Who Is Eligible to Use the USO? 4 FAQs About the Military Nonprofit

By Sandi Gohn

In Okinawa, Japan, it’s going to be another steamy, hot day.

Thanks to the island’s relentless humidity, it already feels like 90 degrees Fahrenheit when the sun rises at 6 a.m. – just as groups of U.S. Marines are loading their 50-pound packs and heading into the jungle for training. They’ll return 12 hours later, exhausted, sweaty and in need of a moment to recharge before doing it all again tomorrow.

For many – particularly the younger Marines – that means heading straight to the one place that feels like home on the island: the USO.

Marines head to USO Camp Schwab on Okinawa. | Photo credit USO Photo

No matter whether they are trekking on the island of Okinawa, training in Oklahoma or traveling through Oahu, the USO’s 250+ locations around the world are ready to support U.S. Armed Forces service members and their families, when they need it most.

As an organization with over 80 years of rich history, people often have questions about the USO and its history. Here are answers to four commonly asked questions about the military nonprofit:

What does “USO” mean and who started the USO?

USO stands for United Service Organizations, and there’s a rich history behind that name.

On Feb. 4, 1941, just before the U.S. entered World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt united six civilian service groups into one organization to lift the morale of our growing Armed Forces. Those entities – the Salvation Army, Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), National Catholic Community Services, National Travelers Aid Association and the National Jewish Welfare Board – became the United Service Organizations, or the USO.

Photo credit USO Archives

Shown here are the leaders of the six USO founding agencies at a meeting April 21,1941. Mary Shotwell Ingraham of the Young Women’s Christian Associations (YWCA) is second from the left.

Today, the USO no longer has formal ties to these six founding organizations and is an autonomous nonprofit supported by charitable donations. Interestingly, several of the founding groups that came together to form the USO still operate to this day as separate charitable organizations.

Is the USO part of the government?

The USO is not part of the U.S. government and is a nonprofit, charitable organization dedicated to serving the military.

While the USO has a Congressional Caucus and works closely with the Department of Defense, the USO is a private charity and has always been funded by the generous support of individual donors, grants and corporate partners. Without the support of donors, the USO would be unable to accomplish its mission of supporting today’s military members.

Fun fact: The USO is a “congressionally-chartered organization,” which means that the United States Congress passed a symbolic law that stated the mission, authority and activities of the USO. Only a handful of nonprofits and organizations have this designation!

Who runs the USO?

Guided by the leadership of the Board of Governors, the USO is run by a family of several hundred staff and thousands of dedicated volunteers.

Photo credit USO Photo

A USO volunteer hands out refreshments.

Volunteers are the heart of the USO – without them, the organization wouldn’t be able to accomplish its mission.

The USO has a network of 30,000 volunteers spread out across the world at over 250 locations. These dedicated people do everything from serving food and organizing spouse events, to taking the midnight shift at the USO’s 24-hour locations and greeting center guests at the front desk. Even during 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, roughly 18,000 volunteers still stepped up to serve over 750,000 hours with the USO.

Photo credit USO photo

Volunteers welcome service members to enjoy a game.

Who can use the USO?

The USO was founded in 1941 to support U.S. Armed Forces service members, as well as their families, and it’s what the organization continues to do today. In fact, we are one of the largest (and only) organizations dedicated to supporting the U.S. Armed Forces active duty military community, rather than veterans.

As much as the USO would like to open its doors to retirees, disabled veterans and all those who have honorably served, as a nonprofit organization, the USO has limited space and resources. The USO must focus its efforts on serving the needs of those who need us most: U.S. Armed Forces active duty, Reserve and Guard service members, as well as their families. For over 80 years, that’s been our mission.

For more information on this policy, or to provide us with feedback on a specific USO center experience, contact us.

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