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USO Fort Riley's 'Operation Warm Start' Aids Mourning Military Families

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

By Christian Pelusi 

About a year ago, Fort Riley, Kansas, lost five soldiers from 1st Battalion, 7th Field Artillery when its Forward Operating Base in Iraq was hit with a rocket-propelled grenade. When word reached USO Fort Riley, the post’s Survivor Outreach Services (SOS) and the fallen soldiers’ unit, they wanted to find some way to make the tragedy slightly more endurable for the loved ones who would be assembling at Fort Riley for the memorial.

The groups came up with an idea that would become known as Operation Warm Start. USO Fort Riley would provide breakfast for the families at the SOS’s facility and after the memorial, everyone would sit down for lunch (which is paid for by the USO and generous support from Vietnam Veterans of America, Chapter #317 of Kansas City, Mo.) at the post’s dining facility.

For those families, the memorial is another step in the grieving process. After being informed of the tragedy, the body of their loved one arrives at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware and the family is received by the tremendous support system and USO Families of the Fallen Support staff that are associated with dignified transfers.

USO Fort Riley Center Director April Blackmon and Programs Manager Crystal Ann Tinkey understand this and have tailored the reception of the families to continue that chain of support. Sometimes there are ten people, other times there are 70. But the two women approach every breakfast with the same passion.

Tinkey has  a catering background and cooks, bakes and prepares everything herself, taking great care in making sure that the breakfast provides healthy, balanced options to keep the families’ energy throughout the emotionally draining day, when the last thing on many of their minds is eating.

“I’m proud of them for being able to get out of bed and go to a memorial,” Tinkey said. “These families are the best. They’ve given the ultimate sacrifice. I want to make sure they have the best.”

Before one grocery is purchased, Blackmon and Tinkey dedicate hours of thought and planning into the breakfasts. They then discuss where the waters are placed, how the tables are set up. They make sure the tablecloths are immaculate. They make sure ketchup is available on every table. They craft the menu to the occasion, making mini-bagels instead of regular-sized ones.

The day of an Operation Warm Start usually begins at 5 a.m. to prepare the platters to ensure the food is as fresh as possible and while most memorial attendees might not pick up their attention to detail, the women would not do it any other way.

“Every little detail,” Blackmon said. “You never know what little instance can add stress. They deserve our top level, VIP treatment. They may or may not see it, but that’s what our families deserve. They don’t deserve having something just pulled out of a microwave.”

After listening to Blackmon speak so passionately and emotionally, it is easy understand why the idea of having these events catered was dismissed immediately.

“The love and the care, that’s such to the core of what the USO is. And so yeah, it takes a little more time … but we’re very protective of our families. Their soldier has given their life in service to the country. This is the least we can do to serve them.”

For Tinkey, after coming to Fort Riley with her soldier husband, it’s a way of reproducing the support that she enjoyed when her husband was deployed.

“Honestly, the USO became my family when I was left behind, alone,” she said. “I’m humbled by the fact and so proud and so happy to give back that warmth and love and open arms that I was received with. Just knowing that I can give that back, every day … I’m the lucky one. That that’s my job. It’s the most awesome thing. I’m thankful to give back.”

* Operation Warm Start is another example of how the USO lifts the spirits of troops and their families. Consider donating today to help make more of these initiatives a reality. 

* Learn more about the USO's Honor, Salute and Celebrate campaign. 

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