Mention the United Service Organizations -- almost universally known as the USO -- to most Americans, and the first thing you'll likely hear is "Bob Hope." The USO is eager to change that image. Not that organizing performances for the troops isn't an integral part of their mission, but the expansive programs and services they provide does so much more than entertain.
Through Independence Day, HuffPost Impact is running a series of stories called "Breaking the Roles," highlighting the servicemen and women of our armed forces who don't typically see the media spotlight, and the remarkable work of the USO, who are tireless in their efforts to support all who defend our country.
At 15 years old, Michael Deihl discovered his gift: food. Ever since, he has been using his talent to earn a living, to delight the taste buds of diners -- and to make a difference in his community. As a child, his mother instilled in him the importance of giving back. Deihl shares, "My mom always had a hand out to help others when we were growing up. We didn't have a lot, but we shared."
A nationally renowned chef, Deihl has worked as the Executive Chef at the East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta, Georgia, for almost ten years. East Lake is no ordinary golf club -- it's a philanthropic one. The proceeds from the club benefit the East Lake Foundation, an organization providing services like mentoring and college scholarships to revitalize the East Lake community.
Seven years ago, the USO reached out to the Atlanta Chapter of the American Culinary Federation (ACF) and asked them to help feed troops passing through the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Deihl quickly volunteered for duty and begun preparing sandwiches for soldiers every weekend. From small beginnings, Deihl and other local chefs have grown their efforts into Operation Chefs Unite (OCU). They continue to prepare sandwiches for soldiers at the Atlanta airport five days a week, and now prepare holiday buffets for the soldiers on 13 holidays each year. Deihl has served as president of ACF for two terms, and now sits as chairman of the organization.
The troops enjoying a hearty buffet on Christmas Day, 2009.
Deihl's favorite holiday to feed the troops is Christmas. Each December 25, Deihl rises at 4 a.m., "getting up when Santa's just putting his sleigh away," to prepare a lavish traditional feast for soldiers. Deihl says, "I never felt the spirit of Christmas. I thought I did, but I never felt it until I started getting up early to feed the soldiers."
For soldiers forced to be away from their families on holidays, like the young private who left home on Christmas Eve to ship out for a tour or duty, warm, homemade meals from Deihl and his crew are a godsend. Deihl still remembers the letter of thanks they received from that young soldier's mother, expressing her gratitude for feeding her son Christmas Eve dinner. He says, "Even though we might feed 300 soldiers on a busy holiday, you get to touch each one individually."
Deihl is endlessly impressed with the character of the men and women in uniform. When he thanked a 25-year-old sergeant from Texas for his service, the soldier humbly returned the thanks, reminding Deihl his cooking serves the military in a unique way: "Thank you sir, for coming in on your day off, for your service."
To date, the team behind Operation Chefs Unite has served over one million servicemen and women. Deihl believes "food is an incredible medium" to touch the soldiers' hearts. After all, he jokes, "a well-fed army always wins." He doesn't want credit -- he says, "I might be the figurehead but there are a lot of people behind [Operation Chefs Unite]." He's grateful to his fellow cooks, to local food suppliers for donating food, and, above all, to the warm staff at the USO.
Chef Michael Deihl (top, right) alongside fellow chefs, serving the troops on Labor Day, 2007.
The chef also carries his spirit of giving back into his work as a culinary arts professor. He believes it's important for his generation of chefs to teach the next generation to use their skills to make a difference in their community, like preparing food for charity fundraisers. He wonders how they would learn it, if not from him. "What...are they going to Twitter it?"
Deihl plans to keep up his efforts for the troops for as long as he is able. He and his fellow chefs also hope to expand Operation Chefs Unite across the nation. When Deihl first agreed to help the USO, he thought the wars abroad wouldn't last longer than six more months. Now, seven years later, the Atlanta airport continues to buzz with troops coming in and out.
Deihl wants to remind Americans to keep the soldiers on their minds. He explains, "As war drags on, people forget who's really fighting it." He encourages other Americans to use their talents and resources to support the USO. He beams, "It gives me a good feeling as an American to be supporting the people who are giving me my freedom."
Make a donation to the USO today and support those who have sacrificed to protect the U.S.