NFL helps USO connect service members with American public

By Bill Bradley, contributing editor

As part of the NFL's Salute to Service campaign, the league is donating $100 for every point scored to three military-related nonprofit organizations. During the campaign, NFL Evolution has focused on the groups that have benefitted from the donations.

Today, NFL Evolution looks at the USO, which began in 1941. Earlier this week, retired Brig. Gen. John I. Pray Jr., who is the USO's executive vice president for operations, programs and entertainment, talked about the origin of the USO, its work with the NFL and its future.

What is the mission of the USO?

Essentially it is to lift the spirits of our troops and their families wherever they may be serving around the globe. When we talk about our troops and their families, I think it's important to denote why we are somewhat unique than others in military philanthropy. We are congressionally chartered to focus on providing for the needs of our Active Duty, Reserve and Guard soldiers and their families.

How many soldiers do you estimate the US0 currently helps?

When you think about the audience, it's around 2 million active duty and reserve members. Then we have several million more family members. Our constituent base is about 5 million members that we try to serve. We try to break that out into segments. We realize that it's very hard to connect with everybody everyday all the time. We're very proud of the fact that we generate upwards of 10 to 11 million special moments every year, so that's well over 30, 000 times a day we are touching our troops and their families in some positive way.

When we start talking about those who need us most, we divide the large population into five groups: Those are deployed troops serving in harm's way -- particularly those getting shot at or at lone outposts who need to know we appreciate what they are doing; the second one is military families, particularly those with multiple deployments and separations from loved ones; the third category is our wounded, ill and injured, their family and their caregivers; the fourth category is families of the fallen, those families whose loved have sacrificed for the freedoms we enjoy daily; finally, the fifth group is one the USO has supported over time, but as conflicts come to an end, there's an outflow of service members coming back from military back to their civilian communities. One of the enduring missions of the USO is to care for those troops in transition and their families.

It sounds like a very tough mission at times to help millions of Americans.

Everybody who is part of the USO family loves doing what we do. When you start thinking about how many people work for us, we have about 400 employees around the globe in 160 different centers. The heart and soul of the organization is the 29,000 volunteers we have. Because of our presence and our reach and our scope, we are really able to touch our service members in very positive and meaningful ways.

How was the USO created?

It was created on Feb. 4, 1941. President (Franklin D.) Roosevelt, as he was looking ahead to the war clouds on the horizon given everything happening in Europe and the Pacific, formed the United Service Organizations. We were actually formed from six different entities to meet the needs of our service members and our growing military at the time. In 1941, the U.S. military was relatively small. He realized that they couldn't provide all of the spirit-lifting, emotional support efforts as they were looking at building up the military. He created our organization with that specific purpose in mind.

When did the USO start working with the NFL?

We have had a 48-year partnership with the NFL. It's one our longest ones. It is probably our most important relationship with the sports community. Football is such a unique part of the American culture and a powerful sport. It is something that our troops often rally around. ... I have been on a number of our NFL USO tours -- particularly with the coaches -- and I cannot tell the reaction that our NFL coaches and players get when they come out and see the troops. When our troops come out and see those players and coaches, they know that America's there saying, "Thank you."

What does it mean for the USO to be one of the beneficiaries of the NFL's donations through the Salute to Service campaign?

It's an incredibly important one and I really applaud the NFL for coming up with this concept, something that we can replicate every single year. I know that the month of November is when the NFL is focused on honoring our service members and that's a great thing. But what our service members need most to have the backing of the American people. Because football is such a uniquely American sport, having the NFL as the celebrity face that represents the 300 million Americans shows the troops we really care and that we understand what they're doing for us. The troops are giving up so much of their individual moments -- the ones that we kind of take for granted sometimes, like the soccer games or the birthdays and anniversaries. While they're not expecting a thank-you, it is so powerful to have them get that thank-you in person from any major celebrity. The NFL, because everybody watches ... it makes an impact. The troops say, "Oh my gosh. These are people I see on TV every week." It's such a powerful thing. It's hard to describe until you see it. So what the NFL is doing in regards to raising funds, it allows us to do all of that good work.

The other thing I have to highlight that as we take care of our wounded, ill and injured, the USO has built two centers. We have built a Warrior Family Center at Belvoir (Virginia) near our hospital there and another one in Bethesda (Maryland). At the one in Bethesda, we have a sports lounge that has been generously provided by the NFL. I can say that is one of the favorite rooms there. ... It is a very special place built by a very special partner.

How will the NFL's future donations help the USO?

We always try to work with the donor to figure out what they would prefer their money go to. I think what's really great about the NFL is the league has said, "You guys know best how you can use the dollars." We are always adapting our programming to adapt to the changing needs of our service members. One great case in point, we have a great program for military families with "Sesame Street." We have various scripts with military kids deal with the unique challenges of military life. "Sesame Street" has created a character only for the USO shows called "Katie," who is a military kid. The current show that we do essentially shows how military families have to move an awful lot. It has Elmo going in front these 5 and 6 years olds telling them it's going to be OK when you move because you'll make new friends in a new location. But what we're doing this year is rewriting the script to talk about the subject of military kids transitioning form a military community to a civilian community and how they will have to make friends there. That's the kind of the way we adapt to the changing needs of the military. ... When we start talking about the most powerful donation we have, it's that unrestricted dollar that allows us to do the most good with it. I applaud the NFL for taking that kind of approach.

What is the future of the USO? Where will it be 10 years down the road?

I think the world continues to remain in a lot of flux. We see ourselves as continuing to do those things that we consider our core activities. Fundamentally, our core activity is connecting the American people to their military. The way we do that oftentimes is through our centers. We have 160 centers around the globe ... and that allows us to tell the local communities to understand what is going on with the military and keeping them connected. What I see the USO doing in the future is that we'll probably be looking to open many more centers around the U.S. and around the world to help our military members maintain a much deeper and a broader connection.

Another one of our major core activities is entertainment. We're going to continue to strengthen our relationship with the music industry, sports industry, television and movies. It is such a powerful way for us to say thank you and utilizing them move.

Also, we want to continue to adapt our resources to the changing needs of the military. As we see fewer and fewer of our service members deployed, we may be doing less on the deployment. We can always ramp that up if needed. We see more of our role in helping our service members' transition. We've been growing over the years in areas we call the financial part of transition and the family part of transition. One the financial side it's about getting a job, going to financial classes to understand the changes, etc. We're looking to help our services members find a good long-term job. The other part is building family resiliency. Everybody knows transitions are hard. They put a lot of strain on the family. We have a number of different programs to help the family stay strong.

How can the average person contact the USO, for donations or to volunteer?

The best way is our website, which is USO.org. Somebody can look at how they can help us nationally. They can also look at how they can help locally. Like I said, we have 160 centers around the world. Somebody can say, "Hey, I'm in Atlanta. What can I do here?" People can find out more about us. As soon as they do, people will be impressed by our organization and want to help.

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