By Sheriece Matias Dick

For 75 years, the USO has been by the sides of our nation’s service members wherever they needed a touch of home. That mission has found USO staff, volunteers and entertainers near the front lines of history’s deadliest wars—even if the fighting wasn’t on a traditional battlefield.

Many may remember the iconic photos of entertainers in remote locations on USO tours during World War II or the images of USO Director of Public Information Pat Krause in Saigon during the Vietnam War. They donned fatigues, helmets and protective gear—not for dramatic effect or costume—but because they were often in harm’s way.

In 2014, “Today” co-host Al Roker visited service members at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, as part of a USO entertainment tour. Roker, perhaps the nation’s most recognized weatherman, toured with comedians Jay Leno, Craig Robinson, Iliza Shlesinger and musician Kevin Eubanks. Just before the entertainers took the stage, sirens blared and everyone headed for cover.

Roker and the comedians were ushered in a bunker to wait out what turned out to be indirect rocket fire. He later told millions of “Today” viewers that the experience drove home just how dangerous the conditions were for those deployed in that region.

Japan in the 1940s, Vietnam in the 1960s and post-9/11 Iraq and Afghanistan are well-known conflict zones. But Italy, with several deadly terrorist attacks in the 1980s, was surprisingly unsafe for service members and the people, businesses and organizations that supported them. With anti-military sentiment brewing, Europe endured deadly terrorist attacks, much like those last November, from the 1970s into the early 1990s. Unlike the 2015 attacks, the scattered incidents appeared to specifically target U.S. citizens, military installations and service members.

On the evening of April 14, 1988, a car bomb was detonated outside a USO center in Naples, Italy—the fourth attack in seven years against American installations or personnel in the country. Four Italian citizens were killed and 17 injured.

The attack also killed U.S. Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Angela Simone Santos.

The incident altered the definition of hazard duty and rattled perceptions of safety for American service members, military families and USO employees and volunteers.

Photo credit USO

Two U.S. Navy ships were in port on the night of the April 14, 1988, attack outside USO Naples and the center was filled with American sailors. The patrons, at the center enjoying a talent show, could not have known the Ford Fiesta parked outside concealed a bomb.

USO Naples: A Beacon and a Target

Naples was one of more than 55 worldwide ports where the USO provided support to sailors in the late 1980s. During that time, some 250,000 U.S. military personnel were deployed on U.S. vessels around the world.

The USO assisted crew members and their families with travel arrangements, currency exchanges, translation and emergency communications. USO Naples served military members stationed in the area and the sailors who arrived at port for brief stopovers. Much like USO centers past and present, USO Naples had only a handful of paid staff and relied on the volunteer support from locals, active-duty service members and their families. Santos was one of those volunteers. She was fluent in Italian, musically inclined and helping with a talent show at the center on the night of April 14.

Naples, shown here before the 1988 terrorist attack, was one of more than 55 worldwide ports where the USO provided support to sailors in the 1980s. | Photo credit USO

Also at the center that night was Maurizio Garzelli, a 26-year-old USO Naples employee. Garzelli was born in New York City to Italian immigrants. A dual citizen, he returned to Italy with his family when he was 11. He was a student at the University of Salerno in 1985 when he took a part-time position at USO Naples to earn extra cash.

Until the terrorist attacks in Germany and Italy, Garzelli said most people working near the Naples port felt relaxed and safe. In fact, Santos told her mother that her port position felt safer than sea duty. After deadly bombings in Germany killed U.S. service members, Garzelli and others began feeling vulnerable. Naples was home to NATO’s southern command, and the USO center—with its large, iconic logo outside the building—became more than just a beacon for members of the U.S. military.

There were two U.S. Navy ships in port on that spring night and the center was filled with American sailors. Garzelli and Santos, there helping with talent show, could not have known the Ford Fiesta rental car parked outside concealed a bomb.

The talent show ran late, and participants and spectators were just beginning to leave when the bomb exploded. Garzelli said he saw fire and smoke, and heard people screaming and began searching for survivors.

Garzelli found Santos’s body near the entrance of the USO, draped in an American flag. She was the first female sailor to be killed in a terrorist attack.

Photo credit USO

An April 14, 1988, car bombing outside the USO center in Naples, Italy, killed five, including Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Angela Simone Santos, and wounded 17. Santos, 21, was helping with a USO talent show when the blast occurred.

The Spectrum of Sacrifice

“Thank you for your service.” Members of the military hear this often and they express similar sentiments to USO employees and volunteers. Service members politely accept the sentiment from civilians, sometimes with mixed feelings. Similarly, USO employees demur when they are thanked for their work. Even staffers in war zones immediately reject any expression that likens their labor to those who serve in the armed forces. They are there to support America’s military personnel no matter where they are in the world.

Sarah Kemp was 25 when she accepted the duty manager position at a USO center in Kandahar, Afghanistan, which was considered a hazardous location. For reasons she finds difficult to articulate, she completed her one-year contract and extended her post for another nine months. When she returned to the states in 2012, she found herself running races in honor of service members killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. At one of those races, she saw a tribute table with rows of names of those who were recently killed in action and realized she recognized some of the names. She had attended their ramp ceremonies.

Friends and family asked why she chose to continue such difficult and emotional work in a dangerous war zone. Kemp said she stayed in Kandahar because she felt she had more to give and “the work wasn’t done.” And when someone thanks her for her service and sacrifice, she respectfully deflects.

“What I did in Afghanistan was nothing compared to those troops,” said Kemp, who is now the manager of volunteer operations at the USO headquarters in Arlington, Virginia.

Regina Wages, USO center director at Operating Base Fenty in Afghanistan, has spent six Christmases in the war-torn country. Last year, she received the Army’s Outstanding Civilian Service Award for her work at USO Fenty.

She’s still there, and the former South Carolina police officer has pledged to stay in Afghanistan as long as the USO needs her. While she works within the USO’s Southwest Asia region year-round, she said bringing holiday cheer to troops in austere locations has been her most rewarding experience.

USO staff, volunteers and entertainers continue their efforts in war zones because they believe in the mission and service members still need their support. The front lines are arguably where the USO is needed the most. And the closer they are to the front lines, the more emphatically USO employees stress that service members and their families are making the ultimate sacrifices and therefore should be the only ones receiving gratitude for their service.

The Continuing Mission

In the spirit in which the United Service Organizations was created, USO Naples never closed after the bombing. The organization set up a temporary location in the port until the center officially reopened in 1990. According to USO Area Director Sabrina Pullido, USO Naples has provided uninterrupted outreach services and recreational tours for U.S. sailors since it was established more than 70 years ago. The center currently serves about 4,500 service members a month and an additional 1,000 through regional outreach programs. Though sailors no longer record letters on cassettes like they did in the 1950s, they still seek the USO for connectivity, entertainment and familiarity of home. Inevitably, things do change. While USO Naples still hosts a talent show, it’s adopted a more contemporary name: “Naples’ Got Talent.”

Maurizio Garzelli, third from right, celebrated the USO’s 74th anniversary with USO Naples staff in 2015. | Photo credit USO

When the new center opened in 1990, Garzelli returned to work for USO Naples full-time as an accountant, a position he still holds today.

Garzelli thought he would be with the USO “for just a few years.” When asked why he is still with the USO, he can’t explain why. He said his loss for words is unrelated to a language barrier. (Garzelli speaks perfect English, albeit with a melodious Italian accent.) “I can’t explain it. We are like a family. We have a spirit and we want to help the military … especially when they live in another country.”

He said he’ll never forget that night, but he realizes the experience allowed him a realization. “I have learned to live with those memories and be thankful I was allowed the immense gift to make new ones.” Garzelli is married with a family of his own, but he’ll always consider the USO part of his family.

—Sheriece Matias Dick is the USO’s manager of internal communications. This story appears in the Spring 2016 issue of On Patrol, the magazine of the USO.