Inside the Special Mission of Supporting Wounded Service Members at USO Bethesda

By Danielle DeSimone

Picture this: you’ve been recovering from an injury sustained in the line of duty at a military hospital for over a month now. Your days seem repetitive and impossibly long, filled with doctor’s appointments, hospital cafeteria food, physical therapy and hours in front of the television with not many people to talk to.

And then one day, you decide to visit the USO center on base during some free time. As you approach the pathway, the center comes into view: a façade of stones and wooden beams that look like a lake house cabin, tall windows stretching to the sky, warm lights shining out of each one. Inside, it’s even cozier. There’s a wood-burning fireplace surrounded by couches and an immense kitchen where a military family appears to be cooking something together, which smells incredible. In a corner, there’s a group of service members playing a board game with a lot of enthusiasm and somewhere in the distance, you can hear someone strumming a guitar.

The entire building is filled with quiet chatter, laughter and music. After weeks under fluorescent lights and in sterile hospital rooms, stepping through these doors feels like taking your first deep breath in a long time. It feels welcoming, fun, relaxing. Somehow, it feels like home.

Welcome to the USO Warrior and Family Center at Bethesda, Maryland.

The Challenges of Recovery for Injured Service Members

From 2001-2018, more than 53,700 U.S. service members were officially listed as wounded in the major war zones of the Middle East. Of these injuries, many of them have been quite serious. Between 2001 and 2018, a total of 1,705 service members sustained lower and upper limb amputations during deployment. According to the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center, there have been more than 380,000 traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) among service members since 2000.

As one of the Armed Forces’ most prestigious and expansive medical facilities, the Walter Reed Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, treats more than 1 million active-duty service members, veterans and military family members each year. Although Walter Reed provides medical care of all kinds, it has become known specifically for the care it provides to service members wounded in service.

In the case of traumatic injuries like amputations, extensive surgery and treatment is often needed. The Department of Defense (DoD)’s Extremity Trauma and Amputation Center of Excellence (EACE) states that although recovery times for an amputee may vary, most patients require 12 to 18 months. After recovering from the surgery itself, there are often also months of rehabilitation and – in the case of amputees – months of prosthetic training.

Those diagnosed with invisible wounds can also face lengthy recovery periods. According to the Military Health System, in one year alone, mental health issues accounted for the largest total number of hospital bed days in the military hospital system, and the third highest total number of medical treatments for all active-duty members of the Armed Forces. Service members recovering from a TBI can struggle with seizures or PTSD after their incident, requiring continued medical care even after leaving the military. In fact, while 3.5% of adults in the entire U.S. adult population struggle with PTSD, studies have shown that as high as 14% of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans suffer from PTSD.

In addition to these traumatic and complex cases, Walter Reed also treats patients coping with a myriad of other medical concerns. Recovery from these wounds or illnesses can be a long and difficult journey for any service member, made even more difficult by being far from home and loved ones.

But at the USO Warrior and Family Center at Bethesda, less than a half of a mile away from the medical center, service members can find a sense of home and comfort while they recuperate – and that can make all the difference.

How USO Warrior and Family Center at Bethesda Supports Recuperating Service Members

A service member cooks a meal at the USO Warrior and Family Center at Bethesda in the center’s kitchen in 2016. | Photo credit DVIDS/Seaman William Phillips

Much like the USO Warrior and Family Centers at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, and the USO Warrior Center at Landstuhl, Germany, the USO Warrior and Family Center at Bethesda, Maryland, was built to support wounded service members and their family members who visit in between medical appointments at nearby military medical centers. In a time of great stress and upheaval, these USO centers were built specifically to provide members of the military community with a place of respite, where they could recover and spend time with one another in a non-hospital environment.

The USO Warrior Center is ADA-compliant, ensuring that all – regardless of their recovery journey – can access the building. This intentional design means that everything, from the programs offered to the structure of the building itself, is offered with the intention of catering to wounded service members and their caretakers, making these USO centers truly unique.

The programs, services and amenities offered within the welcoming space of the center are all created to provide this sense of home to recovering service members and other members of the military community. Amid the comfortable couches, fireplace and work stations, the USO Warrior Center also provides a fully equipped kitchen and outdoor grills, which service members, military family members and caretakers can use to cook homemade meals – a welcome break from hospital food. Additionally, there are always snacks and beverages available in the center kitchen as well and, on many nights, USO staff cook up their own meals, or bring in popular food from local restaurants, to serve to these military community members.

Photo credit U.S. Navy/Spc. 1st Class Juan Pinalez

Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class Jared Lenahan shows some of his artwork to a visitor at the 2015 Wounded Warrior Family Symposium at the USO Warrior and Family Center on Naval Support Activity Bethesda. The symposium was a forum for seriously injured or ill service members and their families to share their experiences.

Programs are created purposely to assist service members with their recovery, such as the center’s art and music rooms. In these specially-designed rooms, service members can partake in classes on painting, sculpting, drawing, crafting and more, providing them with a creative outlet to express themselves. An art class might seem simple at first glance, but studies show that art can be incredibly helpful in reducing stress and anxiety, and it has shown promising results particularly in supporting service members and veterans struggling with PTSD.

Photo credit USO Bethesda

Art programs can help both wounded service members and their family members deal with the stress and daily challenges of recovery.

Similarly, through the comforting rhythm of music in the center’s music room – which is equipped with guitars, pianos and more – service members can find solace and consistency, as well as improve cognitive rehabilitation in PTSD patients in some cases.

“Our programs … allow [service members] to feel connected to the outside world during a time when everything has stopped,” USO of Metropolitan Washington-Baltimore Programs Manager Amy Altersitz said.

The USO Warrior Center also hosts events for service members and military families alike, with everything from Halloween costume parties to movie and trivia nights or live entertainment. Events like these can alleviate the stress of recovery and also foster a sense of community by providing service members with the opportunity to bond with their family members, caretakers and fellow service members.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made the lives of many of these service members even more challenging.

“Many of the people in the recovery housing here often find it difficult to find interesting things to do,” Altersitz said. “COVID has compounded this issue by shutting all services down and forcing them to further separate themselves.”

But even throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, with health and safety restrictions severely limiting traditional USO programs, the USO Warrior and Family Center has kept up a steady stream of support through offerings like grab-and-go lunches, virtual art programs and exercise classes.

“I had the opportunity to speak with a woman who has frequently participated in our virtual programs over the past several months, particularly Bingo,” Altersitz said. “She told me how much she enjoys the programming that the USO has provided because it gives a her an escape from the monotony of life in recovery housing and returns a feeling of normalcy.”

Recovering from serious wounds or illnesses can be an incredibly challenging experience that can take an emotional toll on service members and their families. By providing them with a place to call home while they recuperate, the USO Warrior and Family Center at Bethesda helps ensure that these troops have the resources they need to make a full recovery – and to thank them for their unwavering dedication to service.

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As the COVID-19 outbreak is evolving, the USO has pivoted resources across the entire global enterprise in an approach that helps care for military members and their families.

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