By Jennifer Ohrvall

The USO has done so much for our military family – from boot camp graduation to our first duty station, to current location at Naval Station Great Lakes, Illinois. I am not sure where to start since we have had so many amazing experiences with the USO.

Fresh Out of Boot Camp and Over to Guam

Jennifer Ohrvall smiles with her husband, now-Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Matthew Ohrvall, back when he was a new sailor fresh out of training. | Photo credit Courtesy Ohrvall Family

I guess it all began with my husband, Navy Petty Officer Second Class Matthew Ohrvall, and his post-boot camp experience in October 2012. After he finished his basic training at Naval Station Great Lakes, Illinois he was sent to Texas for more schooling. On his way there, he stopped off at the USO in the Chicago O’Hare Airport, which fed him and gave him a place to relax while he awaited his flight.

Then, after my husband finished his schooling in Texas, he was sent to Guam in May 2013 on unaccompanied orders for three months before I was able to join him on the island.

The USO Guam team helped us learn what the USO was all about and its mission to support military families throughout their time of service. We previously didn’t know much about the USO, other than what my husband learned in the Chicago O’Hare Airport USO, because we had no prior military affiliations.

During his months on the island alone, Matthew spent time at the USO Guam center in Tumon Bay making free phone calls home, connecting to their wifi, playing games and eating their signature chili and rice. When I was finally able to join him in Guam, we both decided to start volunteering for the USO. We loved being able to help out an organization that had helped us in so many ways!

When we were living on the island, we had our first child in 2014, a girl named Isabella. It was harder for me to continue volunteering with a new baby, but Matthew continued to donate his time to the USO as much as he was able to despite his busy schedule.

One day away from Isabella’s first birthday, my mother, who lived in North Carolina, had a COPD attack that left her brain dead. I was halfway across the world with no idea how I was going to be able to get to her. The USO Guam team helped me get in contact with the Red Cross, who helped me get home quickly to head to hospital before she passed away.

Finding A USO Community at Naval Station Great Lakes

Fast forward to our next and current duty station, Naval Station Great Lakes, where we moved in 2016 and had our second child, Conner about six months later.

Being close to the big city of Chicago, we quickly discovered that there were a lot more events and activities offered through this USO than on Guam, which is understandable!

Matthew immediately got plugged into the USO and started volunteering at the Great Lakes center. We also visited the USO as a family and Isabella loved going for the free snacks and playroom full of toys. With two children in tow, we also attended many kid-friendly USO events (like No Dough Dinners!) and got free tickets to go to baseball games, hockey games, museums and concerts.

Photo credit Courtesy Ohrvall Family

Isabella and Conner Ohrvall enjoy strawberries.

We were at the USO so much that my daughter recognized the building and signs when we would pass it on base and would ask if we could go inside!

A Place To Go During Deployments

About two years into our at Great Lakes, my husband was sent on a 9-month deployment in the Middle East.

The USO No Dough Dinners were a lifeline for me as a tired mom, who was doing it all on her own, while he was away overseas. While Matthew was deployed, we would even go to the USO on rainy days so that the kids could play in their playroom, because they loved it so much.

My husband was so fortunate on his deployment as well.

He never ran out of snacks or hygiene products with all the USO care packages that he received.

The USO even had a place set up so that he could record himself reading a book to our kids that they provided at no cost. He did two video recordings, one for our daughter and one for our son and sent them home. When we received those books and the video, the kids were so excited! They got to see and listen to daddy reading to them at bedtime. It was so precious and unforgettable. I absolutely love and appreciate the USO Bob Hope Legacy Reading Program!

Photo credit Lisa Kathan Photography/Courtesy Ohrvall Family

Jennifer Ohrvall smiles with her two children, Conner and Isabella, as she waits for her husband, Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Matthew Ohrvall, to return home at the Chicago O'Hare Airport.

When Matthew was set to return from his deployment, the Chicago O’Hare Airport USO worked with us and got us gate passes. Matthew expected to see us at the airport, but only at baggage claim – not standing right outside the gangway when he got off the airplane! It was such a wonderful surprise. We actually had a photographer there and a friend taking video of it for us. Militarykind even featured it on their channels!

We love the USO and everything that it does to help keep our troops entertained, fed and well relaxed for their next mission. I hope to be able to get more involved in volunteering and working with the USO in the near future.

I am sure that I have not touched on every way that USO has been involved in our military lives thus far but in everything that I have said, we are so appreciative!

P.S. I can’t forget to mention all of the travelling that we have done as a military family and the many USO centers that we have frequented in airports for naps, food and entertainment!

- Jennifer Ohrvall is a military spouse and photographer based in Illinois.