USO Warrior and Family Centers Built and Designed With Wounded, Ill and Injured Service Members in Mind

By Donna Miles

Undergoing care for a traumatic brain injury at Fort Belvoir Community Hospital, Sergeant Justin Luther struggled with severe headaches, vision problems and perhaps most troubling of all, a deep sense of isolation.

So, as his medical providers treated the concussive wounds that Luther said “turned my life inside out,” he found the connections he craved at the USO Warrior and Family Center, just steps away from Fort Belvoir’s Warrior Transition Unit barracks.

“I realized that if you let yourself stagnate, you are never going to get better,” he said. “That made the USO an invaluable place when I was in that bubble of health care. It was like nowhere else in the Army. It felt safe and welcoming. The staff was awesome and there was always a reason for me to be there.”

The USO has provided hospitality and morale-enhancing services to military members and their families for the past 75 years. But among nearly 200 USO centers around the world, two of the newest were built specifically to address the needs of wounded, ill and injured service members and their caregivers.

Nearly a half-million people have stepped through the doors of the USO Warrior and Family Centers since they opened their doors three years ago at Fort Belvoir, Virginia and in 2014 at Naval Support Activity Bethesda, Maryland.

Once inside, it’s easy to understand why. The hustle-and-bustle of military operations grinds to a screeching halt. Huge windows, framed by exposed wood and natural stone, set the tone. Deep leather chairs surround big, open fireplaces. Interesting artwork, most of it made by troops and family members, adorns the walls. The aroma of fresh-baked cookies frequently wafts through the building. Outside, extensive healing gardens, fire pits and a barbecue terrace beckon.

Photo credit USO photo

The hustle-and-bustle of military life grinds to a halt inside the USO Warrior and Family Center on Naval Support Activity Bethesda, Maryland. The center is a sanctuary for service members, families and caregivers to restore their minds, bodies and spirits.

The vibe is alpine retreat—a sanctuary for service members, families and caregivers to relax, reflect and restore their bodies, minds and spirits.

“The centers don’t look like hospitals or barracks buildings,” said Elaine Rogers, president of USO Metropolitan Washington-Baltimore, which operates the centers. “They’re designed to be that home away from home, where people can be themselves and know they will be accepted. I think everybody who comes here feels comfortable.”

Hundreds of volunteers keep the centers open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day and provide visitors with a warm welcome. Whether they drop in between medical appointments or other duties, visitors can grab a cup of coffee, tap into free wireless connections or simply stretch out in front of a big-screen TV. State-of-the-art business centers are another big draw, enabling users to take online courses, work on their resumes or catch up with their buddies and loved ones.

Meanwhile, a variety of programs, developed in close collaboration with hospital staffs and military surgeons general, offer a welcome break from the monotony of medical care. The extensive list includes art classes, music instruction, yoga, creative writing workshops, holiday parties, bingo nights and adaptive sports clinics.

“Every day is different here,” said Casey Oelrich, a program specialist for the two centers. “There’s so much going on and so much variety that once people visit for the first time, they want to come back again and again.”

Enjoyment may be what entices visitors to the centers, “but there is so much more behind what we do,” said Ranna Armstrong, who manages the Fort Belvoir center. “It is all about healing. It’s about education. It is about building connections and a sense of community and making sure the family unit stays strong.”

Jason Blair, who was assigned to Fort Belvoir’s Warrior Transition Unit after being medically evacuated from Afghanistan, said he “knew it wasn’t healthy to sit in my room and think all the time.” After several visits to the USO Warrior and Family Center, he slowly emerged from his corner to try his hand at projects offered through the popular arts and music program.

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“It was a way to escape everything I was going through and connect with others,” Blair said. “When the world around you is falling apart and there is a lot of chaos, to be able to make something beautiful is about the best therapy you can get.”

Luther said he found solace through the program, too. He dabbled in pottery-making, then began popping into the center regularly between medical appointments to paint and take piano lessons. “It was something I could do for hours,” he said. “It was fun, but it was therapeutic, too. I realize that it played a pretty significant part in my recovery, mentally.”

He credits the center’s non-threatening atmosphere with setting the stage for his rehabilitation and transition into medical retirement.

“People coming into our centers know they are not going to be judged,” said Pamela Horton, director of the USO Warrior and Family Centers. “They don’t have to worry because people here understand them. They know what is going on in their lives and are truly here to help.”

Martha Cesaro, an active volunteer at the Bethesda center, frequently provides that help in the form of a big smile and compassionate ear. “Sometimes the people who come in here just want to sit and talk,” she said. “They just open up or need a shoulder to cry on. And I am here for them. After all, the best satisfaction you can get is to support those who have put their lives on the line for us.”

Photo credit USO

Since its opening in February 2013, the USO Warrior and Family Center at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, has logged more than 325,000 visits from service members, caregivers and military families.

That’s a common sentiment among the volunteer corps—a blend of retirees, off-duty service members and their families, “or just people who love the military,” said Pauline Sumner, manager of the Bethesda center. “We could absolutely not do what we do without our volunteers,” she said. “They are at the heart of everything we do.”

Volunteerism and partnership have been cornerstones of the USO since its inception and remain its strength today, Rogers said. She noted the many individuals, organizations and sponsors whose contributions make the USO Warrior and Family Centers a success.

“The centers exemplify everything that the USO stands for,” she said. “We are still working in that same philosophy of bringing together organizations under that USO banner so we have the right people with the right expertise providing the right services for our military members and their families.”

Based on feedback about the centers—from active-duty service members and families, from caregivers and especially from medical providers in the hospitals—the formula is working. “It surpasses our wildest dreams,” Rogers said. “We knew these centers would be successful, but I don’t think we knew just how successful.”

Looking to the future, Horton said the centers will provide a continuing link between the American people and the men and women in uniform who serve them.

“The USO’s mission for 75 years has been to be that bridge [between the nation and its service members] … and that mission will continue for the USO Warrior and Family Centers. Because no matter what happens in our military, and no matter how they might feel, when they come into one of our centers I guarantee that we are going to make them smile and feel better when they leave the building.”

—Donna Miles is a Maryland-based freelance writer and former DoD writer. This story appears in the Spring 2016 issue of On Patrol, the magazine of the USO.

You can send a message of support and thanks directly to service members via the USO’s Campaign to Connect. Your messages will appear on screens at USO locations around the world.