By Chad Stewart

It’s not often that a used dry cleaning truck catches one’s eye, but for Elizabeth Hazlett, the modest, pea-green vehicle was exactly what she was seeking.

Hazlett, USO Wisconsin’s director of operations and volunteer management, spent the spring and summer of 2015 at Fort McCoy, a 60,000-acre training installation about 175 miles northwest of Milwaukee. Separated from her family for months, she operated two USO centers that support service members training at two of the installation’s forward operating bases. The centers, housed in and surrounded by Alaskan tents, offer troops respite from the rigors of field training and the stresses of preparing for deployments.

This used green box truck for sale outside a dry cleaner in Tomah, Wisconsin, was transformed into USO Wisconsin’s new mobile unit. | Photo credit Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Hazlett

“Some of the troops coming in [and training] are set to be deployed to different parts of the world in the next 18 months,” Hazlett said. “They might be at different parts of their rotations, so some are doing their training for real-life conflicts while others may be honing their skills.”

Hazlett used her husband’s pickup truck in summer 2015 to reach service members who didn’t have access to the centers. The truck did its job, but it was a temporary solution. Hazlett needed a Mobile USO vehicle – outfitted with Wi-Fi capabilities – to effectively connect troops training in rural Wisconsin back to their homes and families.

She was visiting the nearby town of Tomah when she saw on old box truck for sale outside a dry cleaning company.

“I saw this thing and it fit in a regular parking space and it looked like it would be more than big enough,” Hazlett said. She talked to the owner and explained how she was going to use the vehicle.

“He was a retired Marine and he thought it was a great idea and so he decided to sell us the vehicle for $2,500.“

Hazlett believes the USO’s long history of supporting men and women in uniform may have been one of the reasons why she got a good deal.

From mid-April to early September, you can find USO Wisconsin’s Elizabeth Hazlett taking care of service members at Fort McCoy. | Photo credit USO Wisconsin photo

“[The former owner] talked about using USOs overseas and how nice it was to have that,” she said. “I think he understood what our mission was and how the little things like a drink and a cookie will improve the lives of the [people] out here training.”

The owner fixed up the truck and got it in running condition and Hazlett drove it back to Milwaukee last August. She and talked to her friend, Richard Kalashian, about helping transform the truck into a top-notch vehicle. Kalashian, a Vietnam veteran who runs an auto repair shop, immediately took on the project. He also enlisted many of his friends to help.

“They had it all winter long and … they brought over thousands of dollars of paint and painted the truck white,” Hazlett said. “A company called Modern Ink came in and designed the vehicle wrap for us and put it on for free.”

Photo credit USO Wisconsin photo

Generous supporters and donors spent months painting and refurbishing the box truck for USO Wisconsin.

Electricians from IBEW Local Union 494 heard about the project and donated and installed exterior spotlights and brand new LED lighting on the inside.

“We launched it this spring and it’s been an absolute hit,” Hazlett said. Instead of delivering pressed shirts and dresses, the truck’s second act as a USO center on wheels gives service members access to amenities they can’t find while they’re training in the isolated forests of western Wisconsin.

“There are snacks and beverages on the truck – those are basics – and there’s Wi-Fi, so they’ll be able to get online with their devices,” Hazlett said. There’s also sporting equipment, games, books and writing supplies on board. Service members can write letters home and the USO will deliver them to the nearest post office on base.

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Hazlett said there’s also a Mobile Entertainment Gaming System (MEGS) on the truck so service members can play video games.

“It will also be able to show movies, so we plan on doing movie nights for these [service members] out in the field,” she said.

While the new Mobile USO connects service members to the people and places they cherish, Hazlett – a Coast Guard mom whose husband is an Army infantry vet – said it also lets them know about the services the USO offers in other places around the world.

“If they were to deploy and go downrange to places where there’s a USO – let’s say the new one in Djibouti in Africa – they get a taste for what it will be like to utilize the USO in the field. This one’s a mobile, but the services that are offered are pretty much identical.”

Hazlett said it’s difficult to describe the feeling she gets when she pulls up in the truck and sees the relieved faces of service members craving a sliver of normalcy.

“I’m with them at probably some of their darker times,” she said. “A lot of them are thinking about what they are training for and what they are getting ready to face and to be able to go out there and give them a hot cup of coffee and a candy bar or a bag of chips, it’s pretty amazing to think this is going to turn their whole day around. It’s the highlight of their whole day.”

It’s the highlight of Hazlett’s day, too, because the men and women she meets and serves remind her of two important people back home.

“I see those faces and I think about the times my husband deployed and the times my son is gone,“ she said. "The fact that I can take care of somebody else’s husband, son, daughter or wife is pretty humbling.”

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.