By Michelle Hiskey
John Hanson (B.A. ’77)
As tens of thousands of troops make their way home from war, John Hanson (B.A. '77) thinks he knows some of what they are going through. He's been in their boots, and now he's helping lead efforts to marshal civilian support — while relying on basic training from Georgia State's journalism classes and in the halls of the state Capitol.
As senior vice president for the USO — probably best known for entertaining troops overseas — Hanson has escorted celebrities like Stephen Colbert, Robin Williams, Al Franken, Drew Carey, Lance Armstrong and the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders when they toured Iraq and Afghanistan. The low-key Hanson worked behind the scenes, taking away more memories than photographs.
"The celebrities who give their time to visit troops around the world — especially in war zones — are just the best," Hanson said. "It's not easy duty, but none of them complain about a thing... ever.
"Our mission is to lift the spirits of troops and military families. Sometimes it's easy to forget that there are thousands of troops doing difficult jobs under extreme conditions. They often feel isolated, and we do all we can to make them know that it really does matter that an Air Force technician turned a wrench today. It's way more than saying 'thank you.' When you see the impact, it makes you want to do more."
Hanson was that mechanic during the Vietnam War — servicing B-52 bombers in Guam and Thailand. "I was trusted to maintain a multimillion dollar piece of equipment," he said. "I didn't think I had the aptitude for that, but in the military you really learn what you can do."
His father, a World War II veteran, told him to check out the USO. In Thailand, Hanson did just that. There were old magazines, snacks, a pool table and, most important of all, smiling Americans. "It was home," he said. "It was like going to a movie matinee and being surprised it was still daytime outside. When I left the USO, I was surprised it was Thailand outside. The USO kept me centered."
While earning his diploma in journalism and political science, Hanson learned how to write well, not take criticism personally and how to multitask. He started his political work as a scheduler for Georgia Gov. George Busbee, which eventually led to a senior position at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and, in 2002, to the USO.
"Georgia State prepared me for everything that was to follow," he said.
Today, Hanson, 61, is helping to galvanize support for returning veterans. The USO is raising $100 million to build centers at military hospitals in the Washington, D.C. area.
"As more veterans come to the university, Georgia State will discover, again, that returning veterans will be great students," Hanson said.
"Helping them with the next phase in their lives is an important mission for all of us. Some will have visible injuries, and some will bear wounds you can't see. We must help them re-enter life and move on."