By Danielle DeSimone
Before they consider themselves a soldier, sailor, airman, Coast Guardsmen or Marine, thousands of deployed service members around world consider themselves, first and foremost, a mom or a dad.
For these service members who also parents, being away from their families – especially their kids – is the hardest part of the job.
Under normal circumstances, many service members would help ease this burden by heading to their local USO center to utilize Wi-Fi to video chat their family, make free calls home on the center phones or participate in the Bob Hope Legacy Reading Program, in which they film themselves reading a book and send the recording to their children back home.
But due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many USO locations, including USO Erbil in Iraq, have had to temporarily close their doors and suspend their offering of the Bob Hope Legacy Reading Program in order to adhere to social distancing regulations.
“Once the restrictions of COVID-19 closed our doors, we had a discussion on how we can still stay consistent and constant in our troop’s lives,” Rebecca Cooper, duty manager of USO Erbil, said. “We are fully aware of how much our center is a home to our service members and understand the importance of continuing their communication and connection with their loved ones.”
So, Cooper and her team quickly put their creative skills to work and found an unconventional way to continue safely offering the Bob Hope Legacy Reading Program – which is particularly popular in Erbil and named after the legendary Bob Hope – by utilizing a pickup truck and a bit of elbow grease.
With the help of service members who are also USO volunteers, the team outfitted the back of the pickup truck with a makeshift trifold to serve as a “room,” which they constructed themselves. They then decorated the inside of the room and packed up a box of books, some props and a chair.
Then, they hit the road.
Delivering a Reading Room on Wheels
The USO team drove the truck all around base, stopping outside popular locations as well as remote areas. It was important to the team to make sure that they could reach as many service members as possible with their new, unofficial “Bob Hope on the Road” reading room.
As they drove, service members waved, laughed and even took pictures of the truck.
Once they had parked, the USO team set up their improvised “reading room” with a chair and a camera in the truck bed for service members to record themselves with while reading. Service members quickly lined up – while standing safely six feet apart – to take a turn in the room and read their chosen book.
The results were instantaneous.
“The reactions of our service members have been sheer delight and joy,” Cooper said.
From high praises and sincere thanks, to COVID-19 air hugs of appreciation, each service member was incredibly grateful for the opportunity to read a book to their loved one.
“Even though the USO is closed, [taking the USO on the go] allows me to continue to stay connected to my four children,” Navy Lt. Pratt said. “They absolutely love receiving the books. I love it! I really do! It is a great program and I hope you keep it going.”
Army Chief Amanda Zimmerman, a USO volunteer who helped construct the reading room, described it as “an amazing effort to keep some normalcy during these uncertain times.”
For the USO team on the ground in Iraq, providing service members with a sense of normalcy and a connection to home is what it’s all about.
“Just because our doors have been physically closed does not mean that we will not continue to be next to [our troops] during this time,” Cooper said.
Regardless of the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic, the USO remains committed to its mission of supporting service members in any way possible.
For service members reading books to their children out of the back of a pickup truck in the Middle East, the reading room on wheels was a reminder that in the military community – and at the USO – you have to always be ready to pivot and adapt.
“Even though COVID affects the entire world, including my family, the mobile reading program shows a different perspective,” Air Force Tech Sgt. Fleming said. “It allows my children to know that they are not the only ones going through this COVID-19 transition. We are making the best out of it that we can.”
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