By Danielle DeSimone
It’s 1 a.m. at the Chicago O’Hare International Airport. Hundreds of service members are crowded around their departure gates, waiting to board the planes that will take them to their first-ever duty station with the U.S. Navy.
These newly graduated sailors have been through several long, hard weeks of training, far from friends and family. Now – in these minutes before boarding – they are looking for a place to share their final moments with their loved ones who have traveled here to see them off.
For many, that place is the USO.
Heading to your first duty station after several weeks at bootcamp can be an emotional experience for some service members, which is why the USO is there to offer them just a moment of respite – a place to sit, to say goodbye to their family and friends, or even just to grab a snack on the way out the gate.
This might seem simple at first glance – but for the hundreds of thousands of sailors that make their way through Chicago O’Hare International Airport at Recruit Training Command (RTC), Great Lakes, Illinois, seeing that familiar red, white and blue USO sign that they came to know before bootcamp means they’ve found their home away from home, just as they’re starting out on their military journey.
How the USO Supports Navy Recruits at Chicago O’Hare
Before they were newly graduated sailors saying their goodbyes inside the USO, all of these young service members were new Navy recruits on their way to bootcamp.
A majority of recruits arrive for Navy bootcamp via the Chicago O’Hare International Airport and when they do, many of them are welcomed by staff and volunteers at the USO centers on-site. The USO pledges to be there every step of the way through service members’ military journey, and that begins when they first enter service.
“We’re the first thing that they see,” said USO Illinois Center Operations and Programs Manager Chris Miller.
USO airport centers offer weary military travelers a lounge all to themselves, where they can relax between flights with comfy chairs, television, free Wi-Fi and more. These airport lounges – found at airports across the country and the world – are exclusively for active-duty military, military spouses and their families.
Because many new recruits travel from all over the country at odd hours to get to bootcamp, one of the two USO O’Hare centers is open 24 hours a day. This ensures that new Navy recruits have a place to relax, connect with loved ones and learn about the USO support they can receive during their military service. For many, this visit to a USO O’Hare center is that last touch of home they’ll get before boarding the bus to start several challenging and life-changing weeks at Navy bootcamp.
Life at Navy Bootcamp and USO Support of RTC Great Lakes
Recruit Training Command (RTC), Great Lakes, Illinois, is the U.S. Navy’s only enlisted bootcamp, where more than 40,000 recruits train each year. Located on the western shore of Lake Michigan, RTC has been preparing recruits for life in the Navy since 1911.
Here, they go through a seven to nine-week training program, learning everything from firearms and physical fitness to shipboard emergency and firefighting training. Each barracks is designated as a “ship,” where recruits must man watch stations, protect their ship 24 hours-a-day and perform duties as assigned on the “quarterdeck.” Once passing their final tests, these freshly minted sailors graduate and then either remain on base to continue their education at “A schools” (that is, specialization training schools), or proceed onto their first duty station in the Navy.
Bootcamp at RTC is a rigorous training program, re-designed in recent years to outfit recruits with wartime capabilities and resiliency. RTC is also home to the many instructors and experienced sailors who both run operations on base and prepare the next generation of sailors for their service.
As such, RTC is a crucial outpost for the Navy and, in turn, for the USO.
The USO RTC Great Lakes centers support the cadre at the RTC on base; that is, the instructors at the bootcamp. As tenured members of the United States Navy, these instructors train thousands of recruits and guide them through their first steps in the military. Occasionally, these instructors also need some downtime and space of their own to regroup, and they can always turn to the USO.
At one of three of these unique USO locations at Recruit Training Command – which is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week and 365 days a year – these hardworking instructors can enjoy a relaxing space and classic USO amenities, like free Wi-Fi, snacks and beverages, comfy chairs, big screen TVs, video games and more. The USO also hosts occasional events for RTC service members at this location, including its popular “No-Dough Dinner” events, in which RTC military members can enjoy a night off from cooking and eat a tasty and nutritious homecooked meal, all for free.
Supporting the Military Community at USO Great Lakes
While supporting the instructor team at RTC is a key part of the USO’s mission at Naval Station Great Lakes, on the other side of the base, the USO also supports thousands of active-duty sailors and military family members living in the area via the USO Great Lakes center.
“For more than two decades, USO Great Lakes has proudly offered the young men and women who have just completed Navy Basic Training at Recruit Training Command with a home away from home,” said USO Illinois Executive Director Christopher Schmidt.
“It is truly our privilege to offer these sailors their first USO experience and to build that relationship that will last throughout their service to our nation and beyond.”
This 15,000 square-foot location recently underwent a massive renovation in 2021 with support from the local community and features all the classic USO comforts, including free Wi-Fi, snacks and entertainment options. The refurbished center also provides state-of-the-art video gaming technology and several rooms outfitted with comfortable furniture to create a home-like setting for service members participating in USO programs. There is also a music room featuring guitars, drums and a mixing board.
“When reimagining the USO Great Lakes center, we listened, sought inspiration and guidance and ultimately brought the shared aspirations of sailors, Navy families and Navy leadership to fruition, creating a truly inspired space for decades to come,” Schmidt said.
Many sailors living at Naval Station Great Lakes are attending “A schools” and were recently bootcamp recruits themselves. Some visit USO Great Lakes as single service members, while others have young families in tow. No matter where they are in their military journey, all active-duty service members and their families are welcomed at the USO. With USO No Dough Dinners and weekly programs specifically to junior enlisted sailors and military families, USO Great Lakes provides both active-duty service members and their families with activities that make them feel supported while fostering a sense of community on base.
“The USO understands that when a service member raises their right hand and commits to serving our country, their families are also joining them in service,” said USO Illinois Senior Programs Manager Carrie Norwood.
“Our centers provide an interactive space with unique and exciting free programming that gives military, spouses and kids the opportunity to spend quality time as a family unit and connect with other families who ‘get’ the military life. I’ve heard it time and time again that service members and spouses have met their closest friends at a USO event, and that makes me so happy.”
Sending Newly Graduated Sailors Off with USO Support
Support for our nation’s Armed Forces is crucial at every stage of the military journey.
Because the duties and responsibilities of service members are often so great, it can sometimes be easy to forget that many of them – especially the newly graduated sailors – are young and in need of that support just as they are starting their military careers.
For decades, USO Illinois has ensured they have just that.
After several weeks of training comes the moment that every recruit has been waiting (and training) for: graduation. Approximately 800-1,000 recruits graduate from RTC Great Lakes each week, and while many continue their training at A schools on the other side of Naval Station Great Lakes, many more will proceed to the airport after graduation. There, they’ll board a plane to their first duty station with the Navy.
Recruits always graduate on a Friday, but there is little time for celebration. At 1 a.m. the next day, those headed to their first duty station are shuffled onto buses and brought to the airport for their flights, where loved ones and USO volunteers are waiting for them.
Parents of recruits are especially excited to see their children again. No matter what time of night it is, these family members eagerly meet with their service members at the airport one last time before they board their planes. Knowing how precious these last moments can be, the USO collaborates with airport security to obtain gate passes for military parents so that they can spend as much time as possible with their service member before departure. Some choose to spend time together at the airport USO.
It’s tough work, with so many new sailors heading through the gates, but the USO is always ready, and volunteers will work several hours through the night to ensure these service members and their families are supported.
Miller estimates that, between the USO airport lounges and the USO Great Lakes center on base, approximately 150,000-160,000 service members pass through the USO’s doors each year. Whether they are arriving to test their mettle at bootcamp or heading out the gate to their first-ever duty station, these new sailors can take comfort in the fact that the USO is always by their side.
“They know that wherever they’re going to go, they’re going to be taken care of,” Miller said. “They just have to find a USO and we’ll be there to take care of them.”
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