By Sandi Gohn

Rear Adm. Babette “Bette” Bolivar, then-commander of Joint Region Marianas speaks to future sailors on Guam in 2016. | Photo credit DVIDS/Navy Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Chelsy Alamina

Joining the U.S. military is a life-changing decision for anybody.

But for potential recruits living in remote areas of the Pacific and Micronesia – which boast some of the highest enlistment rates per capita – choosing to enlist entails an additional set of logistical and geographical challenges for everyone involved in the process, including their families.

Although joining up in the Pacific can start out the same way as it does stateside – talking with an official recruiter (there’s permanent recruiters in Hawaii and Guam!) – things begin to look a little different once an applicant has decided to take the next step towards enlistment and must head to their nearest of 64 Military Entrance Processing Stations (MEPS).

Cmdr. Michael Lee recites the Oath of Enlistment with two recruits on Guam on Monday, Feb. 1, 2016. | Photo credit DVIDS/Navy Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Chelsy Alamina

A Different Kind of Enlistment Experience

While most mainland applicants and their families can easily take a car, train or bus to get to their nearest MEPS, recruits-to-be living in remote locations in the Pacific don’t have that luxury. Unless a rare U.S. military enlistment or processing mission to their location is on the horizon, all potential recruits living in region must fly to the Honolulu MEPS on the Hawaiian Island of Oahu for testing, often with their family in tow.

“When the applicant is coming through, especially from those outlying areas, it’s not just the applicant, but it’s also the families that will come through with them,” said Francene Tolliver, the center manager at USO Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam.

Photo credit Wikipedia Commons/User:Astrokey44

The insular areas of the United States.

The Honolulu MEPS, located on Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam, serves applicants from a 14 million square mile area, far surpassing the geographic footprint of any other MEPS location in the U.S. or Puerto Rico. The location is responsible for processioning applicants from Hawai’i, Guam, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Federate States of Micronesia, the Republic of Palau, the Commonwealth of the Mariana Islands and America Samoa.

Once an applicant and their family arrive at the Honolulu MEPS, the recruit begins a lengthy process of physical, aptitude and background testing – interspersed with waiting periods – which can take several long days.

Meanwhile, their family simply stays put and patiently waits, with nothing to do.

“Those families are generally there from maybe 6 a.m. in the morning and probably, sometimes, until 6 p.m. at night,” Tolliver said.

“Some of these families are coming in on bus and that is where they are going to be for that day. If they leave the MEPS, there’s nothing within walking distance where they can go get food and eat.”

“They’re stuck.”

Making Honolulu MEPS a Home for Recruits and Their Families

So, to make the MEPS process more enjoyable for the newest members of the military and their families, USO Hawaii opened an unstaffed lounge location at Honolulu MEPS in July 2019.

Photo credit USO Hawaii

Opening day at the USO Hawaii MEPS location.

“The families that come through there are so very appreciative. So welcoming and thankful,” Tolliver said.

Home Depot Foundation volunteers install flooring. | Photo credit USO Hawaii

The Home Depot Foundation donated paint, counterspace, rugs and some furniture for the space. A few months later, in November, Team Depot and veteran volunteers installed new floating floors to add to the lounge’s warm ambiance.

“This is a great respite for them to come in and relax and know that the USO is here for them,” said Navy. Lt. Comm. Michael Becker, according to a USO Hawaii Facebook post.

The center features classic USO amenities like snacks, to-go meals, comfy chairs, televisions, board games and other entertainment items to make the long hours of waiting pass a little quicker. The location also features free Wi-Fi, which was unavailable in the building until the USO location opened in 2019. This free connectivity has also been quite popular with the MEPS active-duty staff who are responsible for cleaning the unmanned USO.

Photo credit USO Hawaii

The USO Hawaii MEPS location after the Home Depot Foundation renovation.

The Home Depot Foundation partnered with USO Hawaii to add a touch of home to the new USO Honolulu MEPS Lounge at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. | Photo credit USO Hawaii

“It’s like a night and day difference over there for them,” Tolliver said.

Although there aren’t permanent USO staffers at this location, Tolliver and her staff, who are based out of a different USO center on base, make a point to spend time interacting with family members and recruits at MEPS every week during re-stocking trips.

More than anything, she notes that the biggest service the USO provides at Honolulu MEPS is an open ear, a willingness to help and the simple recognition of the major life change these families are going through.

“We’ll carry on conversations, ask what they need,” she said. “We try to do that little extra for them.”

The USO Hawaii MEPS location opening ceremony. | Photo credit USO Hawaii

The USO opened its first MEPS location in 2015 in an effort to support service members throughout their entire military journey, from enlistment to transitioning back to civilian life.