute to U.S. Special Operations Command recipients as well as the Legacy of Achievement Award winner, professional wrestling star John Cena, and Army National Guard Sgt. 1st Class Jon Meadows and his wife, Melissa, recipients of the organization’s Col. John Gioia Patriot Award.

Tribute to the USO

Selva said he wouldn’t have been at the event if it weren’t for the USO.

“I’m all about the USO,” the general said. “On a fall Sunday morning in 1948, my mother, on a dare and a whim, with one of her girlfriends, decided to volunteer to serve doughnuts one morning at the USO outside Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi. It was on that very morning that she met my father.”

Selva said USO volunteers help to make U.S. service members the best this world has to offer. “To all the people who volunteer, who give up your time, who give up your love to our military, thank you,” he said. “It’s because you embrace us, our spouses and our children that all of us are able to serve this great nation, and without you by our sides, it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun. To the USO, have a happy 75th anniversary, and thank you.”

Elaine Rogers, president and CEO of USO-Metro, said the USO’s success is a testament to its volunteers. “If it weren’t for our volunteers, our USO would simply not exist,” she said. “Volunteers are the backbone of USOs around the globe, and we’re incredibly thankful to them [and] to their dedication to our service members and their families.”

Jonathan Davis, lead singer of the metal band Korn, said he participates in USO tours because both of his grandfathers served in World War II and suffer from post-traumatic stress.

“For me to go out and see these guys be happy and see them smile, that’s why I do it,” he said. “It makes all the difference for me. I just like supporting them. I just want to give a shout-out to all of the troops and thank them for everything they do and for allowing me to do what I do here in the States.”

Celebrity chef Robert Irvine said when people ask him what the most fulfilling thing is in his life, he tells them, “It’s traveling with our troops and cooking for them and seeing their faces.”

“This morning,” he continued, “140 spouses and kids were running around Fort Meade [in Maryland], that’s why we’re part of the USO. It’s not self-serving. They do more for me by me going to see them than I can ever do in my own world. To all the men and women who wear the uniform, thank you so much for your service, for your family’s service and dedication. Come home safe, stay safe, and we love you.”

Betty Cantrell, Miss America 2016, just returned from visiting service members in Baghdad and Kuwait. “It was amazing,” she said. “It means so much to me to be able to give back in whatever way I can, even if it’s just visiting and singing a couple of songs for them. If I can bring them a little piece of home, I can give something back to those who give everything for us here at home.”

USO Stories from Jon Stewart

Actor and comedian Jon Stewart, who received the USO merit award in 2011, emceed the event. He’s been on several USO tours overseas and within the United States to visit wounded warriors. After joking about needing a lot of hand sanitizer, he said two trips downrange stood out to him.

“We were in Kabul [Afghanistan], and I was on tour with Karl Malone and David Blaine. It was 120 degrees out, and we didn’t bring cheerleaders,” he joked. “We came across these [Afghan] troops, and Blaine starts doing a card trick, and I thought, ‘We’re going to die. They’re going to think this is some sort of witchcraft. They don’t speak English. They look mad. I’ll just jump behind Malone, because he’s like 6 -foot-10.’ And the smiles on their faces -- it was a moment of confluence, of culture. It bridged a certain gap between the United States forces, the Afghan forces and our tour. It was just wonderful.”

Stewart said the second event that stood out to him was when he was doing a “meet and greet” at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan.

“There had to be a thousand people lined up, just to come to the stage, take a picture, shake hands and get an autograph,” he said. “It was an event for them. In the middle of it, all of a sudden, there was some type of alarm or notification, and everybody just stopped and put their heads down. I didn’t know what to do, and I said, ‘What’s going on?’

“They were loading our brothers and sisters to go to Dover [Port Mortuary at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware],” he continued. “And in that moment, the stark reality of their lives in that atmosphere struck home. These are men and women just like you and I that have to deal with trying to get basic entertainment and live their lives while also living with the sacrifice that many of them have to make, and then it ends a minute later and then they’re all back to trying to regain some sense of normalcy -- and that to me, was incredibly tough.”

Legacy of Achievement Award

Stephanie McMahon, chief brand officer for World Wrestling Entertainment, who presented Cena with USO-Metro’s Legacy of Achievement Award, said the WWE is a proud supporter of the military.

“It’s something very personal and very near and dear to our chairman and CEO, Vince McMahon, my father,” she said. “Without all of you defending our freedom and putting your lives on the line, we wouldn’t be able to do what we do. We wouldn’t be able to live our lives. Giving back to our military is just one small way we can say thank you, and we try to do it in as many ways as we possibly can.”

Cena said he’s proud of his patriotism and grew up living the warrior ethos that the military embodies. He said it’s an honor to be a part of the USO because “the USO provides tangible help and real-time support to the men and women and their families who protect that freedom.”

Having traveled with the USO from combat zones to minimalist forward operating bases, Cena said he has great respect for military’s efficiency, focus and discipline, and that he tries to live his life by its standards.

“I’m certainly not the hero you guys are, but just know that you have a great influence on me, and for that and everything you do, I say thank you,” he said to all those who serve the in the military.

Cena said he will continue to support USO missions and work for service members’ transition from the military back to civilian life with programs such as his new show, “American Grit,” in which he employs real service members to show military training and how it can translate into civilian skills in the workforce.

Col. John Gioia Patriot Award

Meadows and his wife received the Col. John Gioia Patriot Award. Meadows suffered a traumatic brain injury from an improvised explosive device blast in 2013 while serving in combat in Afghanistan. The family left their home in Connecticut so the soldier could receive medical treatments at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. They were living in the barracks there, but would visit USO-Metro.

“The guy who got off the plane was not my husband; he was just so drastically different,” Melissa said. “My husband was deteriorating. He was basically an advanced Alzheimer’s patient is what his doctor told us, and I didn’t know what to do and where to go. I didn’t know how to handle it. I was a nurse. I was a mom. I was a wife. But I didn’t know how to handle somebody who needed full-time care. We learned about the USO, and it was there for us.”

She said they would visit USO-Metro every day, and her husband participated in art therapy.

“If it wasn’t for the USO being here for us and giving us the opportunities, there’s no way he’d be where he’s at today. It’s been so therapeutic for him,” she said, her voice cracking with emotion. “There’s wonderful support with the caregivers as well. The USO saved our lives. We’d be totally lost without them. I can’t say thank you enough. It really did save our lives.”

Her husband agreed. “It’s a true blessing that I was able to get help. It really boosted my self-esteem,” he said. “I was really battling myself over how I was. I wasn’t the same man. I just painted and all of that would just go away. Art saved my life; it really did.”

First Lady Michelle Obama has commissioned artwork from Meadows.

Special Salute to U.S. Special Operations Command

USO-Metro gave a special salute to a group of active duty special operations service members. Army Gen. Raymond A. Thomas III, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, said that over the past 75 years, Socom’s mission has paralleled the USO’s in putting its people first. He also thanked the USO for always being there for the special operations service members.

“Our modern Special Forces trace our heritage to World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, Desert Storm, Somalia, to the current 15 years of continuous combat in Iraq and Afghanistan and in numerous other less-publicized efforts in-between,” the general said. “Although the USO has not always been able to go to all these exotic places where we’ve served, you and your fellow USO volunteers have sustained us throughout, and very often you have been the first friendly American face we have seen when we have returned, to the reason why we serve, our families and our country. It was and still is the people of the USO who provide the absolutely critical connection between the deployed service members and the home front.

“Right now,” he continued, “there are nearly 8,000 men and women of the United States Special Operations Command in nearly 80 countries around the world. And I have to tell you, today’s generation of special operations professionals is absolutely phenomenal. You may not see and hear about all that they do on a daily basis, but they represent the best that this nation has to offer. On behalf of the nearly 70,000 men and women of your United States Special Operations Command, I’d like to extend our deepest appreciation to the entire USO organization for all that you have done across the years and for all that you continue to do to sustain the greatest force of the greatest country in the world.”