By Danielle DeSimone
For the service members stationed in Incirlik, Turkey, the world outside their barracks is small. Due to the tense conditions off-base, after they’ve completed their duties for the day, these service members must remain on-base, leaving them with only a few entertainment options, such as the movie theater or the bowling alley.
When stationed for months – or even years – in Turkey, having such a limited environment beyond their daily duties can take its toll on the morale of our troops.
Luckily, there is one other place service members can turn to: the USO Incirlik center. There, soldiers and airmen are welcomed not only by USO staff, but also their fellow service members who serve as USO volunteers.
One such volunteer is Army Staff Sgt. Sean Erdrich, who earned the title of 2020 USO Volunteer of the Year for Outside of the Continental United States through his unwavering dedication to supporting other service members.
Soldier Finds a Community of Support Through the USO
Although Erdrich had heard of the USO before being stationed in Incirlik, he hadn’t really used the organization’s services. Then, when he arrived in Turkey, Erdrich began visiting the USO center on base almost every single day. About five months later, he decided it was time to become a USO volunteer.
“Finally, I was like, ‘I’m in here all the time. I should give back.’ And I started volunteering, and I just really fell in love with it,” Erdrich said.
For Erdrich, one of the greatest draws of volunteering with the USO was the close-knit community that worked and volunteered at the center. Being stationed far from home, friends and family can be challenging, but when service members have a community to lean on at these duty stations, it can make all the difference.
“At USO Incirlik, it really, really felt like an actual family,” Erdrich said. “You could rely on the people around you. And we developed these really close-knit relationships that I really haven’t seen in any other volunteer outlet.”
Erdrich soon set himself apart as an especially enthusiastic USO volunteer, even dressing up in outlandish costumes to deliver programs and food to his fellow service members.
Then, the COVID-19 pandemic broke out almost immediately after Erdrich began volunteering and due to the necessary health and safety precautions, many USO programs and services were put on hold. However, Erdrich explained that, although the pandemic was certainly challenging, USO Incirlik quickly pivoted its mode of operations and was actually able to expand its outreach to service members in new and innovative ways.
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For example, as service members arrived for their tours and deployments on base, they were required to sit through a Restriction of Movement (ROM) to safely quarantine for two weeks before being cleared for duty. These service members were housed in barracks that were outfitted with bunk beds and not much else.
So, Erdrich and the rest of the USO Incirlik team organized snack drop-offs to these quarantined troops and even worked with the USO’s regional director to secure additional funding to obtain even more resources. The USO team also loaned these service members TVs, gaming systems and radios to keep them entertained and to keep spirits high while they were in quarantine.
“Seeing the morale pick up really … kept us motivated,” Erdrich said.
Providing Support to His Fellow Service Members
Being a member of the military himself has helped Erdrich cater to the needs of his fellow service members.
On one occasion, a military unit was based in a remote location several hundred miles away from base, leaving its service members with little access to the outside world, let alone resources to help them relax or connect with loved ones back home, such as the USO. Knowing this, Erdrich spearheaded efforts to bring USO support to these service members. Working with Erdrich, the USO outfitted a recreation room at this isolated location, as well as provided the unit with extra snacks, rations and hygiene kits when the location was later put on lockdown.
Although these efforts might seem relatively simple, having a place to go at the end of a stressful day on the front lines can truly improve the morale and readiness of troops; this was one of the reasons why Erdrich became so passionate about volunteering with the USO, and why he thought its services were so crucial to service members stationed or deployed overseas.
“The main role that the USO over there served, outside of the routine programming, was it provided that third place, that place away from your barracks room, and away from work, where airmen and soldiers could come and decompress,” Erdrich said. “[The USO center] was that space where you could go and you could just be yourself. You could leave your rank and uniform at the door.”
Erdrich especially appreciated the USO’s programs and its resources – such as free Wi-Fi, computers and phones – that allowed him and other service members to stay connected to home.
“It just brought about an ease of mind for [service members] because being overseas and being separated from your family and from everything that you’ve known is really stressful. For a lot of these airmen, and a lot of the soldiers, it was their very first time ever being overseas,” he said. “And so they really were just at a complete culture shock and [the USO] gave them that nice, home comfort.”
“Volunteers like Sean don’t come around often,” said USO Incirlik Center Operations Manager Kyla Clark. “Someone who is so dedicated to supporting our mission that he is willing to go above and beyond – even during the middle of his work day – to answer the USO’s call. We appreciate everything that he has contributed here.”
Erdrich’s passion for supporting his fellow service members may have earned him the title of USO Volunteer of the Year for 2020, but he is bringing that same level of energy and enthusiasm into 2021 as well. Even now that he is back stateside, Erdrich remains grateful for the care and family-like environment that the USO Incirlik team fostered in Turkey, and he has been encouraging everyone in his unit to get involved with the USO.
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