By Danielle DeSimone
In late March, the USS Theodore Roosevelt and its crew hit the headlines after several sailors onboard tested positive for COVID-19; as of April 30, more than 1,000 members of its 4,000-plus crew have tested positive for the coronavirus.
While much of the world has fixated on the details behind the aircraft carrier’s docking on the island of Guam, the USO Guam team has focused instead on meeting the immediate critical needs – like toiletries and meals – of the thousands of sailors who have suddenly become long-term guests of the U.S. Pacific territory of fewer than 170,000 people.
Despite the challenges of COVID-19-related closures on the 210 square-mile island, as well as supply shortages and having a small team of just 10 staff members, the USO Guam team has eagerly stepped in to do what it does best: support service members when they need it most.
Supporting Sailors Aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt
Long before the USS Theodore Roosevelt arrived in port on March 26, the USO Guam team was already in the midst of providing virtual programming and socially-distanced support to the island’s resident military population. By mid-March, many of Guam’s services were already closed due to the spread of COVID-19 and the same nationwide shortages on things like toilet paper and medical supplies were also an issue on the island.
Still, when the USO Guam team got the call from the military to provide critical support to the USS Theodore Roosevelt, it quickly got to work.
In close collaboration with the local community and the military, the USO team prepared and sent 11,000 USO Care Packages filled with snacks and hygiene kits to quarantined service members housed on Guam and those sailors still working aboard the ship. These care packages offer service members a little taste of home through iconic, American non-perishable snacks – which can be difficult to find while on deployment – as well as extra hygiene items that could come in handy while under quarantine.
Throughout the entire delivery process, USO Guam remained committed to health and safety regulations in both assembling the care packages and in passing them through military distribution channels. The USO team is already preparing to deliver hundreds of more care packages in the coming weeks.
The USO has also provided Wi-Fi connectivity hot spots, so that quarantined service members can be entertained during the long hours alone, as well as stay connected to their loved ones back home.
Additionally, USO Guam has provided hot meals for military security and medical teams who are working long shifts to ensure the health and safety of USS Theodore Roosevelt sailors.
The USO team also coordinated with a local donor, the Navy and local military leaders to provide 20,000 masks, 3,000 KN95 masks and 300 protective suits for the combined COVID-19 response on Guam, which is especially crucial given the scale of the operation of the USS Theodore Roosevelt and the need for medical supplies.
Although snacks, hygiene kits and warm meals might seem like relatively small gestures considering the COVID-19 pandemic, they in fact offer service members an important reminder and connection to home – a core part of the USO’s mission.
Delivering Connections (and Cake) to Quarantined Service Members
It is especially important to keep service members connected to home, as well as to maintain and boost our military’s morale, when in the midst of such challenging times. That’s why the USO Guam team has ensured that quarantined sailors and medical units are not only well-fed, but also truly celebrated (at a safe distance) throughout the ship’s time on Guam.
One way the team has done this is by brightening service members’ days with surprise birthday cakes. During normal operations, USO Guam regularly delivers cakes to deployed service members, requested by their loved ones back home, via Operation Birthday Cake, and this hasn’t changed during the pandemic.
For one military mom who utilized Operation Birthday Cake, being able to connect with her son in Guam on his birthday via a delivered cake was particularly special, as this was the first birthday her son – who just turned 19 – would be spending away from his family.
“As a Mom, it is extremely heartbreaking trying to figure out how to make his day special when he is almost 8,000 miles away from home” Cheryl Sibal said. “Feeling so limited with how to get him a package on his birthday, I really felt like a failure that I could not make his birthday special.”
Sibal began filling out a request for a cake via Operation Birthday Cake online, but wasn’t sure if the cake would reach him in time, due to the restrictions of COVID-19. Instead, she was pleasantly surprised to receive an email from USO Guam, assuring her that the team was already working with her son’s commander to deliver him a cake.
“I was in tears when I saw that email,” Sibal said. “I felt so blessed that in such a big world, there is a possibility to bring families closer together from the help of the USO.”
Spc. Kaylianna Genier, who serves on the USS Theodore Roosevelt, was also surprised by a customized birthday cake aboard the aircraft carrier on her special day, as a gift from her loved ones back home that was delivered via USO Operation Birthday Cake.
“Happiest of Birthdays … from Mom, your family, friends, shipmates and all of your pals at USO Guam!” The USO team shared via a Facebook post. “We know you have been through a lot, and it was important to us that you know USO’s mission of strengthening service members by connecting them with family, home and country is still at the top of our minds.”
Remaining on Course to Support the Navy
Meanwhile, USO Guam – like other USO locations around the world – has also transformed its classic services to online formats in the wake of COVID-19 restrictions.
This has included livestream videos of daily workouts, at-home activities and meal tutorials shared on social media, to help keep quarantined service members and local military families entertained. The response from service members has been heartwarming – and shows exactly why the USO is committed to its mission.
“The outpouring of handwritten messages sent by sailors and families of the USS Theodore Roosevelt to the USO Guam team puts us over the top with joy and fulfillment,” Leigh Leilani Graham, USO Guam area director, said. “Sailors in quarantine make the time daily to send hand-drawn pictures of thanks, photos of their sanitized and delivered USO care packages and selfies in direct messages that make our day.”
Regardless of the challenges, the USO Guam team has remained committed to supporting the service members aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt, and they continue to be a resource for the local military community. Military leadership has expressed how crucial the support from the USO has been, but the most important outcome is that our service members know that they are not alone, even when quarantined and social distancing from six feet apart.
“It is an honor for our USO team to work alongside our U.S. Armed Forces in this fight,” Graham said. “Because they are a tremendous force for good in this world.”
Pulling together such extensive resources could be difficult even in the best of circumstances. However, USO Guam’s determination to always be our military’s side, coupled with generous donations from supporters like you and coordination with the military, shows just how big of an impact we can have on our men and women in uniform, even in the middle of a global pandemic.