American service members deployed to Puerto Rico to help the ravaged island rebuild now have a place to relax and recharge, thanks to the USO and its supporters.
Last week, the organization opened four expeditionary locations near military installations around Puerto Rico. Troops stationed in Aguadilla, Ponce, Ceiba and San Juan have a home away from home where they can enjoy a snack, play video games with their friends or watch their favorite teams and shows in a TV lounge.
Jeff Hill, the USO’s regional vice president for the U.S. region, was asked how the USO determined what kinds of services troops on the ground needed most. The answer was simple: we asked the military, and one of the requests was a bit surprising.
“One of the big things is dominoes,” Hill said, referring to the game that’s immensely popular in Puerto Rico. “I did not realize how important dominoes is to the people down there.”
He explained that the setting surrounding these USO locations is sparse. In Aguadilla and Ceiba, troops are staying in LOGPACs, or logistics packages, which are tent cities with a dining facility, restrooms, showers and a place to sleep. The military built a medical facility in Aguadilla, but there’s not much else around. About 1,200-1,500 service members sleep in 30-40 tents on these temporary LOGPAC installations and the people stationed there were eager to see what the USO had to offer.
“We cut the ribbon and there was a line [immediately],” Hill said. “We just opened the site in Aguadilla and they said there was a line around the corner to get in.”
The USO expeditionary site in Ponce, which opened on Nov. 17, is located inside the Army Reserve center there and a fourth location was stood up in San Juan on Nov. 18. Mortuary Affairs personnel have been manning that post since Hurricane Irma passed the island in early September.
The USO expeditionary site in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, has a lounge for service members so they can enjoy their limited down time.
Ready-to-eat snacks are a must when you work as hard as our service members are in Puerto Rico.
The brand new USO location in Ceiba was packed the day it opened.
Service members helped the USO celebrate the opening of the expeditionary site in Ceiba, Puerto Rico.
Video games, TV and other entertainment options are available in our new locations in Puerto Rico.
Our location in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, was the first of three to open on the island this week.
While USO staffers Bruce Kmiec and Angela Hodge helped build and stock the locations, Hill said the Army Reserve will be responsible for the USO’s day-to-day operations at the LOGPACs. Kmiec, a USO Delaware center director, and Hodge, a Mobile USO events coordinator, volunteered for the assignment to Puerto Rico and traveled across the island to stand up the expeditionary sites. The USO isn’t exactly sure how long these locations will be open, but it’s clear that they’ll be needed for months to come.
“I anticipate [it will take] months,” Hill said. “As long as the National Guard is on a rotational basis and the LOGPACs are set up, I forsee [the USO] being there 3 to 6 months.”
Hill, who recently toured the island to select locations for USO expeditionary sites, said Puerto Rico has a long way to go on its road to recovery. Just as they did in Texas and Florida earlier this year, service members from all branches of the military and from all over the U.S. have been working around the clock for months following Hurricane Maria, but there’s still a lot to be done.
“Puerto Rico is in really bad shape,” he said. “They’ve cleared a lot of the primary roads like the highways, but the secondary and tertiary roads are still a real mess. And then water, power and all that – it’s going to be a long haul to get Puerto Rico back on its feet again.”
There is seemingly no end in sight, but there’s also no question that progress is being made – even if there are setbacks along the way. On Nov. 15, a power outage immobilized Puerto Rico hours after Governor Ricardo Rossello announced that power had been restored to 50 percent of normal levels. Most of the island’s households don’t have power nearly two months after Maria destroyed everything in its path. The military is delivering aid and doing everything it can to clear roads and fix the island’s shattered infrastructure, but in some cases, it’s going it alone.
“The problem that when disasters happen in the continental United States, you’ll see thousands of power trucks from utilities all over the country and they’ll drive to the site to get things built back up again,” Hill said. “You can’t do that down there [in Puerto Rico] and can’t get the support like you can in the U.S. … The thousands of people you have volunteering in the continental U.S. can’t get there.”
Despite the distance, the USO is on site and delivering valuable services for troops who left their families and friends behind to help Puerto Rico and its residents recover.
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.