By Ibrahim Dabo
WASHINGTON, D.C.—Extraordinary bravery, loyalty and heroism of US service men and women were recognized on Nov. 2 when the United Service Organizations (USO) hosted its annual gala in Washington, D.C. An estimated 1,100 guests were in attendance including Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin E. Dempsey. The theme of this year’s gala was “Honoring those who serve.”
“There are countless organizations out there doing great work, and we partner with many of them. But no other organization has our scope and scale, or is as well positioned as the USO to meet the wide array of needs facing troops and their families today,” Sloan Gibson, USO’s president and CEO, said in his opening remarks.
“As we look to the future, we know the men and women serving our country and their families will continue to face challenges and we will continue to help them meet those challenges. We will be there for them, no matter what. That’s today’s USO,” he added.
Sloan said today’s USO is dramatically expanding facilities and programs to support wounded, ill and injured troops and their families.
“It’s part of our mission, lifting the spirit of America’s troops and their families. It’s always been part of our mission,” he said.
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta commended the USO for its unwavering support of troops and their families. He recognized the dedication and sacrifice of service men and women “in the cold mountains and windswept valleys of Afghanistan.”
And, there are thousands more brave men and women who are enduring tough conditions at sea, or stationed at remote posts in the Middle East, and Africa, and elsewhere around the world, Panetta said.
The defense secretary referenced the Vietnam War, which marks its 50th Anniversary this year, saying, “Those who fought in the Vietnam War always could count on the strong support of the USO. The politics of that war never changed the warm response and embrace of the USO.”
Panetta said far too many troops returned home to a country that failed to give them the honor they richly deserved.
“It has taken many years but finally our nation recognizes the sacrifices that were made by our [service] men and women in that [Vietnam] War,” he said.
“Today, [after] more than a decade of war that we’ve endured, we can all be thankful that the American people are united in support of those who put their lives on the line for this country.”
The USO has shown “galvanizing force to turn that spirit of support for our military into benefits for our service men and women, and their families. I am deeply grateful as secretary of defense to the tens of thousands of USO staff and volunteers who work tirelessly to support our troops,” Panetta said.
Senior Airman Evan J. Steven, who was honored as the USO National Guardsman of the Year, told Ib Talk Online in an exclusive interview about his experience while serving in Afghanistan.
“One morning we had inadvertently wandered into a minefield and a few of our patrolmen had stepped on landmines and our team quickly reacted to those events, got to those men, gave them the medical attention they needed and quickly got them back into base so they can receive the treatment that they needed,” he said.
Steven’s courageous actions without regard for his own personal safety helped save the lives of his comrades but he was quick to attribute his achievement and USO honor to teamwork.
“What it [the honor] doesn’t say is that I did have a team with me and because our team practiced well and rehearsed, we were ready for something like this. We performed well and tonight I’m here representing that team that I was a part of,” said Steven of his a 20-person dismounted patrol in Afghanistan.
Steven commended USO for their inspiration saying, “This is amazing. They have constantly done a good job. When I was overseas it was like a home away from home—there was a place you could go and anything you needed you could ask for. So it’s really being a wonderful time.”
USO Volunteer of the Year, Sergeant Richard Schuh, told Ib Talk Online being honored by the USO “means a lot to me.”
Schuh was introduced to the USO while recovering from injuries sustained in Afghanistan. He was inspired by one of the USO events during his recovery process and he later went on to commit more than 200 hours of his time to the organization.
“The USO is there for anybody in need. It’s a home away from home. If you are around the USO, go into the USO. There’s nothing better than being deployed from your spouse and family and going into the USO and being greeted and welcomed. It’s an honor,” Schuh said.
Admiral Michael G. Mullen, U.S. Navy (Ret) and Mrs. Deborah Mullen were honored with the Spirit of the USO award. In his acceptance speech, Admiral Mullen seized the opportunity to talk about the much needed support for veterans.
He said the focus is now on veterans and their families as these veterans return home and into society over the next three years.
“They will make a difference in our country as they have while they served in the military. And it’s a great bet to hire a vet,” Mullen said.
“This is a great evening and we are honored. But all of you who are here, your task is to reach out, find those veterans and figure out how to just give them the start they need as they transition.”
Director of Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders Kelli Finglass told Ib Talk Online in an exclusive interview that her organization has done shows with the USO since 1979, and this Christmas will mark their 75thUSO tour.
“It’s a big tradition for our organization and more importantly it’s an honor. The USO allows us a very unique chance to take our cheerleaders and the magic of the NFL and be entertainers but yet in a simpler way to serve our country,” Finglass said.
She said the cheerleaders who participate in these shows and tours come back changed women.
“They see things that most people don’t get the chance to see and they get the chance to share their talent and their personalities with service men and women overseas,” Finglass said.
Finglass said the experiences are very “impressionable,” and cheerleaders travel to war zones, guard posts, out in the fields, and do shows—the premise of their schedule.
She said, “seeing firsthand what service is today is very humbling for them and it’s educational,” adding that cheerleaders also visit hospitals and meet with and inspire a lot of people that have been wounded.
“It made a big impression on them [the cheerleaders] today because the troops are of their age and they met spouses of many of them, too. It humanizes what we hear on the news and many of us don’t really see it firsthand,” she said.
Actress/recording artist Jordin Sparks entertained guests at the gala, performing three of her popular hits: “Battlefield,” “One Step at a Time” and “No Air.”
The gala raised over $2 million to support the troops.
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