By Danielle DeSimone
Capt. Cary Creamer has utilized the USO many times throughout his time in the Army National Guard. Over the years, he quickly learned that he could turn to USO lounges when he was stuck at an airport during a layover. It had always been a place where he could refuel, take a quick nap, or even work out before heading to his next training course.
“I’ve always appreciated the level of care and commitment from USO people I’ve seen,” Creamer said. “Everybody – from the people that greet you as you walk in, to the people that are serving your food or helping with your quiet time – just everywhere I’ve been, it seems really consistent that [caring for service members is] a priority … it’s just been one of those little perks about being a soldier that really has made a difference a lot of times for me.”
So, when Creamer arrived in Kuwait in November 2019 for his first-ever deployment, he decided to return the favor and dedicate his free time to volunteering at the USO center on base.
But Creamer’s dedication to the USO went beyond just an appreciation for free Wi-Fi or events to keep busy with during deployment. The USO was particularly special to him because it was at a USO center, just a week before Creamer prepared to deploy, that he would see his terminally ill father for one of the very last times.
A Family’s Refuge Before Deployment
Creamer’s father was diagnosed with terminal cancer and was not given much time, and yet he had lived beyond the doctor’s estimated timeline.
“He was supposed to not make it much past last May,” Creamer said at the time of his interview in December 2019. “So now he’s on borrowed time and it’s been great. I love every minute I can.”
Creamer was set to deploy to the Middle East out of Texas, and as the days inched closer to his deployment, his father was undergoing chemotherapy treatment nearby. Creamer decided to bring his parents – who had never been to a USO before – to the local USO center.
Once there, Creamer explained the circumstances of his family’s visit and his impending departure to the USO staff. Without hesitation, the USO staff set aside a private room within the center for Creamer and his family to use and have just a moment to themselves.
“[We were] able to kind of sit there and just … we had about an hour and a half – just him, my mom and myself, and we just talked and played games and it was a nice sendoff,” Creamer said. “The USO was very gracious.”
One USO staff member took photos of the family as they played board games at the USO center and provided Creamer with the pictures.
“Those will probably, unfortunately … be the last pictures I have with my mom and dad together with myself,” Creamer said. “So, it means a lot that [the USO staff] were able to kind of recognize that need and situate us.”
Leaving for deployment under such difficult circumstances was undeniably challenging for Creamer, but there was some silver lining: thousands of miles away, the USO center at Camp Buehring, Kuwait, was waiting for him, ready to connect him back home to his father and the rest of his family.
A Service Member’s Refuge and Connection to Home During Deployment
One month and six days into deployment (“Everybody has a countdown here,” he explained), Creamer had already become an active USO participant as well as a USO volunteer. Although there are permanent USO staff who work throughout the Southwest Asia region, it is often the service members themselves who serve as volunteers at the center in these locations, helping staff do everything from host holiday-themed events to explaining how to use the video game systems.
Whether it was dodgeball tournaments or dressing up in costumes while working the USO sign-in desk, Creamer was enthusiastic about engaging with the USO from the start – he explained that unless he was working, he came to visit the USO center nearly every day he had been in Kuwait so far. Volunteering at the USO center not only gave him a community of fellow volunteers and staff to rely on during a difficult deployment, but also helped him stay connected to his father and other family members back home.
“When I get off my job I get to come here and unwind a little bit. [I] volunteer, which is nice just to kind of give back a little bit, and there’s definitely some perks,” he said.
Just as with all other USO centers, USO Camp Buehring offers service members free Wi-Fi and phones to call back home, which Creamer began using to video call his father regularly. However, free Wi-Fi and programs such as the USO Bob Hope Legacy Reading Program, which is especially popular among deployed service members, were also helpful “perks” that allowed Creamer to stay in touch with his three-year-old son and other family members.
Through the Bob Hope Legacy Reading Program, service members can record themselves reading a book to their child; the recording and the book are then sent home to that service member’s family, so that, in a way, they can be present for story time back home. At many USO centers such as USO Camp Buehring, there is even a private reading room, decorated with creative backgrounds and equipped with plenty of props, which service members can use to help read the stories to their children.
Creamer was an avid participant in the program, and his son Braxton loved receiving the videos of his father reading to him.
“Probably some of my favorite pictures that I get, that my mom and dad and my son’s mother send me, is pictures of him standing there pointing or looking or smiling [at the video],” Creamer said. “He just turned three, but he seems to really like that.”
Facilitating these connections between service members and their children back home through programs such as the Bob Hope Legacy Reading Program is crucial to maintaining bonds between a parent and a child throughout deployment. And in a deployment such as Creamer’s, being able to connect with his family was especially important – and a stark reminder of how far away he was from his loved ones.
“It is of course tough, not being right next to everybody and hearing about their plans,” he said. “They’re all going to New Orleans as a family trip to see my brother.”
Creamer was especially disappointed to miss out on the family tradition of large, holiday meals together, which always involved eggnog. However, Creamer acknowledged that the sacrifice and his time on the front lines were worth it if it ensured the safety of American families like his own, and their ability to celebrate these holidays freely.
“You kind of realize the bigger picture and you realize [deployment is] going to be over soon enough, and all of this means a lot to keeping them able to do that.”
Instead, Creamer celebrated by organizing holiday games with the other service members in his unit and boosted morale by wearing goofy, holiday-themed costumes both in the USO center and on 5K fun runs he organized on base. He also made sure to send his family members presents and planned to find his own eggnog somewhere on base so that he could video call them and do a traditional “cheers” through the phone screen.
It wouldn’t be the same as being home at the table with his father and his family, but in a way, they could all still celebrate the holidays by simply spending time together, connected by a free Wi-Fi signal, even when thousands of miles away.
Editor’s Note: Capt. Cary Creamer’s father passed away a few months after this interview in the spring of 2020, while Creamer was still on deployment in Kuwait.
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