By Danielle DeSimone

The World Health Organization (WHO) has officially declared that the novel coronavirus, known as COVID-19, is now a pandemic and President Trump has declared a national emergency.

In light of the rapid spread of coronavirus, USO leadership – as of March 13, 2020 – has decided to temporarily suspend all USO Airport location operations in the United States in order to maintain safe environments and avoid unnecessary risks of exposure.

This adherence to CDC guidance is crucial. Not only will this limit potential COVID-19 exposure to our service members and military families, it will also prioritize the safety of our incredible USO volunteers.

However, the USO remains committed to our mission: we continue to support our nation’s military, especially in this time of need. Hundreds of USO centers and locations at bases and military installations around the world remain open and are providing crucial services and programs to service members through this global health emergency.

Here are five ways the USO is still supporting service members on U.S. military bases during the coronavirus outbreak:

1. The USO is supporting service members on the front lines of containment

Much like Americans here at home are being encouraged to “self-isolate” and remain at home, where they are less likely to spread or expose themselves to the virus, service members and military families who are stationed overseas are also being sequestered and restricted to their bases for safety. Only those with authorized access are allowed onto the base, and no one can leave.

To ensure that these restrictions are enforced, base gate guards are pulling extra duties, standing at the ready to take the temperature of anyone who enters and to restrict the movements of anyone trying to leave. With long hours and the possibility of being exposed to coronavirus, this can be an incredibly stressful job.

Since their duty keeps them at the gate and unable to reach USO centers and services, the USO has brought those services to them. Service members guarding the gates of Osan Air Base and Camp Humphreys in South Korea were surprised by a visit from USO volunteers, who delivered snacks and hygiene kits – and a chance to take a brief break from the stress of their job.

2. The USO brightens spirits of military families during base restrictions

On some U.S. military bases throughout South Korea, a country that has seen more than 7,300 coronavirus infections, military commands have restricted non-essential off-base access, essentially quarantining service members and their families on base. Programs and events have also been cancelled, and on-base schools and day cares have been closed.

While these precautionary measures are essential in limiting the outbreak of coronavirus on base, it is undeniably a blow to morale. That’s why USO Camp Walker has – safely, while adhering to base restrictions – provided free lunches to military families near their housing facilities and small barbecues, with limited gatherings of 20 people or less.

For the military community on U.S. Army Garrison Daegu, where USO Camp Walker is located, these small moments can make all the difference.

“We are so grateful to our USO family,” said Amanda Lee McKeown, a military spouse. “They flew in like superheroes, rescuing us from all the base closures that have been bringing us down. This brought such big smiles all around! We felt some normalcy return, and that felt wonderful.”

Photo credit USO Osan

USO Osan in South Korea delivered snacks and USO hygiene kits to service members responsible for guarding the gate and ensuring the health of everyone coming and going from the base.

3. The USO is supporting quarantined troops

For quarantined troops on U.S. Army Garrison Daegu, South Korea, and Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, their duty stations and deployments have become even more stressful than usual. Already far from home, these service members are now isolated from their fellow service members on base.

That’s why the USO has been working closely with military commands on these bases to provide crucial support. In Afghanistan, the USO has equipped service members with televisions, electronics and USO2GO kits – essentially, a build-your-own-USO-center – to keep them entertained and connected to the outside world while quarantined.

USO teams in South Korea have delivered truckloads of supplies of bottled water, chips, cookies, sodas and granola bars to the on-base quarantine facility.

These special deliveries ensure that the USO is still serving the military community affected by coronavirus, all while limiting person-to-person contact.

4. The USO adapts to the changing needs of the military community

USO staffers collect items on Camp Walker to be delivered to the quarantine area by base personnel. | Photo credit USO Camp Walker

Just as service members, military spouses and military children must always be ready to pivot and adjust to whatever life in the military throws at them – including a global pandemic – so too does the USO. We go where they go, and when the tempo of military life changes, we change with it.

That’s why the USO has quickly adjusted to the new restrictions and requirements of life during the coronavirus outbreak. Centers at bases around the country and the world are providing snacks, movies and youth activities that service members and military families can take to-go, to enjoy in the safety of their own homes.

When it’s safe to do so within health restrictions, the USO at Camp Walker in South Korea has also adjusted its operating hours at the request of base command. Extending USO center hours supports the sequestered troops and families who are unable to leave base and otherwise have no entertainment.

5. The USO provides social distance-safe activities

One of the most crucial services the USO provides for the military community – especially for those stationed overseas – is the programs and activities at USO centers that keep our service members, military spouses and military children connected to each other and to home, when they are so far away.

At some military bases, the coronavirus outbreak has made hosting programs in centers challenging – if not impossible – to offer to the military community. Bases in Italy, the world’s worst-hit country outside of China, have ordered that USO centers suspend operations, and for service members and their families to remain in isolation, to halt the spread of the disease.

With the entire country of Italy on lockdown, USO Naples has gotten creative in how they’ve provided programs and services remotely to the military community. | Photo credit USO Naples

So, the USO has gotten creative. USO Naples has offered “Cyber Initiatives” – remote programming that the military community can tune into. This includes activities such as “USO Movie Trivia” streamed live on social media that can be accessed from home and “Cyber Story Time,” in which USO Naples staff dress up as superheroes and princesses and stream a story-time live on social media. USO Vicenza, in northern Italy, has organized a “Virtual Saint Patrick’s Day Scavenger Hunt,” in which the USO will announce an item for military community members tuning in live to find in their Facebook photo albums.

The USO has also adapted other traditional center programs for virtual delivery, including popular military spouse “Coffee Connections” networking events and “Discovering Your Spark” Workshops in partnership with 2017 Military Spouse of the Year, Brittany Boccher.

Meanwhile, the Walt Disney Company has donated DVDs of Disney movies and delivered them to USO centers around the world, making it easy for military families to be entertained safely from their homes.

“The Disney DVD’s have provided uplifting moments during this time” said Howard Seo, Senior Area Operations Manager in Korea. “Recently, USO Camp Walker in South Korea supported a quarantine facility with donated movies and USO snack packs. We are so thankful for Disney’s partnership and the opportunity to support our service members during this difficult time.”

There’s no telling how this global outbreak will impact our service members or military bases in the coming weeks and months, but the USO will strive to ensure that troops have the resources and support they need – whether in a USO center or through the safety of a computer screen – no matter what happens next.