By Joseph Andrew Lee

Staying connected to family is especially important during the holidays.

The USO has a private satellite network that connects service members at our 160-plus worldwide locations, but those forward-deployed often can’t visit our centers. That’s why the USO created Operation Phone Home, which provides free, prepaid international calling cards, allowing even sailors who are underway to connect with their loved ones back home.

Stockings containing phone cards were hung for the crew members. | Photo credit Courtesy photo

Navy Command Master Chief Petty Officer James Ritch – whose sailors were in that exact situation this holiday season – contacted the USO on a tip from fellow Navy Command Master Chief Anthony Sanders. Ritch was told the USO could bring his sailors some Christmas cheer in the form of phone cards, so he made some surprise arrangements for his sailors before they left their home port at Naval Air Station Point Mogu, California.

Ritch stayed in touch with the USO via email while underway (Navy jargon for out to sea) and explained how the phone cards were distributed.

“The skipper picked out our most junior division to [receive] the cards first,” Ritch wrote after helping to stuff Christmas stockings for each of his sailors, including phone cards and other goodies from the USO. “They are line division, so these sailors tend to be our youngest in age and time in the Navy.”

Want to help bring cheer to the deployed troops defending our freedom? Donate today.

According to Ritch, the line division doesn’t catch many breaks. They spend their first year on the flight deck redirecting planes, blocking wheels, chaining the planes down, washing them from top to bottom and doing generally more difficult tasks.

“The looks on the sailors faces as we passed out the cards was priceless,” Ritch wrote. “When they saw [the cards] were 300 minutes they were taken aback. I’ve already seen the sailors using the cards and hear the familiar ‘How is Mom?’ or ‘How is Dad?’ questions as I walk by.”

In the age of smartphones and smartwatches, the ability to call loved ones around the world is sometimes taken for granted. But unless you have an international plan, which most junior troops can’t afford, there is no connection at sea. Depending on where in the world they are, even Wi-Fi can be tricky to find when they pull into port. But with the prepaid phone cards, the sailors can use the cards on any POTS (plain old telephone system).

USO Presidents Circle partner AT&T donated a majority of the Operation Phone Home phone cards the USO distributed in 2015.

“On behalf of the World Famous Wallbangers of VAW-117, I would like to extend a hearty thank you to everyone involved in making this happen,” Ritch wrote. “[The sailors] were so grateful and continued to thank us. “We just continued to say ‘Thank the USO!’”