Twenty Years Later: How 9/11 Changed the USO

By Danielle DeSimone

For the friends and family of the 2,977 victims who were killed 20 years ago, 9/11 was a day of immeasurable loss. For Americans across the country and around the world, it was a time of unity in the face of a shared struggle.

And for many, it was a time to answer the call to serve.

The 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks marks a time to reflect on how that solemn day changed the world, the nation – and the USO.

As a nonprofit dedicated to supporting service members and their families, the USO has continued to adapt its operations over the past two decades to fit the needs of the post-9/11 military community where and when they need us most.

From opening new USO locations around the world to comforting deployed troops; to building specially-designed, world-class centers for our wounded, ill and injured troops, their families and caregivers; to standing by the side of Families of the Fallen; to developing innovative programs to keep military families connected through repeated deployments; the USO has adapted in the years following 9/11 to do what we do best – bringing Americans together to serve as a Force Behind the Forces®.

Building Foundations of Support for Service Members Deployed to the Middle East

The USO goes where our military goes – even to the front lines.

As the U.S. military engaged in armed conflicts in Southwest Asia following 9/11, the USO swiftly pivoted and built a presence in the region. This included constructing full-scale USO centers to support service members deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan and strategic neighboring countries like Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

At one point, there were three large USO centers in Iraq and eight centers in Afghanistan. The first USO facility in Afghanistan was the Pat Tillman Memorial USO Center at Bagram Air Base, built thanks to a generous donation from – and partnership with – the NFL. The center was named after the former Arizona Cardinals safety Pat Tillman, who gave up his NFL career to serve as an Army Ranger and died in the line of duty. Fittingly, it was this first Afghanistan center that was also the last of the USO centers to close in the country, just a few months ago in 2021.

Photo credit USO Photo

Service members enter the Pat Tillman Memorial USO Center, which was located on Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, and the first USO center in the country, named after former Arizona Cardinals safety Pat Tillman, who gave up his NFL career to serve as an Army Ranger and died in the line of duty.

In the years after 9/11, USO Southwest Asia centers served as a place to relax for weary service members on the front lines. After a long and stressful day in the field, these centers were often one of the few places on base where service members could relax, sit in a comfortable chair and take a moment to themselves. They were – and continue to be – places where service members can also bond with one another, enjoying game nights, homecooked meals and time away from the barracks.

Perhaps most importantly, these centers have served as a way for service members to connect to their loved ones back home, in both the small moments – such as telling your spouse about your day – to the big ones – such as witnessing the birth of their child via video from thousands of miles away. From the early days of international phone cards immediately after the 9/11 attacks, to today’s Wi-Fi-outfitted USO centers with computers and phone rooms with free, international satellite phone calls, the USO has always strived to ensure our troops can reach back and connect with what gives meaning to their service. In times of conflict, this connection to home becomes all the more important.

Photo credit USO Photo

Service members enthusiastically play a game of bingo at the USO center in Erbil, Iraq.

Since 2002, the USO has had more than 168 million interactions with service members and their families – a reminder that their fellow Americans are supporting them wherever their service journey takes them.

Supporting Returning Wounded Services Members and Their Families

As the USO expanded its support in Southwest Asia following 9/11, the organization simultaneously grew its presence stateside. In 2001, the USO had just 60 centers; today, the organization has nearly 300 locations in 22 countries, 36 U.S. states and one U.S. territory, providing programs and services across seven continents.

Notably, following the onset of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the USO saw the need to expand its support of wounded, ill and injured service members returning home to their families.

This brought forth the USO Warrior and Family Centers.

Photo credit USO Photo

USO Warrior and Family Centers provide service members recovering at nearby medical facilities with classes in art, cooking, yoga and music to assist them in coping with their recovery process.

The USO Warrior and Family Centers at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, and Bethesda, Maryland – as well as the USO Warrior Center at Landstuhl, Germany, and the USO Warrior and Family Support Center in San Antonio, Texas – were all built to support wounded service members and their family members. In a time of great stress and upheaval, these USO centers were built specifically to provide members of the military community with a place of respite, where they could recover and spend time with one another in a non-hospital environment.

The USO’s pivot to this specialized support was crucial during the times of conflict that followed 9/11.

From 2001-2018, more than 53,700 U.S. service members were officially listed as wounded in the major war zones of Southwest Asia. Of these injuries, many of them have been quite serious. Between 2001 and 2018, a total of 1,705 service members sustained lower and upper limb amputations during deployment. According to the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center, there have been more than 380,000 traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) among service members since 2000.

In the months of recovery and rehabilitation that are often required of both physical and invisible wounds of war, recovering service members and military families can find respite at USO Warrior Centers.

Photo credit USO Photo

Service members complete a puzzle at the USO Warrior Center.

These USO locations are ADA-compliant, ensuring that all – regardless of their recovery journey – can access the building. This mindful design means that everything – from the programs and activities provided, to the structure of the building itself – is offered with the intention of catering to wounded service members and their caretakers, making these USO centers truly unique.

Supporting Families of the Fallen in Their Darkest Hour

One of the sobering realities of armed conflict is that not everyone returns home.

In the years following 9/11, thousands of military members who bravely stepped up to serve made the ultimate sacrifice, and in their family’s darkest hour, they could lean on the USO.

Since 1991, USO Delaware has been present at every single dignified transfer – that is, the transfer of a fallen service member – at Dover Air Force Base. No matter the time of day or weather, USO staff and volunteers are prepared to stand beside the grieving members of military families whose father, mother, son or daughter made the ultimate sacrifice.

Photo credit DVIDS/Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations

A U.S. Air Force carry team transfers the remains of Staff Sgt. Austin Bieren, of Umatilla, Ore., on April 1, 2017, at Dover Air Force Base, Del.

After 9/11, as the USO’s presence across the U.S. expanded, there was an even greater ability to support the Families of the Fallen as they traveled across the country – sometimes with only 24 hours-notice – to witness their loved one’s dignified transfer at Dover, Delaware. As soon as a dignified transfer is set into motion, a military liaison contacts USO Delaware, informing the team of the family’s travel plans to Dover. USO Delaware then contacts any USO airport centers that are in the family’s flight plan, alerting them of their arrival and creating a network of USO support for them along their journey.

From the minute the Family of the Fallen arrives at their first airport, USO centers across the country are ready and waiting. Typically, USO teams at each of these locations set aside a designated quiet space for these family members to rest in private at the center. They also make sure the family’s needs are met, whether that’s a hot meal, a book or movie to entertain children or even a spot to take a brief nap.

Photo credit U.S. Air Force/Mauricio Campino

Josie Donithan, USO Delaware volunteer, serves food to Honor Guard team members and mortuary staff prior to a dignified transfer on Jan. 24, 2019, at Dover Air Force Base, Del.

When a Family of the Fallen finally arrives at Dover, and eventually makes their way back home, the USO will be by their side the whole way. These seemingly small moments can make all the difference to the families of the thousands of service members who have been killed in the line of duty since 9/11.

The Legacy of USO Entertainment Following 9/11

When most people think of the USO, they think of the organization’s long history of providing world-class entertainment to deployed service members all around the world.

In the years following 9/11, the USO lived up to this storied history, and brought more than 1,270 entertainment tours around the world, entertaining six million members of the military community during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This era of USO entertainment began in November 2001, when USO tour veteran Wayne Newton and other entertainers visited European bases and the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise to entertain service members. Then, in December 2001, not long after the U.S. military’s entry into Afghanistan, Newton – along with Drew Carey and others – traveled to Afghanistan with the USO to perform for the troops.

Photo credit USO Photo

Comedian Robin Williams, pictured here in 2010, brings laughter to nearly 2,000 troops stationed in Bagram, Afghanistan, over the holiday season.

In the twenty years since 9/11, the USO has brought dozens of movie stars, comedians, musicians, athletes and more to Afghanistan alone on over 100 USO tours, with 600,000-plus service members enjoying the various entertainers who came through. Entertainers included Robin Williams, Scarlett Johansson, Chris Evans, Jimmy Stewart, NFL stars, Brantley Gilbert and today’s USO Global Ambassadors Kellie Pickler and Wilmer Valderrama, among many others.

Photo credit USO Photo

Kellie Pickler, Wilmer Valderrama and other celebrities traveled the world in 2018 for the Chairman’s Holiday USO Tour, entertaining troops on the front lines.

Over the course of the past two decades, the names and faces of the USO entertainers who traveled to the region have varied, but their dedication to supporting our nation’s military remained the same.

Reshaping USO Programs to Support Deployed Troops After 9/11

Following the attacks of 9/11, the USO enhanced its programmatic offerings to keep service members connected to family, home and country, no matter where their service took them.

Two of the USO’s most popular programs during the post-9/11 era – the USO Care Package Program and USO2GO – offered service members tangible pieces of home to remind them of what they care about the most.

Photo credit USO Photo

Marines deployed to Djibouti, Africa, in 2017 show off their USO Care Packages.

USO Care Packages offer service members much-appreciated extra toiletries or snacks from home that can be hard to come by when in transit or deployed to remote locations. USO2GO kits provide service members with everything they need to create their own home-like setting – like snacks, electronics, gaming, bean bag chairs and sports equipment – and can be sent to remote locations where a brick-and-mortar USO center cannot be built.

From 2003-2020, thanks to the support of generous donors, more than 3 million USO Care Packages were delivered to service members, while another 2,500 USO2GO units were used by nearly 760,000 service members, with 300,000 of them in Afghanistan alone.

Aside from these two offerings, perhaps one of the most popular programs launched by the USO after 9/11 has been the Bob Hope Legacy Reading Program.

Photo credit USO Photo

Army Capt. Justin Meredith used the Bob Hope Legacy Reading Program to read to his son and family while deployed in the Middle East.

Through this program, service members can record themselves reading a book to their child; the recording and the book are then sent home to that service member’s family, so that, in a way, they can be present for story time back home. Many USO locations – including several in Southwest Asia– have their own Bob Hope Legacy Reading Program room outfitted with shelves of books, decorations and props to help readers better tell their stories. Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, the USO managed to creatively work around base restrictions by providing the program out of the back of a pickup truck in Iraq.

With programs like these, the USO helps ease the pang of separation from loved ones and everything familiar.

Over the past twenty years since 9/11, service members deployed to the Southwest Asia have been able to rely on the USO to keep them connected to home.

Despite the immense loss of that day twenty years ago, 9/11 continues to serve as a unifying time in our nation’s history and a reminder of the freedom we can so often and easily take for granted. Today, and every day, we remember the lives lost on 9/11 and we honor the many sacrifices made in the years since.

As the nation reflects on our country’s ability to unite and the strength of our fellow Americans, join the conversation or share your story by visiting USO.org/MoreThanThanks.

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As the COVID-19 outbreak is evolving, the USO has pivoted resources across the entire global enterprise in an approach that helps care for military members and their families.

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