By Rose Geer-Robbins
As the old adage says, “it takes a village” – and there are no truer words to describe the collaboration required to support and express America’s gratitude to service members and their families.
In Alaska, which boasts 27 military locations across 663,000 square miles (often at remote outposts that operate in extreme weather) meeting the needs of service members and their families is a full-time job for the dedicated employees of the USO Alaska team.
The small – but mighty – team of nine USO employees supports over 23,000 service members and their families, traveling far and wide to accomplish this mission. Whether staff members are catching a C-17 to fly out to Bethel, Alaska, or taking a two-day journey by land and sea to Cordova, Alaska, the team is ready to support service members and military families, no matter where their journey takes them in the state.
Each USO Alaska staff member has a unique connection to what motivates them to support the USO and serve those who serve in Alaska. We sat down with a handful of these dedicated USO Alaska staffers and heard more about their time with the USO:
What is Your First Memory of the USO Before You Were Employed and/or Volunteered for the Organization?
Cheryl Jones (Center Operations and Programs Manager, Alaska South): My ex-husband was Army, and I remember the USO is a place where I could go on each installation to find out more info about the area and get a sense of belonging while I was settling in.
Jeanie Butler (Center Operations Supervisor, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson): I can’t think of a first memory; however, I have heard of the USO since childhood. Seeing pictures of the USO [dancers], Bob Hope, all the entertainers – the USO and our military always went hand-in-hand. Where they went, USO wasn’t far behind. So that always stuck close to me.
Jennifer Nash (Center Operations Supervisor, Fort Wainwright): My first memory of the USO was when I was a very young new wife and mom. My husband was in Iraq on deployment, and I took a Space-A trip alone from Hawaii to California and back. My son was not even a year old, and I had never navigated this process before. I honestly do not know what I would have done without the USO in Hawaii at Hickham Air Force Base and Travis Air Force Base. We slept there, we ate there, we showered [there] – and even made new friends. [The USO] made us feel welcomed. They were there when flights fell through, when calls dropped from my soldier, when my parents needed to check into hotels to wait on us in another state. The staff and volunteers were always there to help guide me in the right direction.
Rita Conley (Expeditionary Programs Manager, Alaska South): My first real interaction with the USO would have been in Okinawa, Japan. The USO was at the main gate. A great spot to buy local items along with great food.
What is Your Favorite Memory While Serving With the USO?
Jones: So far, it has been seeing the joy we brought to the faces of the single service members who live on base when we delivered holiday bags to them during the pandemic [in 2020]. Most of them were stuck on the base, not able to travel home for the holidays, and there were many lonely people during that time.
Butler: My favorite memory so far would have to be when we all came together for our 2020 holiday bag delivery. Having all of our goodies in one huge location, to putting all the bags together and delivering over 2,800 bags on JBER. Thinking back on it, I am just in awe!
Nash: There are so many memories to choose from. My favorite memory so far happens daily … Our brand new, first-assignment soldiers joining in with the families at the USO center. Countless times, I have watched these soldiers, who are really missing home, find so much joy in playing ping pong with an older soldier, flying a kite for the first time with a toddler, having a LEGO build-off with a teen who needed that connection, stuffing their face full of cupcakes with that stressed-out military spouse. These little memories are the ones that make them feel at home and carefree.
Conley: I have only been with the USO for a short time, but it all has been great. Traveling and letting people know that the USO is there for them, even in remote Alaskan areas, and seeing their faces light up when we present a USO2GO box to them [are some of my favorite memories so far].
Why the USO?
Jones: I love having a job that literally brings joy and boosts morale to those far from home. It is incredibly rewarding!
Butler: I love the USO and as a military spouse myself, I not only get to provide services and support to our service members and their families, but I also get to participate. I am proud to wear USO gear every opportunity I have. The USO’s mission is my mission. As long as the USO will have me, I’m staying here.
Nash: The USO is my dream. To help soldiers and their families daily as a career seems too good to be true.
I remember being that brand new couple in the Army, the new parents navigating military life, the spouse figuring out how I was ever going to have my own career, the Family Readiness Group (FRG) Leader, the sister of a deployed brother, the new kid on a post, the Senior Spouse, the one holding the hand of a spouse who lost her soldier, the new kid in a new country, the deployments, the TDYs, the constant change that seems never to slow down and the rest of the list, which could be a mile long.
If I could help one of those soldiers or families through it all, my heart swells because it is what gets us all through this incredibly unique military life we lead.
Conley: Any organization that helps the military is a plus in my book. The USO allows me to have a family life and a work-life balance, balancing them both out.
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