By Danielle DeSimone

It’s been nine months of a gritty, long deployment. You’re tired. You’re homesick. You’ve been apart from your family, your friends and from everything familiar for more than half a year, and all you want to do is to finally go home.

Except, thanks to the global COVID-19 pandemic, you can’t.

American service members are always ready to pivot to the next crisis at a moment’s notice, but even the coronavirus has proven to be a challenging adversary. To ensure their continued safety, troops who are now returning from deployment or who have traveled outside the installation’s 100 mile radius must first – before heading home – complete a mandated 14-day quarantine.

But when our nation’s military is in need – whether they’re on the front lines or completing quarantine – the USO is there to help.

Pivoting Quickly to Support Returning Service Members

Many of the service members returning from deployment arrived through Fort Bliss, an Army base in El Paso, Texas.

As soon as service members step off the plane, they get on a bus and are immediately brought to one of the temporary quarantine housing sites, which were built on-base to support the mandated 14-day quarantine.

Photo credit U.S. Army Mission and Installation Contracting Command

Quarantine sites were built on Fort Bliss, Texas, to house soldiers returning from deployment, who must first go through a 14-day quarantine before returning home.

For the USO El Paso team, which already supports the large, local military community, pivoting to support these incoming service members was a challenge at first.

“Everybody was caught by surprise,” Yolanda Castillo, director of USO El Paso, said. “There was no warning in terms of what to prepare for, so we went into it with the idea that we were going to do everything that we could.”

Service members unload deliveries of water bottles to quarantined service members on Fort Bliss, Texas. | Photo credit Spc. Christina Westover/24th Theater Public Affairs Support Element

Castillo and her team quickly got to work. They assembled thousands of USO Care Packages, as well as entertainment such as board games, for the arriving service members, ready to support the thousands of Army, Reserve and National Guard members coming through El Paso. Then, the care packages had to go through their own quarantine to ensure there was no risk of transmission of COVID-19; after being assembled by USO staff, the packages sat in storage for several days before being passed along through military distribution channels.

“It’s been a whirlwind,” Castillo said. “And we’ve had to be really flexible.”

These care packages contain non-perishable snacks, hygiene items, such as toothpaste and deodorant, or resources to keep service members entertained, like board games and movies.

Photo credit USO El Paso

USO El Paso assembled and delivered USO Care Packages to quarantined soldiers on Fort Bliss, after they returned home from deployment.

Staying Connected Through Quarantine

Keeping military members connected throughout their service to the nation is at the core of the USO’s mission – and that mission carries on, despite a global pandemic.

For the quarantined troops on Fort Bliss, these moments of connection were especially crucial in keeping spirits high for the 14 days they had to wait before heading home to their families.

“When we first in-processed here, the food items from the USO … they made a huge difference,” said a noncommissioned officer.

“Separation from family members, especially during a time of concern over health and wellbeing, is an issue for service members,” said Chaplain (Maj.) Michael White, the 1st Armored Division Artillery Chaplain, who has worked closely with both the USO and the quarantined soldiers.

“This also applies to service members who are single, who may have concerns over extended family members in other states. The integration from deployment to normal life is made a bit more complicated by the COVID-19 quarantine.”

By providing these small moments of comfort – whether from a snack they hadn’t seen in months due to deployment, or extra toothpaste that they might not have had when entering quarantine – service members were able to have some moments of respite due to the resources provided.

White also explained how the USO’s supply of these resources, “helped strengthen the everyday morale of service members under quarantine.”

Photo credit Photo by Cpl. AaRron Smith

Care packages like this one pictured on Marine Corps Base Quantico were delivered to quarantined soldiers on Fort Bliss, who used the extra hygiene supplies throughout their mandated 14-day quarantine.

These quarantined service members were able to receive this support thanks to the close collaboration between USO El Paso and military leadership, which ensured that all hand-offs and services were provided while adhering to military guidelines and health protocol.

Castillo noted that one of the USO’s greatest strengths is connecting our military community to the resources they need. Despite the fast-paced tempo and increased precautions necessary to prevent the spread of coronavirus, the USO did just that.

“It has been phenomenal to have help from the USO,” said a quarantined officer.

And at the end of the day, all that matters is that service members feel that connection to support, regardless of where their service takes them.