By Sandi Gohn

Birthdays aren’t supposed to be a headache – they’re supposed to be a time of celebration. But for many military families with a loved one serving far from home, it can be a struggle to find a meaningful way to celebrate their service member’s trip around the sun.

One option might be to send their service member a surprise cake through the USO’s Operation Birthday Cake program. However, this resource isn’t yet offered by all 250+ USO locations.

(To see if Operation Birthday Cake can be delivered to your service member, visit the website and/or Facebook page of their nearby USO location for more information)

Another option might be to send a special birthday-themed care package, but shipping and deliveries can be unpredictable, especially now during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Brittany Woodard and Emmanual Karabetis. | Photo credit Courtesy Emmanual Karabetis

A third option, and one that has a lasting impact on the entire military community, would be to host a USO Facebook Birthday Fundraiser in their honor – which is exactly what Emmanual Karabetis decided to do to celebrate his deployed girlfriend, Air Force Reserve Staff Sgt. Brittany Woodard, and her upcoming big day.

A Long Deployment Gets Longer, Thanks to COVID-19

Woodard, who deployed from Maryland to the United Arab Emirates in October 2019, was supposed to celebrate her April birthday at home with Karabetis and her friends and family. However thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, just as she was preparing to wrap up her deployment, the U.S. military issued a precautionary “stop movement order” halting most military travel – including her return flight home to Maryland.

Unfortunately that meant Woodard’s already long deployment to the Middle East would be extended until further notice and she would be celebrating her birthday away from home. To make matters worse, Woodard’s base was slowly closing amenities on base to help stop the spread of COVID-19, making life particularly unpleasant.

“I’ve been trying to make things better from over here, especially sending cards, letters and care packages, but now the post office on base is closed,” Karabetis said.

Knowing that Woodard’s birthday was coming up and that he wanted to continue supporting her as best as he could, Karabetis started brainstorming alternative ways mark her special day. Donating to the USO, a place that Woodard had spoken fondly of during her deployment, seemed like the perfect fit.

“Since day one, she’s been talking about the USO,” Karabetis said.

“They throw concerts, make activities pretty much daily, bring in snacks, etc. She’s very thankful.”

A Facebook Birthday Fundraiser to Celebrate Something ‘She’s Very Thankful’ For

Karabetis said that he’s been asking people for donations to the USO for some time now, but decided to “step it up using Facebook” in honor of Woodard’s birthday.

“I really can’t do much more for her from all the way over here, anymore,” he said. “People have really stepped up and shown their support.”

Initially, Karabetis set a lofty Facebook Birthday Fundraiser goal of $1,000. By the time the Facebook Birthday Fundraiser ended, he had exceeded his goal, raising $1,229 through 50 individual donors.

“It’s very gracious of them and feels good to know so many people love Brittany,” he said.

As friends, family and other loved ones donated to the fundraiser and commented on the Facebook page, the couple personally thanked each of them for their generosity. They even made sure to share updates from Woodard in the Middle East and posted photos of her receiving cookies from the USO staff on base. Woodard commented on how much she appreciated the gesture and said the USO team was “truly a lifesaver.”

Photo credit Courtesy Emmanual Karabetis

Air Force Staff Sgt. Brittany Woodard smiles with her dog.

“With everything we’re giving up, as is everybody else, I think the things that the USO does for our service people make it better, even if it’s temporary,” Kerabetis said. “For someone living that desert deployment life, it makes a huge difference.”

The USO is so thankful for supporters like Kerabetis and those who supported his Facebook Birthday Fundraiser. It’s because of people like you that we can continue to support service members like his girlfriend who are hard at work protecting our freedoms all around the world.