By Eric Brandner
ONTARIO, California—What were you doing at 2 a.m. after the Super Bowl?
While most Americans had nodded off, a group of volunteers and a USO center manager were waving goodbye to 101 Navy Seabees as they connected from Guam on their way back home.
“I love that smell – at 2 o’clock in the morning,” Mariza Gatdula said as fellow USO Ontario volunteer Walter Eimans pulled some of the last hot dogs he cooked off the center’s large outdoor propane grill.
USO Ontario volunteer cooks hot dogs for Navy Seabees at 1 a.m. Feb. 8.
USO Ontario looks like a ghost town an hour before a plane full of Navy Seabees arrives at 1:30 a.m. for a short layover.
Navy Seabees arrive at USO Ontario on Feb. 8 at 1:30 a.m. for a 45-minute layover from Guam on their way home to Gulfport, Mississippi.
Navy Seabees arrive for a 45-minute layover on their way home to Gulfport, Mississippi from Guam.
Navy Seabees play a game of pool Feb. 8 during a short layover at USO Ontario.
A Navy Seabee strums on an acoustic guitar Feb. 8 at 1:30 a.m. on a layover from Guam on his way home to Gulfport, Mississippi.
A Navy Seabee strums an acoustic guitar Feb. 8 during a late-night layover at USO Ontario.
Navy Seabees relax in the entertainment room of USO Ontario on Feb. 8 during a short, late-night layover.
Navy Seabee fixes a freshly grilled hot dog Feb. 8 during a short, late-night layover at USO Ontario.
A Navy Seabee eats a hot dog and charges his phone Feb. 8 at USO Ontario during a short, late-night layover.
A Navy Seabee couple has their picture taken by USO volunteer Mariza Gatdula on Feb. 8 during a short layover at USO Ontario.
USO Ontario is equipped with several lounges and plenty of bedding in case troops have to make a longer-than-anticipated stay.
The Ontario center – which falls under Bob Hope USO – closes at 10 p.m. nightly, but center manager Kristen Ramirez gets a lot more late-night requests like this than you’d think. Several charter services shuttling service members to and from deployments operate just across the tarmac from the USO at Ontario International Airport.
Located at the airport’s old Terminal 1, the center and has a gated patio that backs up to a runway. That means service members who arrive on military chartered flights can deplane and walk through the patio gate directly into the USO.
Once they were through the gate, the Seabees spread everywhere. Some were in a game room playing ping-pong and jamming on acoustic guitars. Others filed into a TV room to eat and watch a movie. There were more who stayed on the patio to talk and smoke while others fanned out into the foyer.
Ramirez received a heads up roughly a week before that this charter flight would be arriving. But those notices are usually light on details. After confirming the timing, Ramirez was most concerned with headcount. It takes roughly six volunteers and a volunteer shift manager (on this night, that was volunteer Chris Branam) to take care of 200 service members. She knew the plane could seat roughly 240 people, so the center scheduled enough volunteers to handle that influx. Ramirez learned just a few hours before the Seabees arrived that the crowd would be less than half that.
Sometimes service members on these charter flights spend the whole night. But most stops are just a few hours while their plane refuels. This stop was a shorter version of the latter scenario: the Seabees streamed in around 1:30 a.m. and were gone a mere 45 minutes later, after devouring nearly all 192 hot dogs Eimans had grilled.
As she helped clean up, Gatdula – who said she had to go to work the next morning – shared one of her favorite moments about a group of young service members who once made the same type of layover.
After handing him a hot dog, “One of them said to me ‘You all are the moms we miss,’” she recalled, smiling as she put her hands over her heart.
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
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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
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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.