By Chad Stewart
They are men, women and children on an island, but they are not alone.
Service members and military families on Andersen Air Force Base in Guam have a new place they can call home. The USO’s brand-new center, its second location on the Pacific island, opened on its doors September 29 and welcomed the community to join in the celebration.
“Everyone is very excited and there’s definitely a lot buzz in the military and local communities,” said USO Andersen Center Manager Jadine Lujan. “I’m getting phone calls in the middle of the night asking about our new center.”
The USO worked closely with the 36th Wing leaders on base to secure a 3,200 square-foot location that is expected to draw about 35,000 visits in its first year. Establishing a center on base will enable the organization to expand the services it offers to the growing military population on the island.
There’s about 12,000 service members and military family members on Guam, and the Navy, Air Force, Army and National Guard are well-represented. In the near future, a long-delayed expansion plan will add about 5,000 Marines and 1,300 dependents.
“We carefully look where the military is going to be in the future and choose to put our centers where there’s a good business case to serve the most service members and families in an enduring capacity,” said Charles Hyde, the USO’s regional vice president for the Pacific region. “That’s what you’re seeing in our new Andersen center.”
In addition to having the fastest internet on base, according to Lujan, the new USO center boasts six TVs, video gaming consoles, free long-distance phone calls home and an outdoor pavilion outfitted with barbeque grills. Thanks to Guam’s remarkably consistent weather – the temperature hovers between 75 and 85 degrees year-round – the outdoor space is sure to be a high-traffic area.
“Being on Guam, we love to party a lot, but many times the challenge is getting the right space,” said Lujan, who grew up on the island. She said calls are already coming in asking when the space is available for military retirement ceremonies and other public events.
In addition to offering the best-in-class programs that the USO is known for, USO Andersen will feature fresh coffee and refreshments – staples of most USO centers around the world – and Lujan wants to have lunch and dinner options available for service members and families.
“We’re going to work to make our service members feel like they’re home. Their second home is going to be the USO on Andersen,” she said.
Even if service members aren’t stationed on base, they’ll still get a touch of home that’s missing from their experience on the island. Soldiers deployed to isolated Northwest Field will receive regular visits from USO staff delivering the comforts of home. The addition of USO Andersen also benefits sailors at Naval Base Guam on the other side of the island. USO Tumon Bay can now focus its outreach efforts on the base that sees about 100,000 U.S. and allied sailors for port visits each year.
While keeping service members strong by keeping them connected to family and friends at home is USO Guam’s primary mission, the staff also sees an opportunity to connect military members and their families to the island and its unique culture and history. Guam is an American territory and the residents are U.S. citizens, but to an outsider, it’s a place that can seem like a foreign land thousands of miles from home.
“How vital are these services?” asked USO Guam Area Director Leigh Graham, who has spent 20 years on the island.
“The answer is ‘very.’ Many times, the typical experience for a young service member is that they land in these remote areas and … they may end up on base and never see anything else on the island. We wanted to make sure they had a center to offer them island-style hospitality.“
Programming centered on local food, language and culture is planned and travel outside the base gates will certainly be encouraged by the USO staff members and volunteers who live on the island Magellan discovered in 1521. Guam has a direct connection to the U.S. dating back to the Spanish-American War and was the site of a fierce battle during World War II. The island – specifically Andersen – played an outsized role during Vietnam and its strategic importance is perhaps greater today than it’s ever been.
“Guam … is our outpost for power projection, whether it be air, maritime or even land forces that transition through there,” said Hyde, a retired Air Force brigadier general. “It is bastion of strength and projection of those values the American military helps convey across the region.
“When you’re talking about Guam, it is our forward outpost of freedom.”
The island has one of the highest per capita enlistment rates in the U.S. and there’s a culture of military service that stretches back generations. There’s also a significant veteran population that’s proud of their home as well as their American citizenship.
“They helped liberate the island in 1944, they served in Vietnam and even in my generation,” Lujan said. “I would say more than half of my [high school] graduating class joined the military – they wanted to continue that family tradition.”
Support for the USO on the island is also as strong as ever.
“It’s humbling to see the level of patriotism on the island of Guam,” Graham said. “We have an incredible amount of support for the USO here and there’s phenomenal community engagement with everything we do.”
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.