The following is a conversation between Dr. J.D. Crouch, President and CEO of the USO and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer WNYM in New York City.
Denver: The USO or United Service Organizations was founded in 1941 to provide entertainment and other programs to members of the United States Armed Forces and their families to become their “home away from home.” It has a rich history and continues to evolve so it can best address the needs of today’s service men and women. And with us tonight to talk about all of this, it’s a pleasure to have with us Dr. J.D. Crouch, the President and CEO of the USO.
Good evening, J.D., and welcome to The Business of Giving!
J.D.: Good evening. Thank you for having me.
Denver: The USO does have such a rich history, and those of us of a certain age have very, very vivid memories of it. Tell us about the founding of the organization and the role that it’s played really since World War II.
J.D.: It was a brilliant move actually. It was founded in February of 1941, and if you remember, the United States was not in World War II until December 7, 1941. And consequently, they knew that the United States was getting into war – our leaders did – and the President of the United States used the convening authority of the presidency to pull together six service organizations, and that’s why we’re called the United Service Organizations. They’re familiar names to people today – YMCA, YWCA, Travelers Aid, Salvation Army, like that.
Denver: Household names.
J.D.: Exactly. And they took their military programming and consolidated it into an organization. In addition to that, they also developed the entertainment programming.
But from the very beginning, the USO has been about a lot more than entertainment. It’s been about all those things that help to strengthen service members by keeping them connected to family, home, and country.
The real mission of the organization as it was established in ‘41 was not only to strengthen those service members, but also to be the bond between citizens and the people that are fighting for them.
Denver: And the USO was actually disbanded in 1947, correct?
J.D.: It was, for a very brief period of time. President Truman said, “Mission accomplished.”
Denver: Yes, we’ve heard that.
J.D.: Exactly. And unfortunately, the Korean War broke out.
And you raise a very interesting point. The USO actually has kind of gone out of business – it didn’t go out of business, but it was nearly out of business several times in its history because it very much was associated with the idea of: We need this in time of war, maybe not so much after a war.
That, of course, has not played out. That has not been true. The real mission of the organization as it was established in ‘41 was not only to strengthen those service members, but also to be the bond between citizens and the people that are fighting for them. And as long as we have an Army and a Navy and an Air Force and the like, we’re going to need an organization like the USO. It’s not just good for them, it’s actually good for our democracy.
Denver: I agree with you. Talk a little bit about those USO entertainment tours, the camp shows, if you will; and of course, who I think of when I think of those is Bob Hope.
J.D.: Absolutely. Bob Hope really dedicated his life to this. There’s no other way to put it. From very early on – the first show was actually done at March Field in the spring of 1941 – he was there. He took tours…As allies and armies advanced through the Pacific and in North Africa and elsewhere, he was bringing tours there.
There were actually – not him, of course – but USO tour veterans who were killed as a result of traveling around during World War II. So, it really was amazing. At the height of the war, there were a million volunteers to the USO out of a country of 130 million people.
J.D.: It was really an amazing thing. And so those entertainment tours continue today. I’ve spent the last…not this year, but the last four or five years before that… in Afghanistan on Christmas Eve and in Iraq on Christmas Day. With entertainers. They’re not there to see me; they’re there to see Scarlett Johannson and Chris Evans and the singers and all the others, and it is an amazing, an amazing thing to behold.
Denver: Let’s talk a little bit about those USO locations because I think a lot of our listeners might see them at the airports, but as you say, you’re all over the world. How many centers do you have? Where are some of the places they’re located other than the ones you mentioned?
J.D.: We have about 240 centers worldwide, and that’s really our infrastructure. I will say, though, that we do a lot more than that because we do stuff in places where we don’t have centers. For example, last year, we sent a lot of stuff in to support the people who were in Africa – North Africa, Central Africa. We only actually have one center in Africa. It’s in a wonderful place called Djibouti. If you’ve ever been there, you might want to be from there; it’s not the nicest place in the world. But we’re in the Middle East. As I’ve said, we have centers in Iraq and Afghanistan. We have centers all over the Far East and Europe that are supporting the over 225,000 men and women who are deployed overseas, plus their families.
In addition to that, we have centers in the US. Our citizens would see those airport centers. The ones they wouldn’t see are on the major bases, and we are on virtually every major base – everything from Camp Pendleton on the West Coast to Fort Bragg here on the East Coast and everything in between. And there, we actually – we serve whatever they need. It may be a base for basic training like up in the Great Lakes for the Navy. Or it may be an advanced base. It may be a base from which people are deploying a lot, like in Kentucky. So it depends on what they need, whether they have families there, or they’re unaccompanied and the like, and our programming shifts around those needs.
…the volunteers are the heart and soul of the USO.
Denver: Well, J.D., I’ve done the math. You got about 240 centers and only about 800 employees. So I said, “Well, that ain’t gonna work to operate these centers.” You must rely heavily on volunteers. Tell us a little bit about that volunteer network.
J.D.: We do. We have 30,000 volunteers. In most of our locations, we have wait lists to become volunteers, which is a good thing.
Denver: That’s impressive.
J.D.: Although we’re always looking for new ways to volunteer, and we’re also looking for new kinds of volunteers, and I can mention that in a second. But the volunteers are the heart and soul of the USO. They’re what make us different than being a government program. I often get asked, “Why doesn’t the USO just get funded by the government? Make it a government program?”
Denver: Sure. You’re taking my questions, but go ahead.
J.D.: Oh, sorry.
I once asked Condi Rice that question in an interview that we were doing with her, and she said, “J.D., I’m a strong supporter in the need for government. I worked in my government most of my life, but,” she said, “the government has no soul.”
And so what these volunteers provide is a soul. They’re not there because they’re getting a paycheck. They’re there because they love those service members and their families, and they want to do right by them, and they believe in what they’re doing. And that comes through. If you’ve ever seen them interacting in our centers, it is really a love-love relationship.
Denver: I can see that. And getting back to the “home away from home,” that’s what they have in their local community. They don’t have some government employees there. They have people who really care – local people – and that’s what really gives them the flavor and that emotional connection.
J.D.: Absolutely. And in fact, many of our centers kind of look like that home. We want them to have that easy chair. We want them to have somebody like “mom can’t get them a cup of coffee and a donut, but somebody maybe who looks a little bit like mom can.” And so they get that sense of: For a moment. I’m not where I am. For a moment, I’m not under military discipline.
Denver: Right. I’ve been transported.
J.D.: I’ve been transported back. And that’s what the entertainment…I had people in Afghanistan last year – not this December, before – come up to me and say, “Thank you, thank you.” I said, “Why? You could have downloaded this on YouTube.” And they said,” No, because for the hour that I was here, I felt like I wasn’t here.” And it just brings tears to your eyes because that’s the way they feel.
Denver: Oh, that’s beautiful.
Well, deployment can be tough, but particularly tough on military spouses. Do you have any particular, specific programs for them?
J.D.: Absolutely. We try to make our centers all over the world a hub for military spouses. One of our really popular programs right now, it sounds very simple, but it’s called Coffee Connection. If you think about it, when a service member in their family goes overseas, dad or mom who’s in the service, they know where they’re going. The kids know where they’re going. They’re going to the local “DOD” schools, it’s called – Department of Defense school. But mom or dad who are the trailing spouse, they don’t know where they’re going, and in fact, in many places, it’s hard for them to get employment, and so they can be very much isolated and cut adrift.
They come to the USO. They have a coffee connection. We use this where we bring in spouses who’ve maybe been in the military longer, have them connect with the younger spouses, have them develop networks, have them find common interests. We also bring in outside speakers so that they can see what’s available to them in the military community that they’re in, or even in the broader community. It’s a way of getting them embedded in that community so that they can do what they do so well, which is to support their service member in their family. And so, it’s programs like that that are very helpful.
On the other end, we just started this in the last few years. We now do transition programming. We’re helping military families as they make the decision to leave the service… helping them find employment, helping them get their educational benefits, their veterans’ benefits, things like that. And so, we’ve opened this up to spouses as well because it is often the spouse that gets that first job, or is in a position to make sure that that retiring service member is on task, if you will.
Denver: I hear you. Share with us another one of your favorite programs because you have so many.
J.D.: One of my favorite programs is…we call it the Bob Hope Legacy Reading Program. We call it that because we’ve gotten generous support from the Bob Hope Foundation to support this. It’s all over the world. We have little places in our centers that often are set up like Sesame Street or Disney cartoons and the like. And mom or dad who’s deployed overseas, sits down and is videotaped – they read a story, a goodnight story to their children. That is then boxed up – the book, any notes they have on it, the video – and it is sent to the family. And I’ve had so many families tell me that their children would watch this same story over and over again. They’d even come up to the TV and touch dad or mom on the TV.
J.D.: And so, it’s that way of being able to keep those families connected when they are at great distance, when the time zones are bad. It sounds like a simple thing, but it is a powerful thing. So it’s one of my favorite programs.
Denver: Now, it’s one of mine.
Have you had a challenge in reaching younger Americans? Guys like me who are around… USO is so present in my mind, but I’m not so sure about, let’s say, millennials, et cetera. Do you have efforts to try to reach that generation?
J.D.: Sure. I always like to remind people. People sometimes get down on the millennials. I’m not down on the millennials.
Denver: Me neither. She may be listening, so I’m not.
J.D.: The millennials are the ones…well, no. I’m just saying that – well, I have two children who are millennials, and I’m very proud of them. But the millennials are the ones who volunteered after 9/11 to go to war. There was no draft. There was no compulsion. We have a completely all-volunteer force in the military. Yet they stood up and said, “I’m going to go defend my country.” We always talk about the “greatest generation” – well, they’re a great generation, and they’re coming into their own.
The challenge is that fewer than 1% of the country serve at any one time now. That’s not their fault; that’s just the way it’s structured. And so, I think our biggest challenge with them is just making them aware of: What is military life like? Why do you need an organization like the USO to be an antidote to the separation that people feel when they’re in uniform? And so that is a challenge.
And so one of the ways we do that – our entertainment community. It’s a great way. It’s not just about entertaining the troops, but it’s about getting them to engage, for example, with their Twitter accounts and their Instagram accounts and said, “I spent my Christmas overseas supporting our military and showing that we appreciate them,” and getting folks to hopefully say as a result of that, “Well, if somebody really famous is doing that, maybe I should be thinking about those things, too.”
Denver: You make a great point about the challenge, too, because there’s so many people today who don’t even know anybody who has served in the military, at least in the last couple of decades. That’s going to be more pronounced in New York and some other major areas, probably less so in the Midwest and in the South, but that’s got to be a challenge in terms of trying to create that level of awareness.
J.D.: It is. It absolutely is. And if you think about it, it’s the same challenge that the military has. They are concerned about it because in many respects, the military has become a bit of a family business, that you see military children going into the military. And it’s understandable because they actually have seen the benefits of military life. These young people who are sons and daughters often have tremendous resilience. They’ve been able to move all over the world multiple times. Yes, they probably didn’t like it when they’re in their third year in high school, and they had to move home, but the truth was they’re extremely successful because they’re able to do that.
So we need to highlight them as well and make sure that people understand that this is actually a very positive career, and that actually the notion that military people have a difficult time when they come into a civilian life is just not true. They’re often some of the most successful people in our society.
Denver: Well, we’re living in an era where there’s nothing more highly valued than cultural competency, and what a way to get it by going around the world and living in other cultures and understanding other people and their point of view!
Denver: What’s the impact, if any, of the rise of China and the assertiveness of Russia on an organization like the USO?
J.D.: If you think about it, we say that we are always by their side, and so our job is to make that a reality. And so, as the military shifts their footprint, we have to follow them, and we do follow them. In fact, we try to get out in front of it. As much as I can, I want to get into that operations plan.
Denver: Absolutely. Like they did in February of 1941 when the war started in December.
Denver: You’re just a little bit ahead of the curve.
J.D.: The last few December 26ths, I’ve spent in a place called Poland. Most Americans don’t know that we’re rotating a brigade combat team-sized elements through there almost constantly every year. And so, this year we’re putting a USO center in Poland…if you can imagine that. Why is that? Because those forces are assuring our allies in the East. They’re deterring the Russians. They have a very important role to play in the NATO Alliance.
And similar things are happening out in the Far East as a result of a lot more emphasis on managing the rise of China and dealing with those challenges there. You see it in the building of new USO centers at a place like Camp Humphreys in Korea. You’ll see it in the fact that we are now extending down to places in Singapore, Port Darwin in Australia. Why? Because that’s where our service members are.
So that footprint really does a huge impact on our operations, both our fixed locations, but also what we call our expeditionary support.
Denver: So interesting.
Corporate America has always played an enormous role in the success of the USO. Tell us a little bit about your corporate partners and how they help you.
J.D.: They help us in a number of ways. The best partners for us are the ones that are really strategic partners. They’re not just providing resources or writing a check. We have their employees engaged. We have them doing care package stuffing, or we have them engaged in helping through in our transition programming and things like that. So their employees feel that they’re giving back to the men and women in uniform. In a way, they’re not giving to us. We’re the vehicle through which they connect.
Denver: They’re giving not to you, but through you.
J.D.: Through me. Exactly.
Another way they do obviously is through financial support or in-kind support. We’ve had great generous partners in that area. But they also help us with this issue you raised earlier, which is brand awareness. We’ve got great corporate partners like Boeing, Lockheed Martin; in the defense areas, Northrop Grumman, all of them support.
But outside those areas, our oldest corporate partner is Coca-Cola. They go back all the way to the beginning, and in fact, it was really…Coke kind of advanced with the allied armies and put a Coke in everybody’s hand. The CEO from back then said, “I want to put a Coke in every soldier’s hand.” And we helped them do that, but they also generously helped to support all the other programming that we’ve done.
So we’ve got a fantastic…everybody from Kroger has been a fantastic partner for us. Lyft – interesting, fantastic partner for us. So I would encourage yo:, go on our website and see who some of these brands are that are doing this because they’re worth supporting.
Denver: I did, by the way. It’s about 11 pages long. You’ve got quite the roster.
J.D.: Yes, we do.
Denver: Included in that roster would be the NFL. And I know Pete Rozelle got that program started during the Vietnam War. Tell us a little bit about your partnership with the NFL.
J.D.: Well, it’s over five decades old, and it’s great. Of course, The NFL – we take NFL players out on our tours. They’re among the most popular—
Denver: I can imagine.
J.D.: —people that we bring on our tours. They’re fabulous. What’s really neat about them is the show…. that they get to highlight and show the depth of character of these players. You don’t get to the NFL typically unless you’ve got some real depth.
Denver: It’s a rare breed.
J.D.: Yes, exactly. It’s a rare breed. And they show that on tour.
But in addition to that, we do all kinds of activations with the NFL throughout the year in supporting individual teams, but also the broader brand. We’ve got a whole bunch of things we’ll be doing out, including, I think, a USO exhibit at the Super Bowl. So, it’s just been a fantastic partnership over the years.
Denver: Speak about your philosophy of leadership, J.D., maybe some of the influences in your life that helped shape you as a leader and perhaps a lesson you learned along the way that has served you particularly well in this role.
J.D.: A couple of things. I strongly believe that a leader cannot be an island and alone. A leader has to bring good people into his organization – not just his employees, but volunteers and people outside, advisers; and in the case of a nonprofit, a strong board that’s engaged and not shunted. And so, I think building that kind of team to me is really the role of the leader. That, and setting the vision for the organization. Those are the two things that you’ve got to do.
And the second thing is: if you bring in those good people, let them go. I’ve always said, “I’d rather say “Whoa!” than “Giddy up!”
Denver: I like that.
J.D.: That’s important because for them to develop, for them to mature, for them to be in a position one day to replace the person they worked for, including you…I always look at my team and think, “Who’s the next CEO of the USO?” because I want to help build that in them. That is a really important part, I think, of leadership.
On your question about… I’ve learned this in a number of ways. One of the things is high performing individuals may not be the best teammates. And that’s sometimes hard to realize because you see somebody individually has an enormous amount of capability: they’re strong; they’re articulate; they get their work done: they have organizational skills and the like. But if they’re disruptive to the rest of the organization, they can actually drag the organization down.
Denver: I agree.
J.D.: And so it’s important to think about that, to make sure that you are counseling people who might be leading in that direction so that they can change. And if they can’t change, it’s important that you move on.
…you want someone who’s humble first, hungry to get the job done and make a difference, and smart in the way they work with other people. Those are the best teammates.
Denver: Yes. You change them. That’s exactly right.
Well, organizations today to be successful depend upon super teams and not superstars, and not enough organizations check that when they’re interviewing people. I think our ego gets involved because you look at the resume and you say, “Boy, the board will be impressed!” But they’re not going to fit in. And often, when one person gets that competitive and tries to hoard resources and things, it makes everybody else do the same thing. And then instead of going for the greater goal, everybody’s looking at their own turf.
J.D.: I’m sure you’re familiar with Lencioni’s concept of humble, hungry, and smart. Smart in that is not smart like IQ smart; it’s smart in working with other people. It’s EQ more than IQ. And so, I love that combination of: yes, you want someone who’s humble first, hungry to get the job done and make a difference, and smart in the way they work with other people. Those are the best teammates.
Denver: Don’t hire the best person. Hire the right person. That’s what it gets down to.
J.D.: There you go.
…these men and women sacrifice a lot for us, not just on the battlefield, in the kinds of things they’re asked to do, in the places they’re sent, in the divisions of time within their family.
Denver: Let me close with this, J.D. If you could have one wish granted on what we as a nation could do to show a greater appreciation for the men and women of the Armed Forces and all that they do for us, what would that wish be?
J.D.: I’d like every American to set aside some time in their life for them; it doesn’t have to be a lot. But these men and women sacrifice a lot for us, not just on the battlefield, in the kinds of things they’re asked to do, in the places they’re sent, in the divisions of time within their family.
And so, I always say to people, “Say something to them, if you see one, and take some action; do something, and then learn something.” So if you can learn something about our military this year, say something to a service member, and maybe take some action, whether it’s with an organization like the USO or a veterans organization or something else. If every American could do that, what a place we would live in!
Denver: No question. Collective effort will make an incredible difference.
Well, Dr. J.D. Crouch, the President and CEO of the USO, I want to thank you so much for being here this evening. Tell us about your website and how people can help if they’re inspired to do so.
J.D.: Well, obviously, you’ll be surprised – it’s www.uso.org.
Denver: You did that from memory.
J.D.: Yes. You can find ways to get engaged there. There are opportunities for volunteering, obviously.
We exist through the generous support of the American people. We have 2 million active donors, and I love that fact. We’re not funded by one big organization out there. This is a grassroots organization that also has very strong corporate supporters and the like. So that’s another way, obviously, that people can get involved.
The third thing is: use your social media. Tell people about us. Tell people about our story. Tell people about the story of the needs of our service members and their families, and you will find a lot of material on our website that is worthy of your social media engagement.
Denver: Passing it along. Absolutely. It will help your brand.
Denver: Thanks, J.D. It was a real pleasure to have you on the program.
J.D.: It’s my pleasure. Thank you.
Denver: I’ll be back with more of The Business of Giving right after this.
The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter, @bizofgive on Instagram and at www.facebook.com/businessofgiving.