By Kristin Baird Rattini
Throughout his nearly 9-year military career, Army Staff Sergeant Stephen Wiegman has spent many holidays away from family. To pass the time quickly, he usually overworks himself until it’s time to clock out. But in 2010, while stationed at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, during Christmas, Wiegman found a home for the holidays at USO center on base.
“On the outside, this place looked just like another tent,” Wiegman said. “But inside, it was honestly a miraculous sight for sore eyes.” Strings of lights twinkled on three Christmas trees and throughout the center. Staff members gleefully wore ugly sweaters, shipped by their cohorts from a stateside USO. Holiday movies played on the TVs and music rang through the air.
Wiegman, a USO volunteer, cheerfully shouted “merry Christmas!” to each visitor as he signed them in and handed over some of the 1,200 presents given out to service members of all faiths that day. As the night drew to a close, he read “The Night Before Christmas” over the P.A. system. “That holiday was something special,” Wiegman said. “I felt such a kinship with the people at the USO. They became my family.”
From its inception 75 years ago, the USO has served as a home away from home for service members, especially during the holidays. At more than 160 USO centers around the world, staff members pull out all the stops to make the holidays a bit merrier and brighter for the military members they serve.
On any given Tuesday, the Bob Hope USO at Los Angeles International Airport easily sees hundreds of service members pass through its doors. For the past decade, the center has hosted a huge outdoor Thanksgiving celebration—not on the holiday, but on a Tuesday instead. Supporters ranging from local politicians to celebrities like LA Galaxy soccer players and Los Angeles Kings cheerleaders keep service members company as they enjoy musical entertainment and a Thanksgiving meal.
At the Liberty USO center at Philadelphia International Airport, Thanksgiving isn’t just a one-day celebration. “We cook full turkey dinners every day during the entire month of November,” said volunteer manager Jennifer Hodur. “Service members are amazed to find that waiting for them when they walk in the door.”
At smaller USO centers, staff members find their own creative ways to make the most of the resources they have. A local American Legion post works with the USO of Metropolitan Washington-Baltimore, which runs USO Lounge at Washington Dulles International Airport in Virginia, to make sure the center’s freezer is stocked with frozen turkey dinners visitors can heat and enjoy any time since the center doesn’t have a kitchen.
Improvisation and adaptability is a way of life for staff members at USO centers overseas. “You can’t exactly order something online and have it arrive the next day,” said Sarah Kemp, the USO’s manager of volunteer operations who previously worked at USO Kandahar in Afghanistan. “You have to work with whatever you find.”
And so for New Year’s Eve, Kemp and her resourceful coworkers at Kandahar Airfield [CS1] wrapped Christmas lights around leftover fabric from presents to make a ball they dropped at midnight. On Halloween, they held a diorama contest, using donated marshmallow Peeps and cardboard boxes. At Christmas, dozens of boxes were wrapped and stacked into a 10-foot-tall tree. “When it was time to take the tree down, we hid gift cards inside three of the boxes to make a fun event out of the tear down,” Kemp said.
Fun events certainly help break up the monotony. “There’s not much that changes on base from day to day at Kandahar, even the weather, so it can seem like the movie Groundhog Day,” she said. “The USO helps to spice things up by adding something different, something exciting. It gives service members something to look forward to.”
Few holiday events are more anticipated among troops in Afghanistan than the Christmas Convoy. USO staff members step in for Santa Claus and deliver holiday care packages, often via helicopter, to remote forward operating bases (FOBs) and combat outposts (COPs).
“As our Black Hawk landed at this tiny COP, the soldiers were lined up waiting for us,” Kemp recalls. “They were so happy to see someone not in camo, someone there to bring them joy and to represent the civilians who were thinking of them. As we handed out the red-and-green USO drawstring bags filled with donations, their faces lit up that they had something to open and that they’d been remembered by the people back home.”
For many Americans, the USO’s star-studded tours are usually what first come to mind when they think of the organization. Indeed, tours are a highlight for many service members, especially those who catch a show during the holidays. Army Sergeant First Class Michael Sanow was stationed at Logistical Support Area Anaconda in Balad, Iraq, in 2004 when the late Robin Williams performed for the troops during the holidays. “It was awesome to have him there,” Sanow said. “For them to be away from their families to spend time with us is a huge honor. They don’t have to do it, yet they do.”
As a C-17 pilot, Air Force Captain Dennis Nita transported several of those headliners—including Robin Williams—on their tours to Iraq and Afghanistan. “The celebrities and the acts are what draw attention to the USO,” Nita said. “But it was the little things the USO did behind the scenes that made it much easier to be away from my family at the holidays.”
Nita participated in USO festivities in five countries—not only Afghanistan and Iraq, but also Germany, Qatar and Kyrgyzstan. At each stop, the USO was a welcome and comforting presence. “They would provide prepaid phone cards so we could call our families at the holidays,” he said. “There were presents, holiday meals—all of the things you would expect at home on the holidays. The USO gave us a little taste of what we were missing back home.”
Wiegman is now back home stateside, serving in Texas. Although five years have passed since his Christmas at USO Kandahar, he still vividly remembers and deeply cherishes that special time. “I’ll always treasure the fact that the USO became my family,” he said.
—Kristin Baird Rattini is a Missouri-based freelance writer.
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