By Eric Brandner
Tre Lawson has deployed seven times, but he thinks this is his most Spartan assignment.
To start, there isn’t any running water.
“Germs can be passed very easily based on how we’re set up,” the 18-year Navy veteran said. “Hygiene and cleanliness are important, especially with insects and rodents.”
Lawson, a Navy hospital corpsman first class, is on the back half of a 10-month deployment to Al Asad Air Base in Iraq. American forces started deploying to the air base in Anbar province again in 2014 to help the Iraqi government fight ISIS.
And the USO has gone back to help them, too.
A spirited game of rock-paper-scissors at the USO location on Al Asad Airbase, Iraq.
A look inside the USO location on Al Asad Airbase, Iraq. Army engineers built the structure inside a hangar.
Blindfolded Jenga? Sure. Service members get creative at the USO location on Al Asad Airbase in Iraq.
A service member shows off his winnings during the Fourth of July party at the USO location on Al Asad Airbase, Iraq.
While the organization doesn’t have any full-time staff assigned to Iraq, it set up a volunteer-led operation at Al Asad with a heavy assist from the base command. And the service members have put their stamp on it.
“For the rustic conditions it’s in, it’s a beautiful facility,” USO Southwest Asia Director of Operations Priya Butler said. “The impact is tremendous. They have a [post exchange] and a chapel and a USO – and that’s it.”
Army engineers built a 2,000-square-foot structure inside an aircraft hangar to host the USO location. Butler and two other USO staffers traveled to Al Asad with personnel from communications partner L3 in November to turn the structure into a USO facility in just 10 days.
With no USO personnel on the ground to run the operation, the nonprofit turned to the base command for a center manager.
“I told my wife I was thinking about the USO when we got back to volunteer,” Lawson said. “Coming out here … the USO at the San Diego airport [allowed] us to hang out there with our families before our flight out.”
So when the call went out for someone to run the location in addition to their regular duties, Lawson stepped forward.
While technically a volunteer, Lawson is in charge of day-to-day USO operations at Al Asad. He and the small volunteer staff of service members and military contractors keep the center open from roughly 8 a.m. to midnight every day, with extended overnight hours whenever possible.
Butler said the center has seen significant foot traffic this summer, and is averaging roughly 8,000 phone calls a month via USO Operation Phone Home.
“Most people come to the USO because of the free Wi-Fi and the computers, and then the direct access in calling on the telephones,” Lawson said.
The USO location at Al Asad has eight internet-enabled computers and seven VoIP phones for service members to use free of charge. It also features a small library, two Ping-Pong tables, video game consoles, DVD players, an assortment of TVs, a dedicated movie room and even a popcorn machine. There’s also a USO/United Through Reading Military Program room where service members can record themselves reading books to their children and then send those books and recordings back home.
“This is a partnership that really works, and sets the standard for the USO’s unstaffed locations in the region,” USO Southwest Asia Regional Vice President Bruce Burda said.
Despite being in a conflict zone, these deployed service members even get to experience the types of signature events the USO has become famous for facilitating. Butler and her team spent weeks planning a Fourth of July party at Al Asad. Lawson said the event was a big hit with his colleagues.
“They keep the center warm and inviting,” Butler said. “They keep coffee, they clean it, they maintain it.
“It’s just something that we’re really proud of.”
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.
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