By Barry Morris
More than 9,000 soldiers departed basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C. as part of Victory Block Leave – the time-honored holiday tradition that authorizes soldiers in basic training during the month of December to travel home to reconnect with family and loved ones over the holidays.
Although Victory Block Leave looked a little different for Fort Jackson soldiers this year due to COVID-19, this did not stop the USO from welcoming and sending these soldiers home with the warmth and joy that can always be found at any USO.
A Soldier’s First Stop on the Trip Home – the USO
USO South Carolina Senior Operations and Programs Manager Katie Kennedy explained that for more than a decade now, USO staff and volunteers have worked with Fort Jackson leadership to provide support to all soldiers and trainees traveling home for the holidays.
“By providing snacks to get soldiers through a long day or days of travel home; a friendly smile and directions to the Columbia Metropolitan Airport [USO] center; a cup of coffee to a weary traveler or a bottle of water to a mom who has driven hours to pick up her soldier for the holidays; the USO is always there to brighten the holidays for these young soldiers and their families,” Kennedy said.
Soldiers began their journey on Dec. 17 in a staggered manner departing from Fort Jackson, the largest and most active Army Initial Entry Training Center in the U.S., located just outside of Columbia, S.C. The soldiers will make the reverse commute and return to training on Jan. 19, 2021.
Each year, the USO supports all 9,000 soldiers who depart Fort Jackson, whether they travel by plane, train, automobile or bus to make it home in time for the holidays. To support these young service members traveling home, USO staff and volunteers spend up to 15 hours a day the entire week these young soldiers are transitioning home, ensuring they experience a safe and pleasant voyage.
“We may be tired, but our hearts are full. It’s our most favorite time of year, and the stories we hear and the smiles we’re privileged to bring to the faces of these young service members make these longs hours all worth it,” Kennedy added.
Soldiers from Fort Jackson typically travel through Columbia Metropolitan Airport or are bussed to Charlotte Douglas International Airport. At both locations, while soldiers wait for their flights, USO airport center staff and volunteers hand out water, snacks, USO travel packs and assist these soldiers in finding their departure gates — all while adhering to COVID-19 social distancing and mask wearing protocols.
“The USO is like Disneyland for us soldiers,” Pvt. Acosta said.
“It is so nice to have people care about us and want to help us. The [USO] volunteer saw me, helped me carry my bag and walked me all the way to my gate. He gave me coffee too, which was equally as important,” Pfc. Hodges said.
In Virginia, Traveling Service Members Can Lean on USO, Too
At three USO airport locations in Virginia, USO staff had have also to invent unique ways to serve our military traveling home while adhering to COVID-19 social distancing guidelines.
These services included using old airplane carts to distribute snacks and goodies; utilizing more space in the airport to ensure proper social distancing; requiring volunteers and service members to wear protective masks unless eating or drinking; and limiting the amount of service members that can enter the USO centers at a time.
Because of these guidelines, USO Hampton Roads and Central Virginia airport centers safely served more than 6,300 military members coming home for the first time in months. The military service members are grateful for the opportunity to relax and unwind before flying home just in time for the holidays.
“It’s overwhelming but it’s cool,“ Spc. Schmidt said. “It’s a nice break from the rigors of training.”
- Eric Venezuela and Sarah Kemp contributed to this report.
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