By Tom Sileo
First Lt. Travis Carter has visited many USO centers during his 11 years in the military. While appreciative of every single facility, the USO Warrior Center at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany occupies a special place in his heart.
"I had a great experience with the USO on my return from Afghanistan," the soldier wrote.
The USO Warrior Center serves as a comfortable shoulder to lean on in the difficult weeks after a wounded warrior sustains his or her injuries. Perhaps that's why 1st Lt. Carter is so enthusiastic about his experience at Landstuhl: the employees and volunteers of the USO Warrior Center offered to help when he needed it most.
"I can say beyond doubt that this USO has the most professional and courteous group that I visited," Carter wrote. "Thank you for all of your time."
Monday in Virginia, ground was broken on the first of two planned USO Wounded Warrior and Family Centers inside the United States. Like Landstuhl, the new centers at Fort Belvoir, Va., and Walter Reed National Military Medical Center Bethesda, Md., will give the wounded and their families a place to relax and have fun. Yet because of much longer stays at the stateside centers, there will also be distinguishing qualities.
"Due to the length of recovery, USO of Metropolitan Washington provides programs for wounded warriors, caregivers, spouses, and children," Jackie Green, programs manager for USO | Wounded Warriors explained. "This is much different than Germany since most wounded warriors there do not have their families with them."
Monday's official launch of the public phase of Operation Enduring Care, the USO's $100 million initiative to support wounded, ill, and injured service members, goes beyond construction. The initiative creates an endowment to give these centers the ability to support wounded warriors for years to come.
The two new centers validate the tireless work of employees and volunteers at the USO Warrior Center at Landstuhl, as the stateside centers will build on their continuing success.
Marines like Master Sgt. Mario Morales, who benefited from the USO Warrior Center at Landstuhl, will now have places to turn on the home front.
"From the bottom of my heart, I want to say thank you for everything you do," Master Sgt. Morales e-mailed to the USO. "You go above excellence to show our brothers and sisters in arms that their job is greatly appreciated. Semper Fi!" Jackie Green believes that personal connection is key to recovery.
"The USO staff that will run the centers at Bethesda and Belvoir will have the opportunity to see a service member from a few days after their initial injury, all the way back to returning to duty, retirement, or full recovery," she added.
Troops who are wounded, suffer an injury, or become ill during deployments all have one thing in common beyond service to their country. They would all rather be home with their families instead of lying in a hospital in Germany.
Still, when it's time to head back to the United States, many find it's difficult to leave USO Warrior Center's compassionate staff.
"I really appreciate the hospitality during my stay here," Derwin Bradley e-mailed. "I will miss you all!"
Writes fellow soldier Dusty Bonham, "I want to thank all of you for everything that you do to help out wounded soldiers. I am going to miss you all."
As troops come and go, life goes on at Landstuhl. On June 25, the USO Warrior Center hosted soldiers from the Army's 21st Theater Sustainment Command. As the visiting soldiers served ham, greens, chicken, fruit, and desserts to wounded warriors, everyone got a taste of home.
"My grandma would be proud of this meal," one wounded warrior exclaimed. "I loved the corn, it was great!"
About 4,000 miles away, the groundbreaking of the first stateside USO Warrior and Family Center begins a new chapter for wounded warriors and their families. Inside two new beacons of hope at Fort Belvoir and Bethesda, the journey home continues.