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USO Gala Honors Military Members, Families

By Karen Parrish
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Oct. 8, 2010 – Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was among the military, government and community leaders and celebrities who gathered to salute servicemembers and their families at the annual USO Gala here last night.

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From left to right: USO President Sloan Gibson; Army Sgt. Zachary C. Dispennette; Marine Corps Sgt. Eric B. Walker; Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Kenton J. Stacy; Kimberly Watkins, mother of award recipient Air Force Staff Sgt. Gino P. Kahaunaele; Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Robert D. Emley; Edward T. Reilly, president of the USO Board of Governors; and Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, pose for photos at the USO Gala in Washington, D.C., Oct. 7, 2010. DOD photo by U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley

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Held at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel, the event featured entertainment, award presentations to five servicemembers, and highlights of USO programs. Set against a backdrop of glittering sequins, flickering candles, clinking silverware and shifting spotlights, the evening focused on the bravery and sacrifices of military members deployed far from home or recovering in hospitals, and the parents, spouses and children who support them.

Mullen told attendees that the USO has connected military members and the American people since its founding in 1941.

“Wherever our nation sends our troops, we can count on the USO to be out in front with us, to serve alongside us, providing its special brand of comfort in airports, foreign ports and battle zones across the globe,” the admiral said.

“As we celebrate tonight,” he continued, “I ask all of us to please remember the more than 200,000 young men and women out in front right now: on point, serving and sacrificing and making a difference around the world.”

After more than nine years of war, Mullen said, America’s troops and their families are being tested as never before.

“They’re resilient, so they don’t always show it. And they’re proud, so they don’t always talk about it. But there are hard realities that they face every day,” he said. “Not a moment goes by that I don’t think about the great pressures on these young men and women, and the sacrifices of their families. The challenges that will stay with them for the rest of their lives -- challenges that all of us must help them shoulder, as [they] have already shouldered such burdens for us.”

Sloan Gibson, USO’s president and chief executive, told the gala’s thousand or so attendees they were there to salute the efforts of America’s servicemembers and their families. The USO’s mission, he said, is “to lift the spirits of America’s troops and their families.”

Gibson extolled the courage of families of deployed troops who run households and hold down jobs while supporting and encouraging their far-away servicemembers; families of wounded warriors, who are in hospitals often around the clock providing care to injured loved ones; and the families of the fallen.

The USO works to support military families, as well as servicemembers, Gibson said, noting more than half of U.S. servicemembers are married and another seven percent are single parents.

USO-sponsored programs for children of military members, he said, assists them to cope with “parents who come home changed; or parents who don’t come home at all.”

USO partners with many other organizations to offer deployment and family support services ranging from free phone calls at forward locations, to videotaping bedtime stories deployed servicemembers can send home to their children, to grief camps for the sons and daughters of military members who die or are killed in action.

Gibson challenged the audience to join in the USO’s efforts.

“Your first opportunity to join us is coming up this Sunday,” he said.

That day, Oct. 10, will mark the kickoff of GiveBack10, which Gibson described as a grassroots campaign to encourage Americans’ support to wounded warriors. The challenge, he said, is to take 10 minutes to learn about the needs of wounded servicemembers and their families, tell 10 friends about the program, or donate $10 to a cause supporting wounded warriors.

During the gala, five military members took the stage to receive the USO’s Servicemember of the Year award. A soldier, a sailor, an airman, a Marine, and a Coast Guardsman, each selected by their respective service’s chief enlisted advisor, were recognized for courageous actions performed during the course of their duties. The Air Force award was accepted by Kimberly Watkins, mother of the recipient who is currently deployed.

Winners of the USO Servicmember of the Year awards are:

-Air Force Staff Sgt. Gino P. Kahaunaele, who is currently deployed. During a mission in an undisclosed location, Kahaunaele saved a teammate and a helicopter crew while serving with the 24th Special Tactics Squadron. He sprinted into a hail of gunfire to drag a pinned-down, wounded teammate to safety, stabilized the patient and ensured a quick evacuation, saving the man’s life. In another incident, he exposed himself to enemy fire to shoot and kill two enemy combatants engaging an exposed assault team, and fired on an enemy targeting a coalition helicopter, saving the crew. His bravery in the face of direct enemy fire saved eight lives.

-- Army Sgt. Zachary C. Dispennette, a medic who saved his battalion commander in Baghdad when Lt. Col. Timothy Karcher’s vehicle struck four improvised bombs. Dispennette rushed to the burning vehicle, applied four tourniquets to Karcher’s legs and began treating his shrapnel wounds. With help from fellow soldiers, Dispennette extracted the commander from the flaming vehicle and continued to apply life-saving aid as they evacuated the site, single-handedly saving Karcher’s life.

-- Petty Officer 2nd Class Kenton Stacy, a Navy explosive ordnance disposal technician, who participated in more than 50 combat missions while deployed to Afghanistan. He destroyed improvised bombs, trained Afghan forces and U.S. Special Forces members on route-clearing techniques, and helped ensure the zero-casualty rate in the province where he worked.

-- Marine Sgt. Eric B. Walker, who came under heavy fire while on a personnel recovery mission with a team of Afghan commandos and U.S. Special Operations forces serving in Afghanistan. As Walker supervised his partner force on the rooftop, a Marine was shot in the leg by a sniper. Braving a barrage of bullets, Walker dragged the wounded Marine down to the casualty collection point, then returned to the rooftop to defend the compound. Walker called for medical evacuation before moving the team to safety, traveling for a mile under continuous insurgent fire.

-- Coast Guard Petty Officer Robert D. Emley rescued a downed paraglider trapped inside a sea cave at Cape Lookout, Ore., while serving as a rescue swimmer onboard a Coast Guard helicopter. He disconnected from the rescue hook and swam 100 feet inside the cave to reach the parachute-entangled woman, swam her out of the depths of the cave, cut away her entangled parachute and, as they were pushed dangerously close to a jagged cliff face, carefully placed the severely hypothermic victim into the rescue basket, where she was hoisted to the safety of the helicopter.

Stacy, the Navy EOD tech, said the award was a credit to explosive ordnance professionals throughout the military.

“It’s a great reflection on the leaders that have trained me and taught me,” he said. “Hopefully it shines a light on the EOD community and what we do for the bigger picture.”

Attending the gala, he said, was “overwhelming.”

“I’m not really used to all the glamour,” Stacy said.

The USO also presented awards to their volunteer of the year, Herbert Carl Schmeling Jr., and retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the service’s 23rd commandant, received the Spirit of the USO award.

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Navy Adm. Mike Mullen

Related Sites:
USO of Metropolitan Washington

Click photo for screen-resolution imageNavy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Edward T. Reilly, president of the USO Board of Governors, left, congratulate Marine Corps Sgt. Eric B. Walker, USO Marine of the Year, at the USO Gala in Washington, D.C., Oct. 7, 2010. DOD photo by U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageAir Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, left, USO President Sloan Gibson, center, and Edward T. Reilly, right, president of the USO Board of Governors, present the USO Airman of the Year award to Kimberly Watkins, mother of award recipient Air Force Staff Sgt. Gino P. Kahaunaele, who is deployed, at the USO Gala in Washington, D.C., Oct. 7, 2010. DOD photo by U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley   
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