USO South Carolina Keeps Spirits High amid Hectic Season of Holiday Travel for Military
Wednesday, January 08, 2014
By Joseph Andrew Lee
At Fort Jackson, S.C. – where the majority of Army recruits attend boot camp – the holiday movement of 15,000 troops isn’t as easy as a casual drive to the airport.
The Jackson population movement is a piece of the annual Christmastime migration dubbed “exodus” that funnels through USO centers around the nation. It’s the quintessential hurry-up-and-wait event.
Nearly 700 soldiers pass through the Columbia Metropolitan Airport during a pair of 36-hour periods in mid-December and early January, and USO South Carolina extends its support from the post to the airport and even out to train stations.
“It’s a big event, and it’s an honor to get to send the troops home USO-style — making every moment count — letting them know that the USO thanks them for their service,” said Katie Kennedy, programs manager at USO South Carolina.
It starts at a large gymnasium on Fort Jackson at 7 p.m. For the next 27 hours, troops sit in the bleachers until they are organized into their departure groups and put onto a bus. Cadre (Army staff) and USO volunteers assemble and hand out care packs full of snacks and other travel essentials for the troops’ bus and plane rides home.
“In those bags they receive protein bars, gum, Slim Jims, tissues, lip balm and water,” said Kennedy, who noted that command enlisted also drop by the event. “That may sound quaint, but you have to realize these are mostly recruits who haven’t seen a stick of chewing gum in eight weeks.”
The airport center, usually open from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., re-opens around 2 a.m. for troops traveling through the airport. Groups of USO volunteers also gather at train stations throughout the region to serve coffee, hot chocolate, and warm cider to traveling service members.
Roughly 150 troops and staff don’t get to leave Fort Jackson for the holidays. The USO of South Carolina makes sure their holidays are full of memorable moments, too, by hosting events including laser tag, mini golf and a barbecue dinner.
“We act as their family during the holidays, and we take care of the Cadre as well,” Kennedy said. “It’s especially important for us to let those who didn’t go home for the holidays know that they have family here at the USO.”
And the troops appreciated the effort.
“When you have over 10,000 soldiers depart and return to Fort Jackson from across the country within 48 hours each way, every bit of support is immeasurable,” said Army Capt. Martin van derHoek, an officer in charge of logistical movements.
“The USO South Carolina’s presence … was fantastic, from handing out travel bags with goodies to raising the spirits of the trainees and Cadre, they really provided a caring and uplifting presence.”
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