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USO Supports Troops, America Supports USO

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Feb. 6, 2001 – USO support for America's troops depends on public support, according to John H. Tilelli Jr., United Service Organizations president.

The USO is "the people's outreach to our troops and their families," the retired Army general said. "A legion of volunteers make up the heart of the USO."

Tilelli recently talked with the American Forces Press Service about the congressionally chartered, nonprofit organization that marked its 60th anniversary Feb. 4. He spoke of its charter, services, donors and the year-end holiday tours that have become a USO hallmark.

While most people associate the USO with celebrity shows and handshake tours, Tilelli said, entertainment is only a small portion of the USO mission. "The USO charter doesn't talk about entertainment," he said. "It talks about improving morale, welfare, recreation and quality of life of service members.

About 12,000 volunteers, assisted by a very small paid staff, operate more than 115 centers at major U.S. city airports, overseas 'cybercafes,' mobile canteens and family centers. "We're starting a new program featuring live-video cybercafes, where troops can see and talk to their families back home."

Today's military community includes far more family members than when the USO was founded 60 years ago, Tilelli noted. The volunteer group fills "voids" around the world, he said, by tailoring its programs to accommodate either the needs of the troops and families or specific needs identified by commanders.

Another misperception is that the USO is a government- funded organization, Tilelli said. "It's not. The public funds it. When the USO was conceived by President Roosevelt and then chartered by Congress, it was meant to be a direct link, a conduit, to provide services to the troops from the American people."

USO programs are free to the military because the business community and private citizens alike donate money, he said. "It's the only organization of its type that takes donor money from the American population and delivers programs and services to the soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen and their families around the world."

The USO's donor file has three main categories. "First, we have a large direct mail program where we reach out and touch individuals," Tilelli said. "They're a very big part of our program. If it weren't for the individuals who donate $10, $20, $30, $100, we wouldn't have a program."

Second are corporate donors. Those that commit to providing $250,000 or more a year are dubbed "world partners." In return, USO T-shirts and promotional materials display their company logo. Some firms contribute "in kind" through goods or services, he added.

The third category is philanthropists who help because they think the USO does good things, Tilelli said.

The USO is part of the annual Combined Federal Campaign, he said, but he's concluded the USO needs to do a better job of making people aware they can contribute through the annual fundraising drive.

"If we just got one dollar from every person who contributed to CFC, that would help us a heck of a lot and we're not even close to that," Tilelli said. The nonprofit's share from the drive is usually very small, he added.

"Our number is 0600. That's reveille on most installations," the 37-year veteran soldier joked.

The USO aims to become more deployable to meet the troops' needs in the 21st century, the general said. "We need mobile canteens or a mobile system of some sort so that when troops go somewhere, we can be right with them to provide our quality of life services immediately."

The USO could adapt the mobile canteens to meet troop needs. "They could have everything from videos to libraries to cooking facilities, to places for troops to just sit down and hang around," Tilelli said.

When U.S. forces deployed to the Balkans, the USO also went in, he said. Today, there's a USO center in Taszar, Hungary, and a mobile canteen in Bosnia. The USO has not yet set up in Kosovo, however, he noted, because command officials there say the threat level is still too high.

The USO must also invest in more technology, Tilelli said. "The cybercafe is very important to the troops now since it gives them the ability to talk to their families and see their families live. I think that's an area we're going to have to go into."

In mid-December, Tilelli accompanied William S. Cohen on the former defense secretary's fourth annual holiday USO tour. The tour highlighted the partnership between DoD and the USO. He said he hopes that the annual holiday tour will continue.

"It's important during the holiday period to do something like this, because it tells the troops who are away from home that we in America care," he said. "It's a direct link for them." The troops loved it, he continued, and having the secretary himself involved was an added highlight for them.

"It was magnificent," the general said. "The fact is, the troops love to see the leader of their armed forces, and when he says something to them it's meaningful. It's really and truly meaningful to them."

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