Mention the United Service Organizations -- almost universally known as the USO -- to most Americans, and the first thing you'll likely hear is "Bob Hope." The USO is eager to change that image. Not that organizing performances for the troops isn't an integral part of their mission, but the expansive programs and services they provide does so much more than entertain.
Through Independence Day, HuffPost Impact is running a series of stories called "Breaking the Roles," highlighting the servicemen and women of our armed forces who don't typically see the media spotlight, and the remarkable work of the USO, who are tireless in their efforts to support all who defend our country.
When two improvised explosive devices detonated next to Staff Sergeant Charles Eggleston's vehicle in Iraq, he was sent was flying through the air, crashing into another vehicle. Eggleston suffered severe injuries running down his left side -- his spine was close to being severed, his arm injured, face scarred. He was taken to Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where he spent over three years recovering from his injuries. While the length of his recovery is in part due to the severity of his injuries, it was also partly caused by the slowness with which his case was addressed.
In 2007, when a Washington Post exposé brought a cloud of scandal to Walter Reed Medical Center, Eggleston joined fellow soldiers in speaking out about the inadequate care he received at the hospital. When Eggleston first arrived at the hospital, it took two months before staffers scheduled surgeries to mend the shattered discs in his spine and another eight months before he was treated for the brain injuries he suffered.
Today, Eggleston continues to struggle with his health problems, his body riddled with titanium rods and plates to hold his back in place. He is currently recovering from another of his many back surgeries, the most recent just three months ago. Eggleston is optimistic; he considers himself "60 percent healed." Doctors estimate he will be done with his recuperation process by 2013 or 2014. He refuses pity, saying, "I don't want anyone to feel sorry for me, I signed up to do this job."
Eggleston on a tour of duty in Iraq.
Where his medical care was lacking, Eggleston says the warmth of USO staff and volunteers at Walter Reed made up for it. "When I come out of surgery, I'm always seeing the USO people smiling... It makes you feel special. For that moment, it made you feel like someone is listening." USO Metro D.C. volunteers at Walter Reed provided Eggleston with companionship and support through his many surgeries and helped facilitate his family visits during his time in the hospital.
For Eggleston, having an organization he could trust was key. "I see so many organizations out there that are not valid...that use and abuse wounded warriors." According to Eggleston, soldiers aren't the types to ask for help or seek out social services. That's why it's crucial that the USO goes the extra mile to get to know individual wounded warriors and offer help. "It's all about outreach -- these are the guys doing that outreach." During his days in the hospital, Eggleston began supporting the USO by encouraging other recovering soldiers to accept USO help.
Now, Eggleston has joined the ranks of Operation Enduring Care, the USO's program to support wounded warriors and their families through their medical care and beyond. He says, "The first line of defense is becoming an inspiration to other soldiers...I try to inspire other soldiers because we're all one family." Eggleston checks in regularly with his network of wounded warriors and shares an encouraging message for friends who are feeling hopeless. If he senses a fellow wounded warrior might be in danger of hurting himself, he puts them on 'suicide watch' -- keeping tabs on them himself and alerting the Operation Enduring Care staff of his concerns. He explains, "I don't want to lose another guy to suicide if I can help it." His message to others: "The worst thing you can do is kill yourself after you were almost killed in war. You're worth more than that."
Baseball player Barry Bonds visiting Eggleston in the hospital, 2006.
Eggleston is modest about his contributions, saying "I can't take credit [for Operation Enduring Care], I'm a very little piece of it." Giving back does give him a sense of fulfillment. "At the end of the day, I can lay my head down and say I've helped another person. I just hope other folks do the same."
In addition to building one-on-one relationships with fellow wounded warriors, Eggleston is also an eager participant in almost any USO event -- annual golf tournaments are a favorite activity. Eggleston looks forward to continuing to lend a hand to the USO in years to come. He speaks excitedly about the Wounded Warrior Support Center that the USO is building in Bethesda, Maryland. The center will offer services for recovering soldiers and serve as a family hub that will support wounded warriors' families. According to Eggleston, the new center shows one of the USO's priorities is clearly to "make it easier for the family." This priority is meaningful to him, a family-oriented man, who has a wife and two children of his own, and eagerly includes his cousins, aunts and uncles when asked about his family.
Of the relationship between the troops and the USO, Eggleston says, "We protect, and they protect us." Eggleston may be war hero decorated with a purple heart, but he says of the USO, "they're my heroes."
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