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USO Camp Virginia Leaves Legacy of Joy

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

By Joseph Andrew Lee 

“I will speak for everyone in saying that Camp Virginia changed our lives forever,” wrote James Dobensky on USO Camp Virginia’s Facebook wall upon hearing of its closure March 10.

In 2009, Dobensky – the owner of Advanced Home Audio and Video in Wolcott, Conn. – installed a home theater at USO Camp Virginia, Kuwait, for the “Troop Cave Edition” episode of DIY Network’s “Man Caves.” He was so moved by the project that he returned to Kuwait a year later on his own dime to build a new cinema for the USO at Camp LSA, Kuwait.

“Most civilians stateside still don't know or understand how vital and impactful the USO and its wonderful staff are,” he wrote. “But to see the stacks of [United Through Reading®] packages going out in the mail, to see the troops piled in the cinema to watch a movie or a game, to see the computer and phone stations filled with troops calling or emailing or [Skyping] back home, or to just see those who were so exhausted from being in country that they simply collapsed in one of the couches or cozy chairs to sleep will all be images that stay with me forever.”

For years, Camp Virginia has been the last stop in the Middle East for troops leaving Iraq and Afghanistan. At one time, the USO center was bursting at the seams with transient troops who are eager to call home and tell family about their pending return. But with a drawdown in progress, the center has finally closed its doors.

“We’re all sad to see it go,” said then-USO Camp Virginia center manager Ingrid Santos. She recalled hundreds of Texas Hold ‘em tournaments, hip-hop parties and late nights when she kept the center open so troops could watch football or catch a mixed martial arts fight that didn’t air until 6 a.m. in Kuwait.

Santos credited the center’s success to a strong volunteer corps and had the ability to elevate some troops to coordinator roles where they planned the schedules of other volunteers.

“I couldn’t have done it without the volunteers,” Santos said. “Our volunteers are truly the heart of the USO. They’ve been a huge help for me and I trust them completely. Our troops love what we do so much, they are constantly asking to help, and they are 100 percent dedicated.”

Though some didn't want their USO to go – the “Troop Caves” makeover made it one of the most famous spots in the region – troops can rest assured the donated materials will be redistributed to other USO centers in the region.

“We’re all like family over here in Kuwait,” said Santos, who now works at USO Camp LSA. “One of our volunteers is a mother of three and she was introduced to United Through Reading’s Military Program here. For her, this USO center is a sanctuary – the only place where she is comfortable sending a recorded message home to her kids.”

United Through Reading® DVDs weren’t the only messages sent home from USO Camp Virginia.

Dobensky posted an additional story on USO Camp Virginia’s Facebook about a young boy named Nicholas LaTorracca, who attended the same school as his son in Cheshire, Conn. When USO Camp Virginia staffers heard LaTorracca was dying of cancer at the Yale’s Smilow Cancer Hospital in New Haven, Conn., they coordinated a puppet-making project at the center, with troops and volunteers making puppets to send back to the kids at Smilow.

The project was called Puppets for Nick.

“Once they had enough, they shipped them to me in the states,” Dobensky wrote. “I spent an afternoon walking around the halls [at Smilow] … handing out puppets to the stricken children. You will never know how it felt to see those faces brighten up, or how it felt to sit and talk with the kids and families about the troops.

“It was my intention to hand deliver a puppet to Nick himself that day, but when I got to his room, his nurse came out and said that he was too sick to see me, but she took the puppet in to the room for him. As it turns out, he died later that day, and when I had a chance to talk to his parents at his wake, they thanked me, thanked the USO and all of the people who cared enough to do something for their dying boy as well as all the other children at Smilow. They told me that it was one of the last smiles they saw on his face when he saw the puppet, and that's all I ever needed to hear.”

* * *

Photo caption: An overhead view of USO Camp Virginia, Kuwait, after the "Man Caves" remodeling job. (USO photo) 

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