By Sandi Moynihan

Five minutes after Grant McCormick turned on the Wi-Fi at USO Camp Aachen, he noticed a small group of soldiers leaning against the half-finished center building, phones in hand.

“They had logged on to the signal,” said McCormick, who serves as USO Europe’s area director in Germany.

Two hours later, McCormick, who was then working with contractors to complete the now-open center in Western Germany, looked outside again and saw that the small group had ballooned to more than 20 people.

“They were just standing out there in the rain, on their phones,” he said.

So he decided to let them all in.

“We didn’t even have the floor in or the ceiling,” said McCormick, a retired Air Force member. “I mean it was a complete mess. But they were all there for that connectivity so they could Skype back home to their families.”

The USO has connected America’s service members with home since 1941. In 2015, after recognizing the need for an increased presence in military communities both stateside and abroad, the organization launched an aggressive center expansion effort to bring its hallmark connectivity, entertainment and programming to more service members and families.

“People don’t understand that in war or peace there are hundreds of thousands of service members deployed all over the world,” said Alan Reyes, the USO’s senior vice president of operations, programs and entertainment. “The USO doesn’t grow just because there’s a war going on. The USO is there to support a military that’s supporting us in war and peace.”

The USO, which started 2015 with roughly 160 locations worldwide, recently put permanent centers in never-before-served locations like Africa, Alaska and several military entrance processing centers. The organization opened 15 centers in 2015 and will open at least a half dozen more in 2016. Additionally, the USO plans to grow its physical presence in Europe, the Pacific and even Southwest Asia as needs in those regions evolve.

“These aren’t locations that have 100 troops,” said USO Vice President of Field Operations Kristen Baxter. “These have always been pretty big in terms of locations, populations that are probably underserved.

“That’s why we’re making the effort to go more strategically to those installations and saying ‘Hey, what can we do for you?’”

Expanding in Europe

American service members have traditionally brought families along on two- or three-year assignments in Europe. But USO officials on the ground there are seeing more service men and women opting to serve these assignments alone.

USO Camp Aachen in Grafenwohr, Germany opened in mid-October and supports service members rotating through U.S. Army Garrison Bavaria for training. | Photo credit USO photo

“They realize that half of [the time they are stationed in Europe] or more they’re going to be away from their family anyways [on missions],” said Walter Murren, USO Europe’s regional vice president, “so they’re going to … reduce that impact on their family by leaving them back in the U.S.”

That’s changed how USO Europe, which historically tailored its 22 centers to support full military families, approached its programming at newly opened centers like the one at Camp Aachen.

“We’re providing services to a different demographic, but it’s a demographic that’s really needing it,” McCormick said. “That’s why every night—every night—you’re going to see that center completely packed. Standing room only.”

Many new USO centers in Europe are near training areas where there are few, if any, places for service members to relax and dial up their families back home.

“The [morale, welfare and recreation] facility on Aachen doesn’t have computers and phones,” said Army Staff Sergeant David Gattis, a USO volunteer who is serving his second tour at the camp. “So to be able to come here and have that more readily available has helped a lot more this rotation.”

Murren said the USO centers play to service members on unaccompanied tours by providing gaming options, a bevy of American TV shows and as many live sporting events as they can show. “We try to bring America to them.”

Service members in Qatar pose with some gear from their USO2GO shipment. | Photo credit Courtesy photo

Expeditionary Military, Expeditionary USO

Although the USO is focused on expanding its worldwide center presence in 2016, the organization will continue to adapt and grow its support of the increasing number of small units serving in geographically isolated areas. Service members deployed for missions like Operation Atlantic Resolve—NATO’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—and Operation Inherent Resolve, the name for the targeted strikes against Islamic State positions in Iraq and Syria, still need USO support.

“For us to be able to figure out the best way to adapt our services and deliver programs in a cost-effective way to those constituents [in hard-to-reach areas] is really important for us to do,” Reyes said.

The USO got back into the Iraq center business in 2015, building three new, volunteer-operated locations to provide entertainment and connectivity services to troops. These unmanned locations all feature the same basic amenities found in any USO center, including TVs, free Wi-Fi and reliable telephone service. While visa restrictions keep the USO from operating a staffed center in the country, the new locations still allow the organization to get services directly to troops.

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“It is really about making sure that we are serving where they need us the most,” Reyes said. “And right now that is places like Iraq.”

Even with an aggressive center expansion plan, the USO will never be able to build enough centers to serve every service member. That’s why the organization has been actively developing ways to send its signature services to troops in remote, austere locations. The USO works with the military to send USO2GO units, Mobile Entertainment Gaming Systems, Holiday Boxes, satellite connectivity kits and more to service members who have little else in the field.

“We’re taking care of them and we’re shipping things to them that they need,” Murren said. “And we’re getting better at that. And I think we’re adapting very well [to the current needs of the military].”

“I think we’ve undersold what we’ve been doing,” Baxter said. “We really have not capitalized on the opportunity to talk about our reach and how much we’ve grown and the numbers that we’re serving, and now it’s a focal point.”

—Sandi Moynihan is a USO multimedia journalist. This story appears in the Spring 2016 issue of On Patrol, the magazine of the USO.