By Kayla Clark
It’s almost midnight on a Tuesday and the USO Rota team is preparing to support an overnight ruck march; that is, a walk or run commonly done in the military while wearing a weighted pack. As the USO team slowly walks up, ruck march participants and others are all chanting the same thing: “KoKo! KoKo! KoKo!”
A few weeks later, the USO team is in the base commissary, buying American goodies to take out and provide a taste of home to the deployed service members at Morón Air Base, a remote installation about 80 miles away from Rota that does not have a base commissary or Exchange. Aisle after aisle in the commissary, community members’ faces light up when they see KoKo. She takes the time to connect with each person, ensuring they feel both valued and special. She’s the kind of person that, when someone talks to her, they feel like the only person in the room.
These are regular occurrences with the USO Rota team’s rockstar volunteer, Kozue “KoKo” Hunt. The military community in Rota recognizes her face as the face of the local USO – a face with so much love, humor and fun. KoKo is the person that cares about and checks on everyone else. She’s the person who volunteers herself for the tough shifts – the overnight shifts, the weekend shifts, the long drives up to Morón Air Base. KoKo will make anyone smile and laugh, no matter how tough their demeanor is or how difficult of a day they’ve had. And her work ethic is unmatched. She is the person who rolls her sleeves up and jumps in, carrying the USO’s mission close to her heart. She creatively thinks of new ideas for USO programs and ways to engage and serve others. After all, KoKo’s goal in life is to follow in the footsteps of her idol, Mother Theresa.
“Dedicating free love like her is the goal of my life,” she said.
And it shows.
KoKo grew up in Tokyo, Japan. She spent many years studying hard and taking exams to be selected to serve as an ER helicopter flight nurse – at the time, there were about 40 such nurses in the entire country. It was KoKo’s passion to save lives and to make a difference in this world, and so she did. Throughout her career, she flew to emergency scenes and performed life-saving rescues, fulfilling her lifelong dream. However, when KoKo turned thirty years old, she hit one of the biggest challenges of her life: she was diagnosed with cervical cancer.
Over the next year, she underwent chemotherapy and radiation. She lost all her hair. There were times when she didn’t think she was going to make it. But, with her positivity and love of life, she knew it wasn’t yet her time to go and she pulled through. Her experience reinforced her purpose in life – helping others. She vowed to make it her lifelong mission to not take things so seriously and to truly focus on what’s most important.
In 2009, life changed again. She met her soon-to-be husband, an American Navy sailor named Jerry who was stationed overseas in Japan, and the pair fell in love. KoKo and Jerry married in 2012 and although they had hoped to build a family, unfortunately it was not possible for them – so KoKo channeled her positive attitude and love for others into cultivating a family of her own. The couple fostered children and positively influenced many children’s lives along the way. Throughout it all, KoKo remained positive. She focused on the things she could control and the impact she could make on the lives of others.
As with all military spouses, new duty assignments arrived; KoKo and her husband were stationed back in the United States, and then later were given the opportunity to move back overseas to Rota, Spain. She had to adapt and start over again, seeking out a new way to continue fulfilling her passion of helping others. In came the USO.
Arriving in Spain in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, KoKo wanted to find a way to help her new community. She personally dedicated hours upon hours to sewing and donating over 2,000 masks for Naval Station Rota service members and volunteers, including USO staff and volunteers. Once that project was completed, KoKo looked for a new way to serve. Having been introduced to the USO at an event, she and her husband decided to stop by the local USO center to learn more about volunteering. What began as one simple shift – helping put together “Program in a Box” activities for expeditionary commands out on deployments – led to her dedicating over 420 hours of service within a seven-month time period.
KoKo has taken on the lead role of USO Rota’s expeditionary programs Volunteer. She focuses her efforts not only on serving the entire community, but especially in taking care of the deployed service members away from home. She has single-handedly brainstormed and executed programs from scratch and has volunteered herself for any need the USO team has. She takes it upon herself to welcome and train new incoming USO volunteers and shares her contagious love and passion with them.
Thus far, she’s served over 106 total shifts ranging from ship homecoming celebrations to storage cleanouts to overnight center shifts for outbound passengers. There really isn’t a job or task that KoKo won’t do, as long as it involves helping serve the military community.
But why does KoKo choose to continue to serve with the USO?
“Because everyone needs happiness and to smile,” she said. “It’s a great honor for my actions to have help someone. That is also the philosophy of the USO, and I love that philosophy.”
Not only is KoKo able to live out that philosophy on a daily basis as a USO volunteer and find innovative new ways to make people smile – whether by dressing up as a superhero or walking around Morón Air Base in a sloth costume – but she also was able to meet and cultivate incredible friendships along the way. As a military spouse, that connection with other spouses and friends is so important.
She shared that “above all, my encounters with my buddy Meg, another USO Rota volunteer, has enriched my life. Meeting new friends is a great treasure I’ve received throughout my volunteer work.”
Despite all of the tough challenges in KoKo’s life, she still has an unwavering mission to give happiness to others. She has an energy and an air about her that just makes people smile. That’s an incredible gift to have, and it’s one that the USO is very thankful to have on the team. While KoKo could share her gift anywhere, she has chosen to be a volunteer with the USO and support military personnel and their families. And that is one of the greatest gifts of all.
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