Top civilian and military leaders at the Pentagon took time Wednesday to commemorate the United Service Organizations (USO) and its 70 years of service to troops and their families.
Deputy Secretary of Defense William Lynn and the nation's highest ranking military officer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, spoke at the dedication ceremony unveiling a new USO exhibit in Pentagon.
Mullen, it was noted in the ceremony, holds a record for the number of USO tours he's brought along with him as he has traveled to visit with troops deployed in Afghanistan and elsewhere around the world. He often brings with him his wife Deborah, who was also in attendance Wednesday at the Pentagon.
"Deborah and I have been blessed to be overseas with those entertainers, stars and athletes that give up their time," the Chairman said about the USO’s now infamous celebrity tour circuit. "What is most precious about that is to be halfway around the world and to see, for a moment, the smiles on our men and women's faces that these individuals bring to them."
But the USO, a nonprofit, congressionally chartered private organization, wants the public and its contributors to know that since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began nearly a decade ago, its mission has expanded.
"They're known for the celebrity tours that you see going back to the era of Bob Hope," Lynn said. "That's certainly an important morale boost that they still do... but they do so much more -- care packages, phone cards, whatever it is the troops and their families need."
USO programs like Operation Phone Home and United Through Reading, provided through a USO partner organization, have become extremely popular ways for deployed service members to interact with loved ones at home. United Through Reading allows parents to pre-record themselves reading books to their children. Operation Phone Home delivers prepaid phone cards to troops so they can call home free of charge.
Earlier this summer the USO broke ground for a new Wounded Warrior and Family Care Center at Fort Belvoir, VA. as part of a $100,000,000 campaign to support wounded warriors and their families. The USO also plans to build a similar center at the Bethesda Naval Medical Center in Maryland. Both centers will be available as the historic Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington D.C. closes this year and more troops begin to return home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"The world is changing fast, we've changed fast in these wars," Chairman Mullen said at the dedication ceremony. "I've watched the USO change and look to what it can do for the future."