Tuesday October 6, 2015 11:45 a.m. - 2:00 p.m.
Seatac, WASH. – Every afternoon at the USO Sea-Tac Airport center is different.
Sometimes, the brand-new center is full of WWII veterans waiting to board an honor flight to Washington, D.C. Other days, the 24/7 lounge’s rooms are littered with only a score of sleepy service members trying to catch some z’s.
Today, around noon, the center was sprinkled with about fifty retirees, transient service members and military families hoping to eat some lunch, find a comfortable seat and recharge before taking off. Around 11:45 a.m., a fresh batch of volunteers arrived to relieve the morning group of workers just in time for the lunchtime rush.
“We [volunteers] rotate around, either here, the luggage room or over there,” volunteer Douglas Hoople said.
Hoople, who regularly works during the early afternoons at the USO Sea-Tac Airport center, settled into his assigned post at the check-in desk, although that’s not where he usually spends his time.
“What usually happens … is that I’m their tuna [sandwhich] expert [so I work more in the kitchen],” Hoople said. “Working in the kitchen I think is a lot of fun…Here it’s more formal [at the front desk]… By the time they’ve relaxed a little bit and their eating food, you have a more open conversation [with service members].”
Around 12:00 p.m., Hoople checked patrons in and greeted a delivery man carrying new pantry items. Around the same time another volunteer, Lonnie Stevenson, heard a yelp from the glass-enclosed family room near the back of the center.
A military toddler had fallen and bumped her head while her exhausted parents were sleeping after a long PCS flight from Asia. Stevenson ran to grab the toddler an ice pack and comforted the crying young mother, assuring her that all kids occasionally bump their heads. Stevenson, who’s been volunteering since 2009, noted that in a busy center like USO Sea-Tac, things like this happen all the time.
“Once in a while there’s a strange little girl walking around and I’ll say, ‘Where’s your grown-up?’ and I’ll have to go find their grown up and they’ll be asleep somewhere or in the ladies’ room or in the mens’ room,” Stevenson said.
Once she calmed the mother down, Stevenson headed to the pantry area to organize and stock the earlier pantry delivery. As she read through the checklist, young service members approached the fully-stocked food bar and grabbed hot dogs, sandwiches and drinks to enjoy at tables in the canteen. They had a wide variety of sundries to choose from with donuts, granola bars, cereals, string cheese, and other snacks available at varies spots around the eating area.
By 12:45 p.m. the canteen was packed, with at least one person sitting at each table. The adjoining T.V. lounge area, which features two long rows of leather armchairs, was also beginning to fill. At 12:50, Stevenson went into the bunk room to wake up soldiers who had been enjoying a snooze.
“We usually have a four hour limit,” Stevenson said. “If we wake them up in four hours and we’re not full, they can sleep for another four hours.”
At 1:30, the entire center had quieted as patrons shifted from the canteen to the armchairs for an afternoon nap. Newly-hired USO SeaTac Airport Center Director Matt Sult, who served in the Navy for over twenty years, noted that this – the ability to offer troops a comfortable place to relax – was one of his favorite parts about the USO.
“This is really cool to have that asset for those guys,” Sult said. “If they’re connecting — I just talked to a guy, he’s connecting into Charlotte later on and he’s smoked. And man, I so don’t miss that.”
While other service members slept, Army Chaplain Collin Grossruck, a regular USO patron traveling home to South Carolina, took the quiet moment as an opportunity to stretch out and read the news at a empty canteen table.
“I’ve been out here [in Washington] … supporting my family. Taking care of a rental house. Stuff like that,” Grossruck said. “[Now I’m] heading back [home] to the flood zone. Columbia [South Carolina].”
Near Grossruck’s table another service member worked on a Word document on his personal laptop. Thanks to the computer and internet services, around 2:00 p.m. the service member was able to print of a copy of his work at the front desk, where Hoople was still signing patrons in.
As Hoople turned to hand the patron his printed document, he simultaneously spotted a young military family coming in. After he checked the mother’s military I.D., Hoople leaned over and asked her two twin three-year-old daughters, Audrey and Emily Bremerton, if they would like a second hand stamp.
They, of course, said yes.
Hoople, who also volunteers at the United Way, said that since the new USO SeaTac center opened, there’s been an increased demand on volunteers to give their time and talents.
“We went from 3400 square feet to 7000,” Hoople said. “So you’ve got more space so we need more volunteers. So, a lot of times … we’ll see the emails that say, 'Oh, we’re gonna need help,’ especially on the three Flight Nights.”
“So we all come in all the time.”