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.
“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.
“[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.”
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.
Stories in this Series
Dec 14, 2016
Here’s How the USO and RP/6 Created a ‘Movement’ in San Antonio
When USO-RP/6 scout Cedric Brown retired from the Navy, his transition to civilian life was a challenge. He shares his personal story with every one of his clients so they know they’re not alone – and that there’s a community waiting to help them along the way.
Nov 16, 2016
‘You Just Feel at Peace’: How USO North Carolina - Jacksonville’s Beirut Room Serves as a Space for Reflection and Healing
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Nov 1, 2016
‘It's Unbelievable’: USO of Illinois, Blackhawks and Boeing Team Up to Salute Service Members and Veterans During National Anthem
Robert Canchola, Vietnam veteran, was recently honored on-ice at the United Center during the National Anthem as part of the Service Salute Partnership between the USO of Illinois, the Chicago Blackhawks and Boeing.
Oct 10, 2016
They’ve Gone Down That Path’: Retired Soldier Explains How the USO and RP/6 Put Him on the Road to a Successful Transition
Tim Beninato wore an Army uniform for 25 years. Now he wears a suit and tie to work at USAA. Here’s how the USO and RP/6 helped him make the leap from soldier to civilian.
Aug 15, 2016
Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families Looks at Transition
Military families stationed here in Minot, North Dakota -- 50 miles south of the Canadian border -- don’t get many VIP visitors. So when the Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families kicked off its 2016 tour at the base, it was a big deal.
Jul 29, 2016
Military Bride-to-Be Says Yes to the Dress Thanks to the USO at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base
As soon as Melissa Wrisley put on the satin white gown, she knew it was “the dress.” Just a few months earlier, when she was first engaged to her now-husband, Marine Pfc. Brandon Wrisley, Melissa was wondering if she would even be able to find a dress – let alone a designer dress – that would fit their tight wedding budget.
Jul 20, 2016
Storytime Brings Families Together at Fort Drum USO
At the home of the 10th Mountain Division in upstate New York, winters can be long and lonesome. That's why volunteers there began to organize Storytime at the local USO, where military kids can socialize and do arts and crafts with their family.
Jul 14, 2016
It’s Never Too Early for Chili Cheese Dogs at the USO
German troops headed to nearby Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, for training had heard about the American delicacy all the way back in Germany. They stopped at the USO center in St. Louis – which is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year – at 7 a.m. to find out what the buzz was about.
Jun 9, 2016
Service Members Get Their Game On at USO Center on Wright-Patterson AFB
Some of our best ideas come from the service members we support. Here's what happened when two airmen at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base who love video games came to the USO of Central and Southern Ohio with a big idea.
May 6, 2016
‘Made All the Difference’: USO Helps Coast Guard Family During 12-Hour Flight Delay
Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Trevor Hughes and his young family were headed to Disney World when they were suddenly faced with a 12-hour flight delay. Unable to go home without his children’s car seats, Hughes headed to the USO, where his family spent the whole day napping, watching movies and eating snacks.
Apr 22, 2016
USO, RP/6 Help an Army Veteran Land a Job Right Next Door
Michael Leebarze, who had ambitions to launch a career in the criminal justice/homeland security field, spoke with RP/6 staff members about his resume and transition plan. Several hours of career counseling later, Leebarze, now an Army veteran, left the center with a job interview for a position at the company right next door to the USO center.
Apr 8, 2016
Air Force Dad Became a USO Volunteer After Son's Call
How did you find out about the USO? For Tom Flagg, it was a phone call from his Air Force captain son during a layover in Denver. Years later, Flagg - a Broadway actor - and his wife both volunteer at the USO of Metropolitan New York.
Mar 7, 2016
USO at San Antonio MEPS is a Stress Reliever for Recruits and Families
The MEPS process is tense for the young men and women who’ve signed up to serve our country. They often spend many hours waiting for exams, tests and lots of paperwork, but USO is working to relieve some stress with locations inside processing stations around the U.S.
Mar 4, 2016
A Tasty Competition: USO Fort Campbell's Cupcake Wars Bring Military Families Together
Nothing brings people together like food and healthy competition. That’s the idea behind Fort Campbell USO’s Cupcake Wars, a fierce (and tasty) cupcake competition that takes place every at the center every summer.
Feb 28, 2016
From Biker Bars to Coffee Shops, USO El Paso Volunteer Opens Doors of Support for Service Members
Mallo is a USO center director’s dream come true. She’s marched into multiple businesses to ask if they’d like to support America’s service members and walked out with gift cards, mountains of candy and pallets of batteries.
Feb 27, 2016
Hattiesburg USO was a Sanctuary During World War II
The words of World War II-era USO volunteer Vermell Jackson echo the sentiments of the photos and encased USO artifacts at the African American Military History Museum. The building that now houses the museum was once home to a unique USO wartime center.