By Danielle DeSimone
After months on deployment, months spent away from his family and months on the front lines in Afghanistan – Rob was ready to go home. June, after all, was only a few months away – and his wife Brittany was due to give birth to their second son that month, just in time for Father’s Day.
Then, the COVID-19 pandemic struck, and Rob’s deployment was extended beyond June. He would not be able to witness the birth of his son in-person or be there beside his wife to support her.
That is, until he remembered the USO.
In Need of a Home Away from Home
In Kandahar, Afghanistan, the USO is a place of refuge for most service members. Oftentimes, it is the only place they can go to unwind and escape – if only briefly – from the ever-present stress of their duties down range.
“We are often the human connection away from work, a listening ear when things are difficult, or a friendly smile and a cup of coffee,” Amanda Wilson, center manager of USO Kandahar, said. “When things get difficult here and our service members miss home, we provide a sense of normal.”
The USO is especially important to those about to return to the United States. As units prepare to return home from deployment, they are moved into temporary housing, which offer little privacy for service members. Because of this, many of these service members would often go to the USO to find a place to have some time to themselves, or to have space to speak privately with their family back home.
However, the coronavirus pandemic changed all of that. Since earlier this spring, health and safety regulations put in place to minimize the spread of COVID-19 required the USO center to temporarily close its doors. The COVID-19 pandemic also extended most units’ deployments, meaning that many service members were stuck in limbo, waiting in temporary housing until they could return home.
Although the USO team quickly took its programs both online and outdoors (socially-distanced), offering everything from virtual bingo and paint nights to drive-by snack deliveries, the temporary closure of the USO center on base is undeniably hard, especially for service members like Rob, in need of a place to take some time for themselves.
But when Rob’s wife Brittany was about to give birth, he knew who to turn to.
Service Member Witnesses the Birth of His Son Over Video
Rob, a member of the U.S. Navy, is not only a longtime volunteer and visitor at the USO but has also become, according to Wilson, a member of the extended USO family.
“For [USO staff], our service member volunteers are our family,” Wilson said.
Through his extensive use of the Bob Hope Legacy Reading Program, the USO staff also got to know Rob’s family back home. The program allows service members to record themselves reading a book out loud on video, and then send a copy of the recording and the book to their children waiting back home. Rob was particularly enthusiastic about this opportunity, sending several recordings to his older son and advocating for the program among other service members as well. His wife Brittany would often send videos of their first son watching the videos of his father reading, looking “mesmerized,” which Rob would then share with USO staff.
As his wife inched closer to her due date, the USO staff even threw Rob a makeshift baby shower, with plenty of cupcakes to go around his unit.
“In a way, we felt like we were very connected with Rob’s family,” Wilson said. “So, it was amazing for us to be able to support him during this next exciting time.”
When Rob approached the USO in Kandahar about needing a space to video call his wife while she gave birth, the team immediately set him up in the USO staff office. Here, he had access to a quiet, private room with the strongest internet the USO could provide. Once Rob was settled, the USO team closed the door and gave Rob his time alone with his family.
A while later, after Rob’s new baby boy was born, he emerged from the USO staff office elated and grateful, showing off photos of his son and thanking the USO team for their help in allowing him to witness the birth of his son. In return, the USO presented Rob with a baby onesie with the words “My Daddy met me at the USO.”
While Rob might not admit it, the USO staff could have sworn they saw him get a little teary-eyed as he accepted the onesie and said thank you once again.
Once the congratulations were over, Rob immediately only wanted to do one thing: he asked the USO team if he could use the Bob Hope Legacy Reading Room and record himself reading his first-ever bedtime story to his new baby.
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