DURHAM — Several hundred people united Saturday under the USO banner to show their support for military families around the state.
“The mission is to lift the spirits of our troops and their families,” Connie Inggs, executive director of the USO-NC’s RDU Center, told the crowd at The Streets of Southpoint. “It’s pretty amazing what a few can do to achieve this great day today.”
Chapel Hill resident Augustus Cho, who stars in the new film “G.I. Joe: Retaliation,” approached the nonprofit United Service Organizations of North Carolina last year about using the movie’s release to promote a Military Appreciation Day and USO-NC fundraiser. Paramount Pictures and AMC Theatres agreed to donate more than 250 seats for a special movie premiere.
On Saturday, wide-eyed children grinned while meeting Roo, the Kangaroo Express mascot. Folks signed well-wishes and thank-you messages on a banner that will hang at the USO-NC’s center at Raleigh-Durham International Airport.
Others browsed fundraising and information tables, watched the ArchAngels Rappel Team drop from the mall’s second story and waited patiently to have USO-NC volunteer Tony Martin take their photos with two of the movie’s stars: Cho and New York City resident Dikran Tulaine.
Tulaine, who has appeared in several movies and TV series, including “One Tree Hill,” said his father served in the British army, and he was happy to help.
“Right now, with the way the economy is and the sequestration, the Army is suffering,” he said. “There are certain things that people do that really – they’re not entitled, they earned it.”
Outside, children clambered aboard a Vietnam-era helicopter, and visitors gazed into the afternoon sun to watch the All Veterans Parachute Jump Team float in succession onto the parking lot. The rappellers dropped again, this time from the Cinema 17 roof.
The teams, part of the nonprofit service organization N.C. Veterans Corps, joined about 40 USO-NC volunteers, the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association, Miss North Carolina and Miss North Carolina Teen, Veterans Affairs representatives, and other organizations and businesses to host the event.
East Chapel Hill High School’s jazz band and Fayetteville musician Erik Smallwood also performed.
The USO relies solely on donations and in-kind help from commercial and community partners, USO-NC President John Falkenberry said. USO-NC holds up to a dozen events every month through its five regional centers and mobile station. More than 750 people volunteer statewide, and last year, they helped more than 650,000 state residents.
The USO is a longstanding tradition in North Carolina, he said. The Jacksonville center, founded in 1942, is the oldest, continuously operating USO center in the world.
USO-NC operates an array of programs: deployment and homecoming support, care packages, a food pantry, reading and tutoring programs, and entertainment events. The USO also helps bring fallen soldiers home, Inggs said.
The need will always be there, Falkenberry said.
“Just because we’re coming home from Afghanistan, our military will still be in over 140 countries around the globe. Troops here at Fort Bragg will still be going out. We will still have those issues and separations. We will still have the issues that linger (from) combat. The USO as an organization is well-suited to help take care of those needs,” he said.
Chief Warrant Officer Sean Anglehart, an 18-year soldier based at Fort Bragg, said Saturday’s event was a chance to pay back what the USO has done for his family.
“The USO is always there, so I always appreciate it,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if I’m coming in or going out, the USO’s always there with goodies and coffee. It means a lot to me.”
The Fuquay-Varina resident finished his fifth deployment – his second to Afghanistan – in April 2011. His wife Amy, who was running a booth for her employer, Raleigh Harley-Davidson dealer Ray Price Triumph, worked last year with the USO-NC mobile unit, which travels around the Southeast.
“They’re just fun to be around. They get you pumped up, but they also understand military families,” she said.