By Danielle DeSimone
Late at night at the Chicago O’Hare International Airport, hundreds of freshly minted sailors prepare to leave for their first duty assignment in the U.S. Navy. As recent graduates of Recruit Training Command (RTC) in Great Lakes, Illinois, many of them might be nervous or unsure of what’s in store for them on the road ahead.
Then, as they walk through the doors of USO O’Hare sometime after midnight, they’re greeted by the welcoming sight of USO staff and volunteers, ready to offer snacks, a place to rest or a way to call home before they go. Also there is USO volunteer Tom Rowan, who can offer some parting words of comfort and some stories of his own to these new service members. After all, as a Vietnam War veteran, Rowan is all too familiar with the challenges and adventures of military life.
And so, for the past 10 ½ years, Rowan has done just that, trading stories and supporting the service members and military families who pass through the doors of USO O’Hare. In doing so, he has created a full-circle legacy of service, from his time in the Army to being named 2020’s USO Volunteer of the Year for the Continental United States region.
A Full Circle Journey to the USO
Rowan was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois. He attended college at Loyola University Chicago, where he also earned his master’s degree. Almost immediately after graduation from his master’s program, he got his “letter from President Johnson.” Rowan, married with a daughter on the way, had been drafted and was being deployed to the Vietnam War.
After completing basic training (his daughter was born while he was away), Rowan was quickly sent to Southeast Asia, where he served in the U.S. Army Signal Corps. As members of the Signal Corps, Rowan and his fellow service members were responsible for establishing communication centers throughout the region, which brought Rowan to Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia. It was during his time serving in the Vietnam War that Rowan saw his first USO shows – several of which featured U.S. entertainment legend, Bob Hope.
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Rowan returned home in December 1967 and soon after, he left the Army. However, only a short while later, Rowan felt out of place.
“I basically decided, after some time went by – maybe five or six years – I kind of missed the comradery of the military,” Rowan said. “[So, I] went back and joined the active Reserve and spent quite a while there.”
During his time in the Army Reserve, Rowan truly began to rely on the USO, especially when traveling for assignments, and he was struck not only by the USO’s reach, but also the organization’s level of support.
“It was always good to have an opportunity to visit the USO. Wherever I was, I could usually find a USO.”
Rowan eventually retired from the Reserve at the age of 60 in 2003. After a few years into retirement, he decided to give back to the USO by volunteering.
“I decided once I had gotten out, I wanted to be part of that operation, too,” he said.
Recognition for Dedicated Service
For most of his past 10-plus years of volunteering, Rowan has taken the midnight shift at USO O’Hare. Arriving at 10 or 11 p.m., Rowan manned the center lounge until “whenever they needed,” never wavering in his dedication to supporting today’s service members and military families.
Notably, Rowan has always insisted on volunteering during the Saturday shift, which happens to be one of the center’s busiest times, during which hundreds of recently graduated Navy sailors from RTC Naval Station Great Lakes make their way through the airport to their next duty stations weekly. In fact, more than 40,000 recruits train annually at Great Lakes, the Navy’s only boot camp .
He also volunteers several other days a week in the morning, always ready to step up and help.
Rowan humbly described his volunteer work as “just kind of pitching in,” but according to USO O’Hare staff, he is an invaluable member of the team. From welcoming visitors, to serving snacks, to trading his own stories from his time in the military with younger service members, Rowan is a constant presence at the USO airport center.
However, not being able to volunteer at full capacity this past year during the COVID-19 pandemic was difficult for Rowan. Although he understood the need for health and safety regulations, he missed putting in hours of work, as well as giving back to traveling service members and military families. For Rowan, volunteering at USO O’Hare is his way of giving back to these military community members who are sacrificing so much.
“We recognize that these [service members] are people who are volunteering … to put their lives on the line, if necessary, in defense of our freedoms,” Rowan said. “That’s a lot. I mean, it sounds corny, but it really is what [the] military’s all about.”
Regardless of the challenges of the pandemic, Rowan has continued to find ways to serve.
“Tom is always ready and willing to help and has been volunteering weekly since our centers were able to reopen in June ,” USO O’Hare Center Manager Lindsy Wadas said. “It’s because of volunteers like Tom that we were able to keep our doors open and serve our traveling troops and their families, even during a pandemic.”
Seeing how happy and grateful service members and military families are for the support provided at the center is what inspired Rowan to keep volunteering, even now, when COVID-19 has restricted the USO from providing certain programs and services.
“It makes it all worthwhile … knowing that you’re actually helping people out, that you’re actually able to make a positive impact on their lives,” Rowan said. “That’s a very rewarding feeling, really, that keeps me going even now in these stringent days.”
Rowan’s perseverance and love for volunteering with the military community is what earned him the title of 2020 USO Volunteer of the Year for the Continental United States region. Rowan was completely surprised by the award, although very appreciative. As a former service member himself, he understands the immense sacrifices service members, military spouses and military families must make in order to serve the nation. That is why Rowan believes it is so important to give back through actions such as volunteering with the USO.
“[As volunteers], we want to recognize the military and thank them for what they’re doing,” Rowan said. “That’s our goal. We’re there to support the military, who in turn are here supporting us as a nation.”
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