By Danielle DeSimone
Each morning, thousands of service members and military families wake up all around the world, far from home and loved ones, as they dedicate their lives to protecting our freedoms.
And nearly every single day, more than 250 USO locations across seven continents open their doors - literally or, in the wake of COVID-19, in a variety of innovative and pandemic-safe ways - to these service members and their military families and welcome them to their home away from home. Some of these locations might be brick-and-mortar USO centers, outfitted with all the classic amenities the military community has come to know and love. Others might be a Mobile USO van, delivering relief to those serving on the front lines of national emergencies. And some might simply be a makeshift USO tent at an unnamed location downrange, where troops can take just a moment to themselves to relax after a long day of stressful operations.
No matter where our service members go, the USO is always by their side. And now, you can be too, as we take a 24-hour journey to USO locations around the world to get a glimpse at the support USO volunteers and staff provide service members every day.
As the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, the first U.S. territory – and USO location – to see the sunrise every morning is the island of Guam. So, as we begin this 24-hour trip across the globe, we, too, will begin our day with USO Guam …
USO Guam – 6:00 a.m.
Hundreds of turkeys. Hundreds of pounds of potatoes. Immeasurable trays of stuffing. 1,500 Thanksgiving meals.
It’s a daunting task, but USO Guam is up for the challenge.
Early in the morning in the days leading up to Thanksgiving, the USO Guam team is busy at work, making homecooked holiday meals. This morning, the team is preparing to serve hundreds of service members stationed on the 210 square-mile island of Guam. The task of cooking a holiday meal just for one’s own family might seem intimidating, and dinner for hundreds of service members might even seem impossible; but supporting large numbers of service members in need is second nature to USO staff and volunteers on Guam.
This past year, the island of Guam and the sailors aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt became headline news due to a COVID-19 outbreak on the ship. In response, just as they have stepped up during typhoons and in the everyday challenges of military life, the USO Guam team once again stepped up to assist the Navy service members aboard the aircraft carrier.
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. The team also 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.
This November, as many service members stationed on Guam faced a Thanksgiving far from loved ones and unable to even gather in groups with their fellow service members, USO Guam once again ensured that the military community did not feel forgotten. Without the ability to provide a traditional Thanksgiving meal within the USO center itself, USO Guam brought the joy (and delicious food) of the center directly to its service members.
This morning’s meal prep will go on to serve 1,500 Thanksgiving meals to service members on Thanksgiving day in to-go meal containers. Although it isn’t quite the same as sharing dinner around the table, it shows that some of the most central aspects of USO support – a sense of community, good food and a connection to home – are still here, and that they continue to live beyond the four walls of a USO center.
USO Hawaii – 9:00 a.m.
“Going” to the USO for entertainment and activities in Hawaii looks a little different for military families these days. Due to COVID-19 restrictions put in place to help limit the spread of the virus among the military community, many USO centers around the world have limited their services, some have temporarily closed and others have found new and innovative ways to provide programs virtually or in socially-distant safe ways.
This morning, USO Hawaii is hosting a “Books, Bears and Brunch” event for military families. Normally, this event would take place inside a USO center, where military children, military spouses and service member parents could get together for a live story time reading. Today, however, the USO team has prepared a table of to-go bags for the event, so families can enjoy the activity at home. The bags included ingredients to make brunch at home, a military-themed book for children and a stuffed animal.
This program is one of the many programs designed to support not only our nation’s service members, but also the youngest members of their families. The USO understands how important reading is as an activity among military families, which is why we also provide support through programs such as the Bob Hope Legacy Reading Program, through which deployed service members can record themselves reading a book to their child, and then have that recording and booked shipped home.
Providing these moments between parent and military child are crucial in ensuring that families stay connected throughout their service member’s time in the military.
Bob Hope USO, California – 12:00 p.m.
It’s lunchtime at Bob Hope USO in California and soldiers from the 358th Military Police Company, an Army Reserve unit, are being treated to the works by the USO team. This simple gesture of appreciation is especially impactful, as the unit is preparing to deploy in the next several months.
The National Guard and reserves might be best known for responding in times of need during natural disasters, global pandemics and other national emergencies, but the thousands of service members who serve in these units also deploy overseas, just as their fellow active duty service members do. In fact, in recent years, both the National Guard and the reserves have been deployed in greater numbers – and far more often. However, frequent deployments can be difficult for National Guard and Reserve members and their families, as these units face additional challenges that are unique to their type of service.
With the Joint Forces Training Base - Los Alamitos nearby, which is home to several thousand National Guard members and reservists, Bob Hope USO offers a great deal of support to these communities.
Bob Hope USO Center Operations and Programs Manager Maureen Ahrens is passionate about providing support to these service members and their families, but also in ensuring that the civilian community understands the scope of sacrifice required to serve in the National Guard and reserves. Ahrens emphasized that these troops are often called to duty throughout their careers, requiring them to deploy right to the front lines for several months and “not just for a weekend or two weeks a year.”
For these service members about to deploy from California, today’s lunch is a welcomed reminder that no matter where they go or what their service, the USO will be right there alongside them every step of the way.
Mobile USO Vehicle, Cape Charles, Louisiana – 1:00 p.m.
“We go where they go” – and in the case of our Mobile USO fleet, nothing could be truer. This afternoon, this USO we’re visiting isn’t a brick-and-mortar center - it’s two Mobile USO sprinter vans near Cape Charles, Louisiana, and they’re set up and ready to support service members responding to Hurricane Delta.
In the wake of hurricanes, wildfires, global pandemics and other national emergencies, the National Guard and other branches of the U.S. military are often called upon to step up in service to their own communities. When duty takes these service members to the front lines of emergencies in locations without a USO center nearby, the USO often travels to them in Mobile USO vehicles. These vehicles are outfitted with almost every amenity of a traditional USO center, including things like free Wi-Fi (even in the middle of nowhere, or with downed cell towers), large screen televisions, movies, video games, comfy seats to relax in and more.
“I think we can get to where our other teams can’t necessarily get, and when we get there, we can make a larger impact than [if we were in a normal vehicle] because we really are that full center experience,” said Courtney Sweeney, Mobile USO program director.
“That’s why we built the trucks the way we have. They have the lounges, they have the Wi-Fi for connectivity, the Xbox game stations, they really can relax and unplug wherever we go, which is great.”
This afternoon, the two sprinter vans are providing snacks, batteries and toiletries to those working in hurricane relief efforts – many of whom had been deployed to Louisiana for months, since Hurricane Laura ripped through the region earlier in the fall. No matter the challenging mission, the Mobile USO team is ready to hit the road and provide a home away from home on wheels to service members stepping up for their communities.
Deployment Processing Center (DPC), USO Kaiserslautern, Germany – 2:00 p.m.
A slice a day keeps the blues away – or at least that’s USO Kaiserslautern’s philosophy. This afternoon, the USO Kaiserslautern team of staff and volunteers has laid out a pizza party for service members currently under quarantine in Kaiserslautern, Germany. The event adhered to COVID-19 safety regulations and masked service members are loading up plates of pizza and dessert, as well as chatting briefly with USO volunteers as they move down the food line.
Thanks to COVID-19, after a long flight across the Atlantic Ocean, service members who land in Kaiserslautern, Germany, must promptly make their way to the Deployment Processing Center (DPC) for a mandatory quarantine. For the next 14 days, these service members must stay in quarantine in temporary barracks at the DPC before safely proceeding to their new duty station.
Being stationed somewhere new and moving overseas can put a strain on service members even under normal circumstances, but due to the global pandemic, they must also tackle the stress and isolation of quarantine. This can be especially difficult during the holidays, when service members are also separated from their family and friends during this special season.
So, because these newcomer service members are in quarantine and cannot go to the USO just yet – the USO has decided to go to them.
Throughout their 14 days in quarantine, the USO team will provide service members with snacks, coffee, games and free Wi-Fi so that they can chat with their loved ones or just take a moment to relax on their own. But most importantly, having a constant USO presence within the DPC provides service members with a friendly (masked!) face to turn to, in addition to a break from their daily quarantine routine.
“The USO embedded in the Deployment Processing Center allows us to connect service members to home,” Area Operations Manager Casey Pizzuto said. “And USO Kaiserslautern has quickly adapted to these incoming service member’s needs.”
Aside from the welcome bags usually presented to service members upon their arrival to the DPC, the USO team is also providing the newcomers with USO Care Packages, which include toiletry kits and snack packs to help them during the 14 days. Service members have even enjoyed morale-boosting activities such as a video call with actor and director Andy Garcia – and, of course, pizza parties, like the one today.
Something as simple as a pizza party might seem small in the face of a global pandemic and a deployment to a new duty station, but it’s moments like these that can all the difference in lifting the spirits of service members in quarantine over the holidays.
“Thank you to the USO for their unwavering, continuous support,” a service member named Douglas A. LeVien said. “In Europe, the USO provides sources of entertainment, hospitality and connection to family for our Army Reserve soldiers transitioning to and from mobilizations through the Deployment Processing Center (DPC), and to Active, Reserve and Guard soldiers and their families arriving in Europe. The USO also provides a volunteer network, community and support groups to those soldiers and family members in Europe. The USO’s steadfast support contributes to the overall strength of our fighting force and the families who support them.”
USO Rota, Spain – 4:00 p.m.
Getting stationed in Spain might sound more like a vacation than a deployment, but for the Navy Seabees enjoying the USO-organized ice cream social this afternoon in Rota, Spain, it’s been a rough few months.
After arriving in-country, these members of the U.S. Navy Construction Battalion were required to quarantine before proceeding with their duties; but even after quarantine, their movements were restricted. Due to strict COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions in Spain and on-base, the entire military community is barred from leaving the city of Rota, which is enforced by both the local U.S. military leadership and the Spanish police. In fact, many service members cannot even leave base, meaning that their only freedom is exploring the base in groups of six or smaller.
Unfortunately, because the Seabees’ barracks are in a remote part of the base, far from many amenities, they have almost nothing to explore within walking distance. After long days of hard, manual labor, this could have a negative effect on the Seabees’ morale – which is why this afternoon, the USO has set up an ice cream social in the middle of a basketball court.
“It is especially important in these trying times that the USO delivers our mission of connecting service members to family, home and country by bringing the feeling of home to them,” Center Operations Manager Kayla Clark said. “We do that through meeting our service members where they’re at with whatever they need.”
The table on the court, which is just outside the Seabees’ barracks, is stocked with multiple kinds of ice cream, and every sundae topping imaginable. As the USO flags snap in the wind and music thumps out of the stereos, service members briefly chat with USO staff and volunteers from a safe distance before enjoying their ice cream sundaes together outdoors. Although the program was not offered in a traditional brick-and-mortar USO center, the USO team and the ice cream social stayed true to the mission of the centers.
“It’s not about that cup of coffee that you’re giving someone – it’s about the experience they have and what you’re giving them – the happiness, the joy – that day. Especially this year,” Clark said. “If you can make somebody happy or make somebody smile, you might be the one reason why someone came out of their house today.”
Undisclosed location, Kuwait – 6:00 p.m.
The weather in Kuwait has finally begun to cool down. In the evenings, there’s a nice breeze that comes through the base at this undisclosed location in Kuwait. With summer and early autumn temperatures ranging between 90- and 100-degrees Fahrenheit, service members are eager to begin celebrating the holidays now that temperatures have lowered.
Tonight, the USO Camp Arifjan team is visiting the undisclosed location and is hosting an outdoor night of holiday crafting. Here, service members can decorate mugs and ornaments in holiday themes to either brighten their barracks or to send to a loved one waiting back home.
USO arts and crafts events aren’t just an easy way to pass the time during a deployment– they have become an incredibly popular and anticipated activity for service members serving on the front lines, with many participants at each event. With limited activities on base for service members and movement severely restricted due to COVID-19 and their work in the Southwest Asia region, craft nights with the USO provide troops with a chance to have fun, bond with their fellow service members and take a break from the daily grind of deployment.
Most importantly, during this holiday season, doing something as simple as decorating an ornament ensures that even in the middle of the desert, our military can still celebrate the holidays and feel connected to home.
“In an area where you often have very few reminders that we are celebrating the holiday season, programs like ornament decorating provide a brief break from the real world and a chance to soak in the holiday spirit,” said USO Center Director Bonnie Brackett.
“We look for any chance to make the service members smile, connect them with home and remind them that they are so appreciated and supported. Even something as simple as painting an ornament for their child or seeing us wear a funny holiday tutu or onesie can meet that goal. Our USO team really enjoys doing anything we can during the holiday season to provide those little moments of joy.”
USO Erbil, Iraq – 8:00 p.m.
The sun has set, the day is winding down and even at USO Erbil in Iraq, our service members are taking some time to themselves for a little self-care and relaxation before the day’s end.
USO Erbil is a refuge on base for service members to go when they need a break from the stress and rigor of deployment on the front lines. Far from friends, family and the stability of daily life back home, the USO serves as that home away from home for our troops, providing resources so they can stay connected to their loved ones and to each other.
Tonight, home is the front porch of the USO center, where service members are picking up custom-made spa kits to bring back to their barracks. The bags are filled with items like face wash, lotions, chamomile tea and “hydrating socks,” which will certainly help service members after hours of wearing standard-issue boots. Although the spa kit is intended to help service members unwind and take a load off after a long, grueling day of work, it also serves another purpose – to give them a moment to take a small break from the reality of their deployment.
“Given the many challenges that we continue to face here in Southwest Asia during this ongoing pandemic, our team remains steadfast and focused on our important goal: to continue delivering our mission of supporting service members and sustaining their resiliency, even in these circumstances,” said USO Center Director Penn Walker.
As the crowd of service members laugh behind their masks, joke around with one another and excitedly pick up their spa kits tonight, it’s clear that – at least for just a moment – they’ve done just that.
USO Camp Humphreys, South Korea – 6:00 a.m. (next day)
The sun is rising in the east once more, but this time it’s over the rooftops of USO Camp Humphreys, South Korea. It’s early on a Monday morning, and USO Center Manager David Yoo is prepping muffins, protein bars, bananas, coffee, energy drinks and water bottles before packing up the van. It’s Motor Pool Monday, which means the soldiers inspecting and fine-tuning their battalion’s motor pool vehicles are already hard at work, and the USO is heading to meet them to make sure their week is off to a good start.
Located approximately 60 miles south of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea, Camp Humphreys has become a crucial outpost for American forces ensuring peace in the Pacific region, which means a lot of foot traffic at the multiple USO centers located here. It is important work and, during the winter, it’s chilly work. A majority of service members stationed on Camp Humphreys work outside at motor pools and airfields, which are located on exposed concrete, with no buildings nearby to block the bitterly cold South Korean winter wind.
“Soldiers are exposed to a rough environment,” Yoo said. “Our goal is to serve those soldiers working outside and let them know that there is someone who takes care of them, and [is there] to boost their morale.”
Every Monday morning, the USO is there without fail, serving as a consistent form of support for service members in the grueling weather who are undertaking important tasks in a high-tension region.
“They know our USO vans, and as soon as we drive into the motor pool, they start to run to our vans to see us,” Yoo said.
As the USO team begins to pass out snacks and hot coffee, Yoo notes that it’s just the beginning of the day and the week.
He and his team – and, indeed, USO teams across the entire world – will wake up that day and the next, ready to get back to the rewarding work of supporting our nation’s service members and their families.
No matter where they are in the world, our USO centers serve as that home away from home for the military community, ensuring they remain supported and connected to home and each other throughout the duration of their service.
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