On November 11th, the country will gather to honor those who have heroically served in the armed forces. In New York, Veterans Day will be marked with a parade down Fifth Avenue. And during this time when Americans reflect on service, it’s important to think about the many men and women who are actively serving around the globe.
One organization that looks after the needs of troops and their families is the USO. While many associate the organization with Bob Hope and its renowned Show Troupe, entertainment is only one part of its mission. On a daily basis the USO runs centers around the world, providing a wide range of important services and programs, from keeping families in touch during deployment to supporting wounded warriors back home.
Brian Whiting, the President and CEO of USO of Metropolitan New York, is responsible for the organization’s work in the tri-state area, as well as managing the operations for two national programs: the renowned USO Show Troupe and Operation That’s My Dress, which provides military families access to dresses for proms and formals. With Veterans Day approaching, 6sqft spoke with Brian to learn more about the USO’s mission and work, the New York chapter’s services, and ways New Yorkers can support the troops throughout the year.
First off, how many troops and their families currently live in the Metropolitan area?
It’s not something that is published, but to the best of our knowledge there are about 75,000 active duty, reserve and guard that reside and/or work in the tri-state area. We have countless service members and their families to whom we provide services who are in this region on business or traveling for leisure purposes. About 100,000 service members and family members come through the tri-state area each year.
And related to that, what is the USO’s mission?
The USO is approaching its 75th Anniversary on February 4, 2016. It was founded in Times Square back in 1941 at the request of President Roosevelt. So we [USO of Metropolitan New York] have been around since the inception of this organization. The USO is here to lift the spirits of our troops, our service members and their families. We are an organization that is there to connect service members and families during times of separation and to deliver goodness through a collection of nearly 30,000 volunteers who donate 1.6 million hours of time a year.
It’s less than 1 percent of our nation that’s worn the cloth of our military, so we like to be that vehicle by which the public can connect and give back to those who have served. And we do that through a variety of different programs that focus on five areas of support for our military: Forward Deployed Troops; Military Families at Home; Wounded, Ill and Injured; Families of the Fallen; and Transitioning from Military Life.
Have the organization’s goals evolved over time?
At the heart of what we do — in terms of connecting families and delivering America’s goodness to our service members wherever it is that they serve — our mission has remained the same. However, the means by which we deliver that goodness has evolved along with our programs. One example of that might be the way we connect families with loved ones deployed overseas in Southwest Asia. Today, a service member in Afghanistan or Kuwait can pick up a telephone to call home at no cost because of the private telecommunications and satellite network that the USO has set up in that region. Prior to that, we were dealing with phone cards. We have the ability to Skype the birth of a family member or a child back home at one of our 160 world-wide USO Centers.
You mention USO Centers. What services do these locations provide, and are any specific to the New York region?
You’ll find these centers manned by our volunteers in almost every major military installation in the United States and around the world, as well as in airports and major metropolitan areas. These center are visited nearly 30,000 times a day by our military and their families.
The programs may vary depending on the location. At some Centers, you’ll find telephones for people to call home for free, computer access, or baby changing stations. You’re going to have access to a program called United Through Reading, which allows a service member to videotape him or herself reading a book, write a message into that book, and have the video and book sent home to a loved one while they’re deployed. In other cases, our service members are moving to more remote locations, and it may mean that we are deploying one of our Mobile USOs into a region. These are vehicles that are outfitted with telecommunications and satellite network and computer and gaming systems.
This past year we opened a center with the support of Jet Blue, who gifted us a USO Center at JFK Airport. It’s open to all active duty, reserve and guard who may be traveling on military orders or for leisure purposes. We are in the midst of opening a center this holiday season out at Newark Airport. As you may know, we operate a facility at the Port Authority at Times Square and one over at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn, which is one of the largest military installations in this region. But in New York we’re a little bit unique because we have access to the Broadway community and so many major entertainment events. So in many cases we’re providing free tickets; everything we provide to the folks who come through our centers are free of charge.
How has the USO adapted to the current landscape our service members face?
There are nearly 250,000 service members transitioning this year, and we expect more going forward. There’s no better way for us to say thank you than to help them find a job. And so the USO is there as part of a collection of programs that we call Transition 360. Later this month in New York City and around the country, we’re going to hold a program with one of our partner organizations, Hire Heroes USA, to help those service members who are out there looking for that next phase in their lives.
Can you highlight some of the other important programming taking place now?
There’s countless programs, from Operation Phone Home to another program that we operate called Holiday for Heroes. The day before Veterans Day we’ll assemble 5,000 care packages that will be distributed to our troops and service members serving in Iraq, Afghanistan and Djibouti. These are care packages containing some of the most basic of necessities and entertainment-related items. We are doing this in partnership with the New York Yankees. A big program for us in terms of recognizing the children of military families is Operation That’s My Ride. On Veterans Day, nearly 600 bicycles will be distributed to children of military families in this region and beyond. Since this program began, we have given away 20,000 bicycles from New York City.
One thing worth noting is that when you ask most service members what it is that they’re looking for from the USO in terms of support, certainly during deployments, it’s about taking care of the military family, and if you take care of their family, everything else is going to be okay.
What is the USO of Metropolitan New York’s national role?
Because of the nature of New York as the entertainment capital of the world and our access to the Broadway and performing communities, we head up a Show Troupe of nearly 60 performers who travel the world putting on about 350 shows a year, entertaining over a half a million service members and veterans. They are also performing for the general public. It could be during New Year’s Eve in Times Square as the ball is dropping; they’re out there with Blake Shelton and other big names.
And then we operate another program called Operation That’s My Dress. Because of the relationship we have with a wonderful fashion designer by the name of Sherri Hill, who has donated more than $10 million in prom dresses to the USO, ten times a year we take this program around to our military. We partner with the Miss USA Organization, and we bring in military families with teenage daughters and give them brand new gowns, jewelry and makeup at events where pageant title holders help these young ladies select their dresses. This year we will give out probably 5,000 brand new prom dresses. We’re holding an Operation That’s my Dress in New York on December 8th.
How does the local chapter coordinate and collaborate with the national headquarters?
To the face of our military, we are one USO. This is something that is done in collaboration with USO Inc. based out of Arlington, Virginia. We refer to ourselves as USO New York, and you could be traveling in Dubai and you would see USO Dubai. In terms of the program activation, service members know it is the USO delivering that goodness and the programs.
Tell us a bit about how the organization provides access to NYC for service members.
When we look at our wounded, ill and injured service members coming to town for some of the military hospitals or warrior transition units, we’re going to give them an incredible VIP New York experience. They’ll come to town for three or four days, and we’ll get them to do meet and greets with Seth Meyers and get them out to watch his show. We’re going to bring them down to visit some of the iconic New York City attractions. They always ask of us to take some time to go down and visit the 9/11 Memorial to pay their respects.
Veterans Day is next week. Why is this day important?
I think this is certainly one time of the year that we have an opportunity to come together as a community to thank our active duty service members, their families, our veterans and to pay our respect to those who have made the ultimate sacrifice so that we can go about our lives and business as usual. We take this as an opportunity to get out and express America’s gratitude for the service and sacrifice of those that have worn the cloth of our nation. It’s a very small population of people, but it is because of them we have our freedom. It’s important for us to teach this to our children. The organization that puts on the Veterans Day parade in New York is first class. We’ll be out there with our volunteers, Show Troupe, entertainers and military on our float.
Speaking of thanking our military, what are some ways New Yorkers can support service members and their families?
It’s imperative to acknowledge the service and sacrifices of our military, and it should be an obligation. I always say if you’re walking through one of the public transportation systems in New York, you’re going to see active duty National Guard there, so just say thank you. A thank you goes a long, long way. If you have an opportunity to volunteer, whether it be through the USO or any other military support organization, it’s a great way to express your gratitude. If you have a neighbor and they have a family member deployed, offer to cut their grass or when you’re going to the grocery store to pick up some milk for them. Lastly I say, if you’d like to support an organization like the USO to deliver a care package to a service member or support some of the transition programs or support a military family, then we’re grateful for that support because all of our funding is from individuals and corporations.
What does working for the USO mean to you?
Every day I wake up and walk into an office with the understanding that my job is to lift the spirits of our troops and their families. To bring smiles to the faces of our service members and their families is a privilege and it is something that I am incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to do. I don’t think it gets any better than that.
[This interview has been edited]
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