When Emergencies Arise, the USO Arrives
Thursday, December 27, 2012
By Joseph Andrew Lee
When there’s a crisis, U.S. troops are often the first to get the call. From snowstorms to hurricane flooding to humanitarian assistance to international incidents, America’s troops are always on alert to be deployed.
And when our troops are the first responders, USO staffers and volunteers could often be considered second responders: always at the ready to assist those on the frontlines.
Here’s a look at three extreme situations where the USO has lent a hand:
Weathering a Superstorm
The USO’s response to Superstorm Sandy began even before the wind and rain died down.
Joan Ashner, a volunteer with USO of Metropolitan New York, walked 50 blocks as the storm raged around her to open the USO center in New York’s Times Square in case Joint Task Force Empire Shield troops needed a break.
“If there are troops on duty,” she said, “the USO must also be on duty.”
As it turned out, Empire Shield troops – National Guardsmen tasked with preventing terrorist attacks in New York – were diverted elsewhere and the Port Authority forced the USO center to close until the storm passed.
Ashner was back less than 48 hours later and two Mobile USOs vehicles (pictured at left) from North Carolina and Virginia were headed north to support the more than 7,000 National Guardsmen deployed to the region for the relief and cleanup effort.
The capabilities of the two Mobile USO lounges provided troops with entertainment, thanks to a 46-inch LCD television with state-of-the-art home theater and digital satellite systems, as well as an Xbox 360 gaming system and phone and Internet connectivity.
Army National Guard Capt. J.C. Bravo of the 369th Regiment Armory in Harlem said his soldiers were working hard, but called it “a great benefit to have the presence of the USO out there.”
“There are a lot of physically and emotionally difficult jobs we get tasked with as soldiers,” Capt. Bravo said. “Responding to a disaster situation here at home can be one of the most taxing because we’re so close to it. In many cases these are local men and women who are also affected by the disaster, and their families may also be struggling.
“Whether it’s in Southwest Asia or Southeast Manhattan, support from the USO is always appreciated. It makes it that much easier for us to do our duty.”
Tragedy in Benghazi
For the dozens of Americans on the ground in Benghazi, Libya, Sept. 11 brought another terrifying scene that left several wounded and four dead, including U.S. Ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens.
But when the C-17 carrying the evacuees touched down at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, the USO was ready to provide comfort at the end of a horrifying ordeal.
“You could just tell [what they’d been through] by the looks on their faces,” said Konrad Braun, area director of USO Kaiserslautern.
Dozens of evacuees stepped off the plane around 10 p.m. on Sept. 12, many possessing only the clothes on their backs.
When Braun learned the Americans – mostly State Department employees – would be arriving, he rounded up a group of 11 USO staffers and two volunteers who filled a van with assorted clothing items before assuring the USO center at the Joint Mobility Processing Center was stocked with snacks, toiletries, laptops and televisions. Hot meals were also provided.
Within 24 hours – and with help from global strategic partner TKS – the USO provided cell phones to evacuees loaded with enough minutes for 10 hours of calls back to America.
“Even though these were not service members, they were serving our country,” Braun said. “We had the resources available and the will, and we executed both of those.”
The numerical date was 1-11-11 and the 1 millionth service member since 9/11 was scheduled to come home on R&R, arriving that morning at the Hartsfield-Atlanta International Airport. The USO of Georgia had a special challenge coin minted for the occasion and planned to present it to each serviceman and woman on the flight.
Inside the airport, USO of Georgia CEO Mary-Lou Austin was hard at work making the final arrangements for the ceremony. But outside, a freak snowstorm was dumping half a foot of snow on the city of Atlanta.
An announcement soon came over the airport intercom: all flights out of Atlanta had been cancelled.
Without snowplows, taxi services and hotel shuttles had to be shut down. Thousands of stranded travelers, including hundreds of military personnel, staked a claim anywhere they could find an available chair or plot of carpet.
Austin picked up the phone and called her special operations team – two of her most dedicated volunteers, Jack and Pat Horvath.
Jack retired from Fort Benning as a lieutenant colonel in 2005. He and his wife, Pat, have lived in the Atlanta area since 1980 and over the years they have become the go-to team for expeditionary volunteer service for the USO of Georgia.
With nearly 30 years of collective volunteerism between them, the Horvaths are prepared to handle even the most difficult and stressful volunteer mission. After Hurricane Katrina, the couple volunteered to board a Mobile USO dispatched from Virginia Beach on its way to the disaster area. They spent weeks traveling throughout the South, providing meals and other services to displaced troops and their families.
This time, Mother Nature struck closer to home. The Horvaths again answered the call, taking turns sleeping and handing out food and drinks to hundreds of troops who poured in to the airport center. Occasionally, a civilian would show up in line, and, of course, they were fed just the same.
“The people just kept on coming,” Jack said, “but we were glad to see them because we had food and drinks to give them. If it weren’t for the USO, I’m not sure what they would have done. They couldn’t leave and nothing was open. They would have gone hungry.”
At any given time, 50 to 60 troops were sleeping in the center, occupying every square foot of available space. More than 800 men and women in uniform logged in to the center throughout the night and that only includes those who actually came inside.
When day broke, the 1 millionth troop to arrive on R&R was still celebrated, albeit a little differently than planned.
“There was supposed to be a band, dignitaries, a cake and everything,” Jack said. “Obviously we weren’t going to have all that, but we still had to do something.”
Each troop who arrived on the R&R plane the next morning was presented with a coin and a USO goodie bag and then told the bad news: they too were now stranded in the Hartsfield-Atlanta International Airport.
“Jack and I will remember that night for the rest of our lives,” Pat Horvath said. “Not because it was a particularly challenging evening – though it was – but because we cherish moments like that: opportunities to be there when the troops really need us.”
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(Photo credit: USO photo)
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