By Sarah Kemp
Each USO center around the world is staffed with passionate employees who welcome new military families to their community and provide them with support when they prepare to leave for their next duty station. Some of those same employees are also receivers of that support, as they journey across the world in their careers.
In the past five years, 161 USO employees have packed up their bags and moved to a new USO location. While it may seem illogical to the civilian eye, it is exactly this sort of flexibility that enables the USO to deploy the best talent around the world in support of our service members.
“In the same way that the military rotates leadership to infuse new ideas and broaden perspectives, the USO really benefits from that [as well]. It allows us to be consistently innovative,” USO Nevada Executive Director DJ Stanhope said.
Stanhope’s work with the USO has spanned four decades and four continents. From Korea and Japan, to Kuwait and Afghanistan, to Germany, Pennsylvania, California, Nevada and other stops in between, Stanhope has watched the USO evolve and adapt over the years and across the globe. Stanhope expressed her gratitude for the opportunity to have such an adventurous career as a civilian.
“I can express our esteem and affection to [service members] on behalf of our civilian population,” she said. “Then I feel empowered and honored to express the real-time experiences of our troops back to the civilian population. That kind of connectedness is enhanced by being able to move around like I have.”
The USO has also provided a path for some veterans following their service.
After 28 years serving in the Navy, USO Central Regional Operations Manager Raymundo Sevidal said he had been looking for his next career to have that same feeling of family that the military provided him. This led Sevidal to USO Qatar in Southwest Asia for two years, and then to Dallas, Texas, where he currently works.
“I love the mission. I love the organization. I want this to be my last job,” he said.
Opportunities to move work locations has been crucial for USO employees who are military spouses. Keri Kittinger was working as a USO Programs and Volunteer Coordinator at USO Stuttgart in Germany when her family received travel orders to move to Hawaii. Kittinger remembered what it had felt like years before to lose a part of her identity when she had to quit her job as her family moved from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to Stuttgart, Germany. So, with the support of her USO colleagues in Stuttgart, Kittinger applied for the position of Transitions Specialist with USO Hawaii and had the job lined up even before her move to the Pacific.
“It was such a relief to know I had a job lined up when we moved. It was so nice to know I had this distant family that I was going to meet that I was already a part of,” Kittinger said.
While her position with the USO in Europe, working at a center, was vastly different from her current work in Hawaii helping military service members and their families with the process of transitioning to civilian life after the military, Kittinger was elated to find a niche of USO programming she enjoys even more.
“It’s incredibly important for an organization like [the] USO, whose audience is military families, to allow us to have opportunities as we move because it’s such a part of our life. It allows us to progress in our career without taking steps backward,” she said.
While each employee’s path who has moved locations with the USO is different, Elizabeth Lee’s career journey with the USO included three continents and three separate stints in the same position. Lee began her career as a civilian who wanted to support our military by hopping a plane from Washington, D.C., to Japan to work in the marketing department for the USO Pacific office. That position morphed into the Director of Operations for USO Pacific. She later left to pursue a new role at USO headquarters in Arlington, Va.
During this time, she married an Army officer, who received orders back to Okinawa, Japan, where – serendipitously – the position of Director of Operations was open again. She slipped right back into her old role with delight. A few years later in their new duty station near Tampa, Fla., Lee received a call that the Director of Operations for USO Pacific was open again, and they could use her help to fill in remotely as a temporary hire until a new director could be found and trained.
Lee and her family later moved to Germany, where she served as a USO volunteer before heading back to Florida. Currently, Lee is the USO Military Families Programs Manager, working for USO headquarters remotely from Tampa once again.
“It’s been a game-changer to be able to work from home while my husband was deployed. It saved me mentally while he was away,” she said.
Lee described witnessing 15 years of change at the USO. She is happy to see more structure to support USO staff and volunteers at 250 locations around the world, and believes that the global experience allows employees to bring their perspective and experience to different places, which benefits the organization as a whole.
“The USO has strength to adapt. It’s fun to see the people who have been around this long. When I see Tony or Kristine, longtime USO employees, I have 15 years of memories with these people. They’re here this long because they care.”
USO staffer Barry Morris contributed to this report.
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