By Sarah Kemp
When Dawn-Marie Gillium lost treasured family heirlooms in an overseas move, she thought all hope was lost for their return. The story of that loss and the hope that was restored turned a seasoned military spouse into a self-proclaimed “USO-lifer.”
Gillium married a salesman, so when he later decided to enlist in the Army, everything changed and she quickly had to adjust to life as a military spouse. In a matter of months, Gillium left her corporate job, moved to another part of the country and was newly pregnant. While her spouse was assimilating into his new position in the Army and amidst all this change, she felt lost.
“So, you’re sitting there with your kids like, uh, okay what do I do now?” Gillium said.
After a few years and duty stations throughout the United States, Gillium finally found her footing – and then everything changed again when her family received orders to Grafenwoehr, Germany.
It was their family’s first international Permanent Change of Station (PCS).
The move overseas included a hurricane that canceled flights and a sudden change of destination; while the family was at the airport on their way to Grafenwoehr, they were informed they’d be reporting to Stuttgart, Germany, instead of their original assignment.
The stress was mounting, but Gillium said her children were having a blast eating food and relaxing in the recliners at the USO center in Raleigh Durham Airport, North Carolina.
Once Gillium and her family finally arrived in Germany, her husband heard about USO Stuttgart at an in-processing brief with his command and he encouraged the family to leave the hotel and go to the USO center.
“I was convinced I was going to have a miserable day,” Gillium said. “Then I met this bubbly redhead at the USO who forced me to have a good day.”
That “bubbly redhead” was me, the author of this story, USO Stuttgart Center Manager Sarah Kemp.
Because Gillium felt welcomed by me and my staff, she began sharing the story of her stressful move – the challenges and sudden changes. She also explained how devastated she was when she lost a piece of luggage that contained jewelry passed down through her family. I listened to Gillium’s entire story and then responded in a typical USO employee fashion: I told Gillium that I would try to fix it.
Finding lost luggage – and finding a community at her local USO center
I quickly called USO Southeast Regional Development Manager Patricia DeZetter, who at the time worked as the USO North Carolina Triangle area director, to ask if her team had seen Gillium’s suitcase – and sure enough, the team stateside had found the luggage. Gillium had accidentally left it in the USO of North Carolina - Raleigh-Durham Airport (RDU) Center and they still had it.
“We were excited to get [Kemp’s] call because we had the bag, and we didn’t know where it needed to go,” DeZetter said. “[We] were happy the bag was going to someone who was waiting for it and could complete the loop to get it in the right hands.”
By coordinating with DeZetter and the USO team in North Carolina, I managed to get the suitcase shipped to Germany and then promptly delivered it to Gillium.
Receiving the suitcase was a shock to Gillium, who thought it was lost forever. While the suitcase was important to her, it was the effort behind its return that truly touched her.
“The fact that somebody went above and beyond meant the world to me,” she said. “It said to me ‘you’re important enough for me to make this effort.’”
After this first impression of the USO, Gillium continued to visit USO Stuttgart. Every holiday was made special, from her first Thanksgiving in Germany at USO’s traditional dinner to a USO Mother’s Day crafting brunch. When her daughter was in the hospital, USO staff even sent her daughter letters that made her feel special.
Gillium believes that the USO is all about family, friendship and fellowship.
“It’s about helping your neighbor. I’m here, and we’re going to figure this out together.”
After a few years in Stuttgart, Gillium’s family received orders to Fort Stewart, Georgia, in early 2021. The family’s initial move to Germany had been marked with a hurricane and their return to the U.S. included the stress of tornados impacting their journey.
Gillium said that their family joked, “Always a natural disaster with us! They must have heard we were coming!”
After battling the elements and the stress of the move, Gillium and her husband made sure one of their first stops at their new duty station was the local USO center. Gillium walked into USO Fort Stewart for the first time and heard a USO staff person call out to her by name.
Gillium was incredibly shocked that someone knew who she was and was welcoming her by name at a place where she did not know anyone.
An entire ocean away, I had reached out to USO Fort Stewart Center Operations Supervisor Jessica Buchanan to let her know that Gillium had made a PCS move to Fort Stewart and that Buchanan should keep an eye out for her. I had even sent a picture of Gillium to Buchanan so the USO team would recognize her. The minute Gillium walked through the door, Buchanan knew exactly who she was and was ready to welcome Gillium to her new home – and her new USO center.
“It made me feel really good how happy we made her,” Buchanan stated.
USO Fort Stewart Center Operations and Programs Manager Courtney Due echoed Buchanan’s sentiments, explaining that USO centers are not just a location, they are an experience. The greetings from USO staff and volunteers provide service members, military spouses and military families with a sense of home and comfort.
“You can always go to a USO and meet someone who knows someone you know. It’s six degrees of [separation], USO style,” Due said.
As soon as she heard her named yelled out in welcome, Gillium immediately started crying and laughing, knowing that once again, she was in a place where people took the time to show how much they cared for individual members of the military community.
“I am a USO-er for life. That moment did it,” she said. “The whole day I looked at this place different. USO got me.”
Whether it is overseas or stateside, when military families move to a new place where they may feel out of place, Gillium explained that she always recommends they turn to their local USO center.
“Now I know [and] I tell everyone – go find your USO.”
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