Gold Star Mother of Army Ranger Finds Comfort in Volunteering with the USO

By Diana Driscoll

Dianne Hammond stood in front of the auditorium at Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennyslvania, filled with USO staff and regional board members, readying herself to share the story of her son Sgt. Alessandro ‘Sandrino’ Plutino.

It is a story she has shared countless times since 2011, and each time it is a story about love, loss, grief and what comes after for Gold Star Families.

“He is the reason I am in this position,” she started.

That position is one of a Gold Star Mother and a USO volunteer.

Dianne lost her son and a piece of herself on Aug. 8, 2011. Sandrino was killed in action while on his sixth deployment with the U.S. Army’s 1st Battalion of the 75th Ranger Regiment in Afghanistan. He was killed only two hours after he spoke to his mother on the phone to reassure her that he wasn’t one of the service members who had been killed in a recent helicopter crash.

Photo credit Courtesy Photo

Sandrino, pictured right, called his family on Aug. 7, 2011, to reassure them that he would be home in two weeks. Two hours later, he was killed during a firefight with the enemy in Afghanistan.

Due to the nature of his job, Dianne knew it was always a possibility her son would not come home from deployment. Sandrino knew it too. When he was 24 years-old, he sat on his mother’s bed and explained his decision to join the Army. He knew she would worry about him and that she loved him, and he told her he didn’t want to die, but that decision was not his to make. He said to her “only God knows.”

It didn’t matter how many times Dianne tried to steer her son down a different path – and she admittedly did it often – Sandrino only saw a future in the military. It was his childhood dream, one he knew he wanted to achieve since the age of 4.

Raising a Ranger

Sandrino’s initial plan was to enlist when he turned 18, but he decided to follow his mother’s advice and first attend college. Then 9/11 happened, and Sandrino – who was in his first semester of college at the time – tried to leave school to enlist. Once again, his family urged him to finish his degree, which he did.

U.S. Army Sgt. Alessandro ‘Sandrino’ Plutino knew from a young age that he wanted to serve in the military. | Photo credit Courtesy Photo

“The day he graduated from college, he enlisted,” said Dianne.

Sandrino attempted to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps but was rejected due to a shoulder injury he sustained from wrestling. Undeterred, Sandrino took to letter writing, passionately pleading his case to join the Corps. He spent over a year trying to become a Marine, but when nothing came of his efforts, he set his sights on a different branch.

That is how Sandrino became an Army Ranger.

In the Rangers, Sandrino found a team. A brotherhood. A family. Dianne acknowledged her son was incredibly happy in his position and “loved everything he did.”

Sandrino was a rifle team leader for Company B and completed three tours in Iraq before finding himself deployed to Afghanistan. His sixth deployment was supposed to end in March of 2011, but he decided to extend his deployment when his team was given a special mission. He knew he couldn’t leave his team at such a moment.

Months later, Sandrino would lay down his life for his teammates and his country.

Adjusting to Life as a Gold Star Mother

After the loss of her son, Dianne struggled to be present in her life. The weight of her grief made it difficult to find joy in the world around her. At a TAPS event six months after her son’s death, Dianne met a USO volunteer named Jennifer Hodur who suggested that volunteering at the USO might help.

According to Dianne, her son Sandrino loved serving his country as a U.S. Army Ranger. | Photo credit Courtesy Photo

Initially, Dianne was unsure if this was the path for her. Even after she learned about the USO’s Families of the Fallen program, a national program that supports Gold Star Families throughout the dignified transfer of their loved one, Dianne thought her grief was too raw to commit to volunteering with the USO.

She did, however, agree to observe USO volunteers during the Families of the Fallen program at Philadelphia International Airport.

Finding a Path as a USO Volunteer

Aside from the shock and grief that comes with losing a loved one unexpectedly, the process of a dignified transfer can be a stressful one. After families are notified of their service member’s passing, they must find their way to Dover, Delaware, within 24 hours to attend the dignified transfer.

Many must pack in a rush and take multiple flights before they arrive at Dover Air Force Base, where their loved one’s remains will be arriving from overseas. The families are usually exhausted, confused and, of course, grief-stricken.

This is where the USO comes in.

The goal of the USO’s Families of the Fallen program is to provide comfort to these families and alleviate their burden when it comes to the logistics of getting to and from Dover. The USO’s network of USO airport lounges, USO staff and USO volunteers work 24/7 to coordinate across the country in order to support and comfort Gold Star Families traveling to and from Dover, every step of the way.

As Dianne saw as she observed the USO team, when Gold Star Families land in Philadelphia, they are greeted by USO volunteers who make sure food is available in a separate Families of the Fallen lounge. Here, family members have a quiet area to rest where they will not be disturbed as they wait for their transportation to Dover.

After the dignified transfer, families are again greeted by USO volunteers at the airport. The USO works with the airlines and airport security to ensure the families navigate the airport with ease and make their connecting flights in time. USO Volunteers even sit with the families at their gates and don’t leave their side until the plane takes off.

On that day at the Philadelphia International Airport, Dianne didn’t plan on making her presence known, but when the Gold Star Family’s flight was delayed, she found herself bonding with the mother.

“I just sat and talked to the mom for an hour and a half, and I thought ‘I can do this.’”

Photo credit USO Photo

Dianne Hammond, pictured left, has taken her experiences as a Gold Star Mother to help support other Families of the Fallen through the USO.

Ten years later, Dianne continues to provide support and empathy to military families after they receive the devastating news that their loved one has died in service as a USO volunteer.

She draws on her personal experience to guide the families through the process. While Dianne personally didn’t experience the USO’s Families of the Fallen program during her son’s dignified transfer due to her own proximity and easy access to Dover Air Force Base, she understands how confusing and rushed the families feel.

“You don’t even know that you’re breathing still,” explained Dianne.

What Dianne and other USO volunteers offer may seem simple in the grand scheme of things, but most families find even the simplest tasks unbearable when they are trying to comprehend their loved one is gone, all while traveling across the country. Dianne said some families, so distracted by their grief and the process of traveling to the dignified transfer, don’t always process the presence of the USO volunteers as they travel to Dover.

However, when they come back to the airport after the dignified transfer to board their flight home, most will recognize they couldn’t have gotten through the process without the help of the USO.

Photo credit U.S. Marine Corps Photo By Cpl. Jennifer Webster

A flag is delivered to a Gold Star mother at the 7th Annual Gold Star Family Luncheon in St. Louis, Missouri in 2016.

But it isn’t just the families that get something out of this program.

“The impact on me helping other families was immense,” said Dianne. “I think, in some ways, it saved me.”

Through volunteering with the USO and telling her story, as well as the Honoring Sandrino’s Sacrifice Fund, Dianne keeps her son’s memory alive and ensures his sacrifice is never forgotten.

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Every day, America’s service members selflessly put their lives on the line to keep us safe and free. Please take a moment to let our troops know how much we appreciate their service and sacrifice.


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