By Sandi Gohn

Deployments can change everything in military families’ lives.

Military spouses instantly become solo parents. Normal routines, like grocery shopping or dropping kids off at after-school activities, suddenly become logistical nightmares. Even things that used to be fun, like meeting up with family or friends, can seem more cumbersome than enjoyable.

According to the Blue Star Families 2018 Military Family Lifestyle Survey, the no. 1 concern for both military families and service members is the time service members spend away from home, which can negatively impact the wellbeing of military spouses and, in turn, their children.

While finding meaning in their service member’s deployment can help military families cope with the absence of their loved one, research says the best thing military spouses can do during their partner’s absence is reach out to military support organizations, like the USO, which is supported by people like you, to help alleviate some of the small stressors in their lives, like cooking dinner.

Giving Families of the Deployed a Night Off in Spangdahlem, Germany

Nobody knows this better than Meghan Smith-Reitz, an Air Force spouse and mother of five children (ages ranging from 4 to 10 years-old), who lived in Spangdahlem, Germany, with her family in 2018. During that fall, Smith-Reitz’s husband, Air Force Tech Sgt. Daniel Reitz, was on his seventh month of a deployment to the Middle East, leaving her to run their busy household all by herself.

“With having five kids and soccer and scheduling and dance and trying to have my schedule as a teacher and key spouse, [life is very busy],” Smith-Reitz said. “And when we get home, I’m cooking [dinner] for an hour.”

But Smith-Reitz says having one night a month where she doesn’t have to worry about cooking her family a meal – when the USO hosts its free Deployed Dinner-to-Go Program – has helped make this deployment a little easier. To participate in the program, families of deployed service members sign up online ahead of time to let USO staff know how many meals to prepare. Then, the day of the program, all they have to do is come by the USO Spangdahlem center, pick up their prepackaged, ready-to-eat meals and enjoy.

Photo credit USO/Sandi Gohn

The Deployed Dinner-to-Go Program table at the USO Spangdahlem center in Germany.

“It just makes it so much better just to come in, grab it [and head home to eat],” Smith Reitz said.

“The USO takes care of all of us and we love doing it.”

Making Deployments Easier, Alleviating Financial Stress and Building Community with a Meal

While picking up a homecooked, free meal seems like a simple act, Kassia Reedy, the former center manager at USO Spangdahlem and current volunteer operations coordinator at USO Arlington, says that it’s these small moments, like a night off from cooking, that can help make the greatest difference in helping a military family cope with a long deployment.

“They really appreciate the fact that they can just swing by and pick it up and eat it at home…in the comfort of their own home,” Reedy said.

“And it’s easy and tasty.”

The Deployed Dinner-to-Go Program also helps alleviate some financial stress – the No. 1 stressor of military families, according to Blue Star Families— in addition to building community, another top concern for military spouses who are thousands of miles away from the U.S.

“It just brings us all together for that little bit of peace and we all know that we’re in the same boat with our husbands being deployed or [on] extended [temporary duty assignments, or] TDYs,” Smith-Reitz said.

“We can rely on, hey, at least once a month I know I’m going to be seeing these people [at the USO].”

Photo credit USO/Sandi Gohn

The entrance area at the USO Spagdahlem center in Germany.

Rachael Bowers Emard, a volunteer and programs coordinator at USO Spangdahlem in 2018, also points out that the program helps provide military families with a new, exciting dinner option. Other than Taco Bell on base, a few German restaurants and a sole Thai restaurant in the nearby community, food options are limited in the Spangdahlem area.

“We try and do food here that they can’t get anywhere else,” Bowers Emard said.

“We try and give the comforts of home.”

-USO Spangdahlem fluctuates the offering of the Deployed Dinner-to-Go Program based on the needs of the base population. Check their Facebook page to see the latest on the program.

-Former USO Director of Content Strategy Chad Stewart contributed to this report.