By Josh Sova

Fort McCoy, located near the rural Wisconsin town of Tomah, is a year-round Total Force Training Center.

In 2015, more than 145,000 U.S. service members from every branch trained there, as well as foreign and interagency partners. In conjunction with Volk Field, Fort McCoy is one of the busiest training centers in the continental United States. Only the National Training Center on Fort Irwin, California, and Fort Polk, Louisiana’s Joint Readiness Training Center hold more exercises on an annual basis.

Until recently, Fort McCoy was missing one thing. A USO center.

In summer 2014, USO Wisconsin Operations Director Elizabeth Hazlett drove a Mobile USO vehicle to Fort McCoy to support service members training for the weekend.

“I live for this—our troops do a lot for us,” said Hazlett, a Coast Guard mom whose husband is an Army veteran. “They sacrifice for us, and so do their families. Coming here and providing this van is a little something we can do for our troops and their families.”

Hazlett’s mission had an ulterior motive – to see if the installation would benefit from a sustained USO presence. During her first visit with the Mobile USO, more than 800 soldiers enjoyed the comfort foods, TV lounge, gaming area and internet service that came with the vehicle.

A lovable service dog is often the center of attention at the USO on Fort McCoy. | Photo credit USO Wisconsin photo

“Having something like this is really great for all of our soldiers here,” said 1st Sergeant Jamie Larson of the Iowa National Guard’s 186th Military Police Company. “It’s a good break from our busy operations tempo to relax, watch some TV and have some refreshments.”

The mobile experiment led to a clear conclusion: USO Wisconsin needed to expand to support Fort McCoy and the surrounding area.

But there was lots of work to be done and the organization needed more manpower to expand. USO Wisconsin didn’t have an executive director or program coordinator and Hazlett was the only paid staff member. She was already supporting operations at Milwaukee’s General Mitchell International Airport, the Milwaukee Military Entrance Processing Station and many activities around the metro area. However, Hazlett and Board President Dan Toomey were focused on the growing need at Fort McCoy and were determined to go where the soldiers were.

With help from Army Colonel Steven Nott, then the garrison commander, it was decided Forward Operating Bases Freedom and Liberty would be the best places to support service members during their busy training season between April and August. USO Wisconsin hired an executive director and a program coordinator to run its centers in southeastern Wisconsin and the shift allowed Hazlett to focus on Fort McCoy. Starbucks donated furniture for the centers and Hazlett began setting up connections in the surrounding communities.

In April 2015, after much planning and coordination with Fort McCoy, Hazlett left Milwaukee and made Fort McCoy her new home from April through October, living three hours away from her family.

She arrived to thousands of service members already at the FOBs for training. Within days, she furnished and supplied the centers with Wi-Fi, food and decor that made soldiers feel like they were in a high-end coffeehouse. With great support from the command and a relationship with the Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR) office, USO Wisconsin found supplies, efficient ways to provide services and a home office in the MWR building.

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After a long day of arduous training at Fort McCoy, service members can unwind at the USO center located on a remote part of the installation.

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More than 14,000 service members visited the center on Fort McCoy during the 2015 training months and even more are expected this year.

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The USO center at Fort McCoy gives service members a chance to relax and watch some TV.

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On February 4th, the USO’s 75th anniversary, USO Wisconsin opened a center at the La Crosse Regional Airport.

More than 14,000 service members visited the center during the 2015 training months. Some faces became very familiar inside the USO, which was housed in an Alaskan tent between the medical and chaplain’s tents. They came to eat comfort foods – one British army reservist discovered Girl Scout cookies – and to enjoy movies and video games, but most importantly, they came to connect with family.

The USO center provided the only Wi-Fi within miles and cellphone coverage was spotty at best. One dad cried while talking to his son about doing his homework through Skype at the USO.

“I personally believe the USO Wisconsin’s support of our training population has been a huge success story,” Nott said. “[The] USO has replicated the services provided by USO to deployed service members overseas.”

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As Hazlett became more established on the FOBs, she recruited more volunteers, which meant she could organize events like ice cream socials, movie nights and a Mother’s Day celebration.

“Without you being here a lot of the soldiers would be in a much worse place emotionally,” an unnamed soldier told her. “A cup of hot coffee and internet is life-changing, and the only lifeline many of these guys have to their families right now.”

Hazlett and USO Wisconsin plan to build on the foundation they have created by expanding their reach throughout Wisconsin. On February 4th, the USO’s 75th anniversary, USO Wisconsin opened a center at the La Crosse Regional Airport. An estimated 100,000 service members fly through the airport on their way to Fort McCoy and other installations each year.

Spearheaded by Hazlett, the project received a boost in 2015 when the airport offered to build a USO center worthy of the sacrifice of service members and their families. Don Weber, the founder and president of La Crosse-based Logistics Health Incorporated (LHI), donated more than $60,000 to USO Wisconsin to purchase furniture and supplies. When the center opened, service members waiting for flights immediately put it to the test.

USO Wisconsin’s new mobile unit will help the organization reach more service members in more places throughout the state. | Photo credit USO Wisconsin photo

But Hazlett wasn’t finished in her quest to reach more service members. She found a used bread truck that USO Wisconsin transformed into a mobile unit. Hazlett drove the truck – which is outfitted with Wi-Fi, snacks and games – up to Fort McCoy recently and plans to take the vehicle to remote training grounds on base and other parts of Wisconsin. She’s also working on building a volunteer base to ensure service members stationed on an isolated base can stay connected with their loved ones for years to come.

Hazlett and USO Wisconsin’s staff, board and volunteers have gone the extra mile to support more military families each year. And as long as military families continue to make sacrifices for our freedom, the USO Wisconsin team does not intend to slow down.

Josh Sova is USO Wisconsin’s executive director.

You can send a message of support and thanks directly to service members via the USO’s Campaign to Connect. Your messages will appear on screens at USO locations around the world.