By Chad Stewart

SAN ANTONIO–The USO location inside the Military Entrance Processing Station on Fort Sam Houston might be a new recruit’s last shot at fun and games for a while.

Soon enough, the young men and women playing video games, watching TV in plush recliners and snacking on cookies and candy at the USO will be whisked off to basic training.

The MEPS process is tense for the teenagers and twentysomethings who’ve signed up to become sailors, airmen, soldiers, Marines and Coast Guardsmen. They and their families often spend many hours waiting for their names to be called for physical exams, aptitude testing and lots of paperwork.

“It’s a really stressful time for the applicants when they come here not knowing what to expect as far as processing.” said Army Maj. Jeremiah Pope, the MEPS commander here. “And then for those shipping out, not knowing what to expect once they get on that bus or aircraft and move out to basic training.”

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The USO location inside the San Antonio Military Entrance Processing Station is outfitted with comfortable recliners.

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The USO location inside the San Antonio Military Entrance Processing Station is outfitted with comfortable recliners.

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Recruits play video games at the USO location inside the MEPS on Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio.

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In addition to video gaming stations, TVs, snacks and recliners, the USO location inside the San Antonio Military Entrance Processing Station also features a foosball table and board games.

But there’s no tension on their faces inside the two USO rooms at the Fort Sam Houston MEPS – unless it’s late in the fourth quarter and they’re losing a game of “Madden NFL 16.” Recruits had few entertainment options before the USO moved into the building in August.

“It was just a waiting area, a place for them to hang out, use their cellphones,” Pope said. “Since the USO has come in, they’ve upgraded, painted and furnished the rooms that basically just had chairs and tables in them.”

Video games, TVs and snacks aren’t the only amenities available to the future service members. Most of the USO volunteers who staff the location are able to answer recruits’ general questions about military life.

“In a lot of instances, the USO volunteers … are current military members [or] in some instances, [veterans] who know exactly what [the recruits] are going through,” Pope said. “They have actual time to engage the applicants, answer questions, give them some feedback and then let them know the USO is there for them, not just now – at the beginning of their military careers – but throughout.”

Pope said the USO’s presence has alleviated some of the pressure from the MEPS staff, a group that processes anywhere from 70 to 130 recruits a day.

“When we get into the summer months – June through August – that’s what we call ‘summer surge,’” he said. “We see huge numbers … an average daily count of about 110 and up.”

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Almost everyone who goes through processing comes with at least one family member or friend, so the foot traffic inside the MEPS building can cause havoc by jamming up hallways and waiting rooms. No longer just empty spaces, Pope said the lively USO location has created a more relaxing setting for the recruits and their proud parents and siblings.

“[The USO has] created a friendly, family atmosphere and a more enjoyable atmosphere for the applicants who are already beginning to feel the stresses of military life.”

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.