The Mil Life: Bridging the gap between military families and civilians

Aug 03, 2011

A complaint military organizations often hear from military families is that there is a disconnect between the military community and the civilian community. USO's Rear Admiral Frank Thorp chatted about ways to bridge that gap and connect with the other community, whether you're a military family member or a civilian.

Ask questions, get advice, share your own experience and weigh in on this military topic!

This chat is part of The Mil Life, an going chat series the Post hosts for military families. The Mil Life chats take place every Wednesday at noon ET.

Check out these military resources for you and your family!

Blue Star Families
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Thank you to the Washington Post for the opportunity to participate in this conversation.  Having spent more than 25 years in the Navy, and now working to support our nation’s military and their families in my work with the USO, I know firsthand how important it is to bridge the gap between our military and civilian communities. 


I would like to begin our chat today with just a brief introduction of the USO and how we are operating in both military and civilian spaces.  As we head into our eighth decade, our mission remains strong and still what it has been for years, to lift the spirit of America’s troops and their families. 


The USO is probably best known for our world-class entertainment tours.  This year alone we have entertained more than 175,000 troops and their families through 46 entertainment tours including 11 tours to combat zones.   


The USO also means more than entertainment to so many service men and women and their families.  We provide best-in-class service through our more than 160 USO locations worldwide.  This could be in the form of a warm and comforting place where families can connect via Internet or telephone or just a place for troops to relax after a hard day. 


We also support military families and our nation’s wounded warriors, families and their caregivers through our military family programs and our USO programs that support wounded warriors.  These programs alone, and with the support of great partner organizations, support families dealing with the stresses of deployment, help families stay connected and also provide support for families when a soldier returns home with visible and/or invisible wounds of war.


The USO will continue to adapt to meet the needs of our nation’s military and their families.  As a private, nonprofit organization, we rely on the support of the community to fulfill our mission.  I look forward to answering your questions today and will hopefully help many of you struggling to bridge the gap between our nation’s military and civilian communities.


Tell me more about you help families stay connected during long deployments.

Thank you for the question.  Staying connected to families and friends is really important while deployed.  We do a lot of things to support that.  First, we have a satellite network to provide troops free phone calls and internet access to troops oversees...  That is our most popular program...  We also send thousands of care packages a year.

My cousin-in-law is a currently a commander in the U.S. Navy and attended the Naval Academy. I'm a graduate of St. John's College (with which you may be familiar--for those who don't know, St. John's is a small liberal arts college across the street from the Naval Academy). St. John's has a slightly different approach to education than the Naval Academy, although I think I can safely say that both institutions value intellectual rigor. In general, I think my cousin-in-law regards me as a somewhat harmless lunatic for spending my time with Ancient Greek and all that philosophy. However, we have decided to attend next year's annual croquet match between St. John's College and the Naval Academy. Hopefully this will be one more step in bridging the gap between civilians and the military (despite the fact that St. John's usually wins--I will try to restrain my glee). BTW, my father is an American University alum, so I'm glad to see that on your bio.

This is a great example of how the actual bridge between the military and the community is so much stronger than it used to be.  I grew up in Annapolis and back then there was hardly any connection between the two colleges in Annapolis.  But it has changed quite a bit...  As it sounds like you know, the croquet match is now a big deal in Annapolis...  I'm glad you are going to go, and thank you for restraining on the glee...  But I have to say, Go Navy!

What methods do you use to understand the disconnect between the military community and the civilian community? How do you bring them together?

That is a great question, and a topic that is near and dear to our heart and many others.   There is a lot of research out there about the military and society, military and community, and what members of the military go through.  Having said that, most of our support comes through in a very grass-roots type of way.  Volunteers at USO Centers with hands on expereince in supporting the troops.  When I visit our USO Centers I often ask why they commit so much of their personal time to supporting the troops, and in many cases, actually most cases, I get an emotional response about how deeply they want to help those who serve. 

From a more organizational point-of-view, besides the research, we partner with many best-in-class organizations who provide tremendous expertise in the area...  Such as United Through Reading who we partner with to provide the troops an opportunity to videotape themselves reading a book and then we send it home so their child can read "with" their parent...  And another example of a partner organization is TAPS, Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, who provides great support to families of the fallen...  More about our programs is available at


Hi Frank, Can you tell me a little about your partnership with Sesame Street? I saw the new character - Katie - in a picture and think that is so wonderful to have a military character to identify with families. Thanks and God bless. Katie

 Thanks for asking about our great parntership with Sesame Street.  What a world class orgnaizaiton that is, and we are so glad to partner with them.  Our family-focused show tailors the Sesame Street message to military children in the two to six year old age group.  In a fun, laughter-packed, 25-minute, live performance, Elmo and friends tell military children about emotions that matter deeply to them and their parents, like being separated while Mom and Dad are deployed and feeling lonely while they are gone. An information fair before and after the show provides families information on local support services.  Over the past 3 years, the Sesame Street/USO Experience has performed nearly 250 times at 90 bases around the world.  This year’s tour features a new character named Katie, a military child dealing with the uncertainty of making friends after a family move. 

How do you bridge the gap when the vast majority of Americans don't know anyone in the military or anyone who is in a military family.

Bridging the gap is probably one of the most important things we do, and that's why we were so happy to discuss this topic.  We STRONGLY encourage Americans to say thanks to those who serve.  In my 28 years in the Navy, the most rewarding thing I recieved, more important than awards, was the appreciation of the American people.  It means so much when someone approaches a servicemember and says, "thanks for your service," and engages in a conversation... 


The other thing is that we like to say, "It's not about supporting the USO, it's about supporting the troops, and the USO is one way you can do that."  One of the things we try to do is provide education, through our website, USO. org, and our magazine, On Patrol, to provide info about the what the military is doing and is about.  And we try to provide that "connection."


Several years ago, I worked at a dot com at the height of the dot com craze. We had a couple of Army reservists on staff, who were truly excellent coworkers because they did what needed to be done efficiently with a minimum of fuss and drama (which I attributed directly to their military training). Both were eventually deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq, and the rest of us certainly felt much more invested in a peaceful outcome to both situations, knowing people who were over there. (Both returned safely, I'm glad to say.) But I think this is another good example of bridging the gap between civilians and military.

The Reserves and National Guard are so important to the current wars going on and, I agree, they provide a great connection back home.  Thank you for supporting your co-workers being called to military duty.  We try very hard to support these troops as well and keep them connected back home through phone calls, internet and our family programs...  But it is the community's support that is so valuable to them.   Knowing that their job is safe when they return is probably the most important thing a community can do...

I wholeheartedly support the USO and everything it stands for, but I wonder sometimes about the choice of entertainment. Peter King? Really?

Thank you for that question.  We try very hard to provide the best entertainment to the troops and to make it most appropriate to what really entertains them.  The USO has a very long-standing parnership with the NFL and many players have gone on USO tours to vist the troops on the battlefield.  Peter King went on one such tour and the troops, especially the troops who try to follow football back home, really appreciated it.  So it makes sense that Peter King would travel in our USO Mobile to training camps and bases.  And we so much appreicate that Sports Illustrated is picking up the costs. 

Do you help Vets once they leave the military? From what I have read that is a much harder transition. The need for civilian/military interaction seems to be very needed at that point.

We partner with several organizations who are focused on this transition.  While the USO lifts the spirits of troops and their families, when we ask oursleves who needs us most, high on that list are those troops with visible or invisible wounds of war.   We partner with Hire Heroes USA and the US Chamber of Commerce to prepare these veterans for their transition to the civilian workforce and other organizations such as Ride to Recovery who use sports as a great to help these great Americans regain a fulfilling life.

Dear RADm Thorp, This may be a bit off-topic, but I've long been concerned about the civilian-military gap on a larger scale. Since the end of the draft, the two groups have clearly become more and more estranged. Military folks (who have been civilians) are better-equipped to understand civilian perspectives and/or to make the bridge to the civilian community, whereas civilians (who have little or no contact with or understanding of the military community) are simply less able to do that. Other than the "support our troops" meme, what can DoD leadership -- both civilian and military -- do to create a better understanding of the US military itself?

One thing that DoD leadership is committed to doing is interacting with the community.  Whether it is things like "Navy Week" or speeches in the community, DoD really supports people accepting invitations to attend and/or speak at community events.  Some of the most fulfilling opportunities I have heard about is when troops who have just returned from Iraq or Afghanistan speak to groups about thier experience...  Like Rotary Clubs or local civic groups...  And it doesn't even need to be that formal...  It can be in the workplace or a neghborhood group...  That is what is so great about the White House initiatve, Joining Forces...  They are trying to get more stories out there about military families...

How do you use the civilian community to support troops once they return home from deployment. My brother-in-law has been deployed 4 times and each time he comes home with different effects from war, including the funnier side of not being able to order off a menu at a restaurant to the more serious of not being able to fit back into a home where the family has made decisions and operated without him for a year. How can civilians help make the reintegration process easier for troops?

First, than you to your brother-in-law for his service.  We have a very large initiative, call Operations Enduring Care, to support those who are wounded, ill or injured...  We believe it is a moral imperative for our country to provide long-standing support to these veterans and their families...  We are building two of the largest USO Centers near the military's biggest hospitals to provide a focus for support, and more to your point, we are creating and partnering with best-in-class organizations to help this reintegration process.  Also, for those who are perhaps more in need than your brother-in-law, we host an annual Caregivers Conference to support those who are committing themselves to care for wounded, ill and injured service members.  For more info about the free conference go to


Sir, I want to continue the conversation od PTS ; Ipresented a program with GEN Pete Chiarelli & Bud Bucha this year and your magazine ON PATROL included the General 's speech. This year I want to continue the discussion with Sebastian Junger and a military leader ....... do you think the knowledge of actual experiences of combat as decribed in WAR make it better for parents to understand the changes in their children post war experience and assist the parents in returning them to a "new normal"

First, thank you for your support of the military.  Your follow-on note that you are a Blue-Star Mom means that you have a son or daughter serving in combat...  Thank you!  thank you for YOUR service.  General Chiarelli's artice in our magazine, On Patrol, was really compelling -- -- I'm not personally sure that parent's experience in combat is critical.  I think caring parents caring and listenging to their sons and daughters is most important, and in my experience most critical.

I think we are out of time -- Thank you for your interest.  And thank you for supporting our troops and their families!  They need our interest, our concern and our support.  So, if you get a chance today or in the next couple of days to see someone in uniform, please take a moment to say thanks and ask them about their experiences...  If you want to read more about the USO, please visit our website at

In This Chat
Rear Admiral Frank Thorp
Rear Admiral Frank Thorp IV (USN, ret.) is responsible for internal and external communications, brand management and marketing for the USO. Prior to joining the organization in 2010, he was vice president of communications and government operations for AM General, where he directed public relations, marketing, advertising and Washington operations including engagement with Capitol Hill and the Pentagon.

A communications veteran with more than 25 years of experience, Frank’s service with the United States Navy included serving as the chief of information, where he was the senior spokesman for the Navy, provided strategic communication counsel to the Secretary of the Navy and Chief of Naval Operations and managed a global team of more than 2,000 communications professionals. Frank also served as a Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense where he led the Department of Defense strategic communication program. His assignments also include special assistant for Public Affairs to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and to the Chief of Naval Operations, as well as Chief of Media for US Central Command (forward) during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Frank holds a Bachelor of Science from the United States Naval Academy, a Master of Arts in Public Affairs and Broadcast Journalism from American University in Washington, DC, and a Master of Arts in National Security and Strategic Studies from the Naval War College.
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