By Sandi Gohn

Liz Stone didn’t have the best first impression of Germany.

Liz Stone smiles. | Photo credit USO/Chad Stewart

In 2015, after traveling for days to get to at her husband’s new duty station, Stone, a new Army spouse at the time, stepped off the bus at Grafenwoehr, part of U.S. Army Garrison (USAG) Bavaria, and was politely asked to wait on a curb.

“I was four months pregnant. It was snowing. We had my black lab Sadie with us and they took my husband away for about an hour,” Stone said.

“That was my first experience in Bavaria. It was also my first experience in Army life, so it was tough.”

Finding a Community in Bavaria and at the USO

Ever resilient, Stone didn’t let those rocky (and chilly) first moments in Bavaria stop her from fully integrating into her new duty station – the largest U.S. military installation overseas and in Europe.

Photo credit USO/Chad Stewart

Stone, wearing a red hat, serves free coffee and refreshments to service members.

After living in her new home for a few months, and welcoming her new baby into the world, Stone began seeking out opportunities on base and began volunteering at the USO. A few months later, she applied to become a full-time USO employee and has been serving as the USO Bavaria area operations manager ever since.

“It’s an amazing feeling to be part of [the USO],” Stone said.

Thanks to the generous support of donors, Stone, along with the rest of the USO Bavaria team, provides a piece of family, home and country to the roughly 40,000 active duty service members and military family members living at USAG Bavaria across five distinct communities: Grafenwoehr, Vilseck, Hohenfels, Garmisch and the camps, known as the Fifth Community.

Service members draw numbers for a game at USO Camp Aachen in Bavaria, Germany. | Photo credit USO/Sandi Gohn

Fun fact: even before the U.S. military established a presence in Bavaria after World War II, the region had long been used as a German military training area. However, outside of the military community, the Bavaria region of Germany is probably best known by foreigners for its unique cultural heritage, beautiful landscapes, historical castles, lederhosen, beer and, of course, Oktoberfest – which is held in Munich every September.

“It’s a little like the Texas of Germany,” Stone said, commenting on the distinct culture and customs of the region.

The Colonel’s Idea: a Welcome Center and a Better Start in Bavaria

In addition to operating two full-size USO centers in the region – USO Grafenwoehr and USO Camp Aachen – the USO Bavaria team provides outreach throughout the region and is part of the newly-opened USAG Bavaria Readiness Welcome Center, a location near and dear to Stone’s heart.

“It makes such a big difference,” Stone said.

In 2017, after hearing numerous arrival stories like Stone’s, Army Col. Lance Varney, then-commander of USAG Bavaria, decided to develop a new space designed to welcome newcomers to the area.

The Welcome Center, which opened in June 2017, features comfortable seating, a children’s play area, WiFi, refreshments and, most importantly, a slew of information about the local community, as well as customized advice from select community organizations, including the USO.

“When you walk through the door here you have all of the information you could possibly need at your fingertips.”

Photo credit USO/Sandi Gohn

The USO portion of the USAG Bavaria Readiness Welcome Center.

While families wait at the Welcome Center, USO team members can help answer newcomers’ questions, offer advice and ease any concerns they might have.

“They come here and we have somebody here [from the USO] to welcome them… and to make them feel at home because they are home,” Stone said.

“This will be their home for the next three years and we want to make sure it’s special for them.”