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USO Metro Salutes Exceptional Troops, Volunteers

By Army Staff Sgt. Michael J. Carden
American Forces Press Service

ARLINGTON, Va., March 26, 2009 – The United Services Organizations honored members of the U.S. military and those who support them during an event held here last night that recognized selfless service and volunteerism .

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From left: Army Spc. Brent Hendricks, Air Force Tech. Sgt. Israel Del Toro, Army Sgt. Kurtis Dellicker, and Army Sgt. Jason Shepperly listen as Comedian Al Franken shares a few words about his commitment to the United Service Organization during the USO-Metro 27th Annual Awards dinner at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Arlington, Va., March 25, 2009. The wounded warriors had just presented the USO-Metro Merit Award to Franken for his support to the troops through entertaining visits to combat zones and military hospitals. DoD photo by U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Michael Carden

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The United Service Organizations of Metropolitan Washington, or USO-Metro for short, held its 27th annual awards dinner at the Ritz Carlton Hotel. The organization assists some 300,000 local troops and families.

“I love this event,” Academy Award-winning actress Renee Zellweger said. “It is so special to have been invited here tonight to dine in honor of our military and in celebrating the work that the USO of Metropolitan Washington does.”

Zellweger gave tribute to wounded warriors and their families, sharing her experiences of visits she’s made to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington and the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., over the last year. She recognized four wounded warriors currently recovering from injuries and shared their stories with an audience of more than 300 military members and supporters.

“I’ve met a lot of true heroes through the USO,” she said. “The hardest road the soldiers walk is the one he or she faces after the battle is over. It’s inspiring, but it’s extraordinarily moving. I have to say, it’s tremendously humbling.”

Army Sgt. Jason Shepperly, a combat medic and one of the wounded warriors introduced by Zellweger, had the opportunity to present the evening’s top honor. The USO-Metro Merit Award was presented to comedian-politician Al Franken for his seven overseas tours to visit deployed troops and numerous volunteer hours he’s given to wounded warriors at local military hospitals.

Shepperly was wounded in Mosul, Iraq, last year and is recovering from leg injuries at Walter Reed, where he first met Franken and Zellweger as well as other celebrities and entertainers, he said.

“[Wounded warriors] all have stories about how the USO has boosted our spirits from meeting entertainers to check out football or baseball games,” Shepperly said. “In my experience, it’s not just the injury that gets to you, it’s also the boredom of being stuck in a hospital bed day after day. The USO gives us something to look forward to.”

Shepperly recalled Franken’s most recent visit to Walter Reed, describing the bond Shepperly and other wounded troops had with him, calling Franken “just one of the guys.”

“I remember sitting in the hospital room cracking jokes and getting a laugh with one of the funniest guys I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting,” Shepperly said. “We could tell that he cared, and we had fun.

“I’m truly honored to present the man who has entertained the troops in the field and in the hospital, a man who has given up holidays with his family, spent time in heavy body armor stomping through the sand just to be there for the soldiers,” he continued.

Franken thanked Shepperly and the USO-Metro “for making entertaining and my experience with the USO the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.”

Franken recalled his first experience visiting wounded troops, telling the audience of how nervous he was. Thoughts of “how am I going to cheer up a guy who is in danger of losing his leg or has traumatic brain injury or is an amputee.” raced through his mind, he said.

His anxiety soon went away, he added, as he realized the resilience and positive attitudes the troops carried with them.

“What you learn, of course, is that they cheer you up, and that you leave with more than what you came with,” he said.

Among Franken and Zellweger, the list of celebrity USO supporters attending last night were book author and professional wrestler Mick Foley, actress and model Leann Tweeden, Miss American 2009 Katie Stam and several National Football League former players. Also, 34 of the 98 living Medal of Honor recipients were in attendance and were honored with a performance by singing trio, The American Belles.

Other award recipients were:

-- Army Sgt. 1st Class (retired) Carlo De Porto received the Col. John Gioia Patriot Award for more than 32 years of military service, spanning from World War II to the Vietnam War. He’s spent more than 50 years and logged more than 10,000 volunteer hours with the USO. At 86, he still volunteers every Thursday at the Baltimore-Washington International Airport USO.

-- The NFL Alumni Association was awarded the Legacy of Hope Award for the countless volunteer hours former NFL players have dedicated to visiting wounded and deployed servicemembers all over the world. The NFL Alumni Association remains actively involved with USO-Metro fundraisers and programs.

-- Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Christopher Barrows received a USO-Metro Special Salute for deploying a Coast Guard cutter to the Arabian Gulf in Iraqi water in April 2003, which was the first combat deployment by the U.S. Coast Guard since the Vietnam War. He received the Bronze Star Medal for his Service.

-- Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Luis E. Fronseca, Jr. received a USO-Metro Special Salute for rescuing injured Marines from a burning amphibious assault vehicle in April 2003 Baghdad. Fronseca’s vehicle, where he was treating casualties, was eventually hit with enemy fire. He organized a litter team to hand-carry the casualties to safety. All of his casualties survived. He received the Navy Cross for his actions.

-- Marine Staff Sgt. Joseph Perez received a USO-Metro Special Salute for leading a charge to destroy an Iraqi position April 2003 in Baghdad. In an engagement later in the day, he sustained gunshot wounds to his torso and shoulders, but continued to direct his squad to overrun another Iraqi position. He received the Navy Cross for his actions.

-- Army Staff Sgt. Christopher Waiters received a USO-Metro Special Salute for rescuing fellow soldiers from a flame-engulfed Bradley Fighting Vehicle in the midst of enemy fire in Diyala province, Iraq, in April 2007. He shot his way through more than 100 meters of enemy fire, killing two insurgents and eventually pulling the soldiers out of the vehicle and to safety. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions.

-- Air Force Staff Sgt. Zachary Rhyner received a USO-Metro Special Salute for successfully calling in air strikes after his team of Army Special Forces soldiers and Afghan troops were ambushed by more 200 enemy fighters April 2008 in Afghanistan. He suffered bullet wounds to his leg but still managed to alternate between returning fire and calling in air support for more than 6 hours. He was awarded the Air Force Cross for his actions.

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Photo Essay: US-Metro 27th Annual Awards Dinner

Click photo for screen-resolution imageVice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine Gen. James E. Cartwright, right, his wife Sandee, center, and other guests applaud the festivities during the United Service Organizations of Metropolitan Washington 27th Annual awards dinner at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Arlington, Va., March 25, 2009. DoD photo by U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Michael J. Carden  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageThe U.S. Armed Forces Color Guard presents the nation's colors for the singing of the National Anthem during the United Service Organizations of Metropolitan Washington 27th Annual awards dinner held at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Arlington, Va., March 25, 2009. DoD photo by U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Michael J. Carden   
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