By Eric Brandner

PHOENIX—When Sue Sherman gets a text from the USO, she knows she’s in for a long night.

But she also knows she’s going to make an impact.

Sherman is one of a handful of USO Arizona volunteers who work overnight shifts on request at the organization’s Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport center. When she receives a text from USO Arizona Center Operations and Programs Manager Kelly Sandbrink, it often leads to her driving in to help keep the center open from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. for stranded service members and their families.

“To come in and know that I’m helping somebody, to me, is the best [feeling],” Sherman said. “I haven’t found another niche like what I do here.”

And circumstances at the Phoenix airport create several opportunities to stay up late. The region is prone to dust storms – called haboobs – that can shut down air traffic. There’s also the more common problems of missed connecting flights and East Coast weather issues – especially in the winter – that can keep service members from getting to their next destination.

“This is a great opportunity to stay open and show that we’re really concerned about their welfare and, of course, trying to keep them comfortable,” said Phil Guentzler, another USO Arizona volunteer who works overnight shifts. “It takes away from a lot of the anxiety that they’re going through.”

Anything where you’re helping people – there’s no greater satisfaction than that.

While the Sky Harbor center is among the most modern USO airport facilities service members will visit, it has two significant quirks when it comes to hosting overnight guests. First, there isn’t a lot of space for guests to spread out and sleep. Second, because of its unique design that incorporates an elevator bank and an open ceiling that allows guests to see up to the next level of the terminal, the airport controls most of the center’s lights. And they can’t really turn those off.

Still, Guentzler and Sherman say volunteers find ways to make guests comfortable. They start by shepherding overnight guests to the center’s theater room, which is the one stretch of space where the USO controls the lighting. Once there, overnight guests can sleep in leather recliners. The USO center also has puffy leather couches and chairs and a cache of sleeping mats visitors can use to stake out a position.

Sherman – who said the center has accommodated as many as 30 overnight guests in the past – started volunteering with the USO after retiring from a career in corporate taxation. Worried that service members were being forgotten as the recent Middle East wars wound down, she works Mondays and Wednesdays at the Sky Harbor center and as many overnight shifts as she can swing.

“Anything where you’re helping people – there’s no greater satisfaction than that,” she said.

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.