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.

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USO Ontario volunteer cooks hot dogs for Navy Seabees at 1 a.m. Feb. 8.

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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.

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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.

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Navy Seabees arrive for a 45-minute layover on their way home to Gulfport, Mississippi from Guam.

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Navy Seabees play a game of pool Feb. 8 during a short layover at USO Ontario.

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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.

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A Navy Seabee strums an acoustic guitar Feb. 8 during a late-night layover at USO Ontario.

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Navy Seabees relax in the entertainment room of USO Ontario on Feb. 8 during a short, late-night layover.

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Navy Seabee fixes a freshly grilled hot dog Feb. 8 during a short, late-night layover at USO Ontario.

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A Navy Seabee eats a hot dog and charges his phone Feb. 8 at USO Ontario during a short, late-night layover.

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A Navy Seabee couple has their picture taken by USO volunteer Mariza Gatdula on Feb. 8 during a short layover at USO Ontario.

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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.

Photo credit Joseph Andrew Lee

Navy Seabees relax in the entertainment room of USO Ontario on Feb. 8 during a short, late-night layover.

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.

Photo credit Eric Brandner

USO Ontario Center Manager Kristen Ramirez, center, speaks with volunteers including Chris Branam, left, and Mariza Gatdula, right, before 101 Navy Seabees arrive for a late-night layover.

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.