By Danielle DeSimone

Since World War II, the sight of the USO’s classic red, white and blue sign has stood as a symbol for service members. Whether they’re tired from a long day out on the front lines or on an airport layover on the way to their next duty station, when our troops see the star-studded banner of the USO, they know that they’ve reached their home away from home.

For many service members deployed to countries in the Middle East, the USO center is sometimes one of the only places on base where they can take a moment to themselves to relax, have fun with their peers at USO events or connect with loved ones back home via free phones and Wi-Fi.

As such, the temporary closure of some USO locations in the Middle East due to the COVID-19 pandemic has proven particularly challenging for these deployed service members who are already sacrificing so much.

Now, service members are not only far from their loved ones and home, but must also follow health and safety guidelines that can require them to limit social interactions and avoid indoor community spaces like the USO.

However, these restrictions haven’t stopped USO teams in the Middle East from working hard to find new and innovative ways to create outdoor spaces where they can still safely serve the military community and provide them with a “home away from home.”

How Closed USO Centers Are Still Supporting Service Members in the Middle East

A service member in Erbil, Iraq, peruses items at USO Erbil’s outside market. USO teams throughout the Middle East are bringing services and support outside to adhere to COVID-19 health and safety regulations. | Photo credit USO Erbil

Although the USO Erbil center doors remain closed to help stop the spread of COVID-19, the location’s front porch area has quickly become a favorite place on base for service members to safely gather and enjoy a moment of much-needed respite.

Recently, the USO Erbil team hosted their first-ever virtual trivia night, while service members sat – six feet apart – on the center’s porch to access the Wi-Fi and play along. These service members could be heard laughing and described the event as “a great stress-reliever.”

On other days, the team has transformed the front porch area into a decorated photobooth for service members to snap selfies with their peers.

USO Erbil has even transformed part of its front porch area into a library and a market where service members can pick up books, hygiene products and snacks for free. The team has also driven around base in a retrofitted pickup truck to deliver one of the center’s most-popular programs: The Bob Hope Legacy Reading Program.

USO Camp Arifjan in Kuwait made use of its outdoor space to create a Memorial Day tribute to service members who have made the ultimate sacrifice. | Photo credit USO Camp Arifjan

In a more somber moment, USO Camp Arifjan in Kuwait made use of the outdoor space in front of the center by creating a display of luminaries in honor of Memorial Day. This provided service members not only with moments of levity, but also moments of quiet reflection – which can be just as important.

It is important that even in the middle of a global pandemic where social distancing and isolation have suddenly become the norm, the USO remains committed to supporting our troops. Service members will always be able to find a place of respite and connection at the USO – regardless of whether they’re in our centers or just gathering on our front porch.