By Erik Oberg
The mission of the USO is to strengthen America’s military service members by keeping them connected to family, home and country. At the USO center at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, that mission statement is painted on the center’s wall as a constant reminder of the organization’s mission. Like all USO centers around the world, the USO at Wright-Patterson also plays a vital, parallel role: it keeps its local community connected to America’s military service members.
Ask Jim Branham, former Commander and force-for-good at George Rogers Clark Memorial Post 8437 of the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) in nearby Enon, Ohio, and he’ll tell you how fun it is to support local service members through the USO. He and his fellow VFW officers have made a routine of kicking off the holiday season by providing family-size Thanksgiving dinners to the USO at Wright-Patterson for five years running.
In turn, the staff at the USO identifies units with service members who can use these meals and orchestrate a joyful, pre-Thanksgiving meal transfer right in the center parking lot. In doing so, they create a connection between the local community and members of the military stationed in Ohio.
“I am welcome here and I know it,” Jim Branham says of the USO. “I love my service members.”
Over five years, Post 8437 has made raising money for their Thanksgiving meal delivery a seasonal tradition, as they canvas local supporters for items the post can raffle to its members.
“Everyone knows that when they’re buying raffle tickets, the money is going toward Thanksgiving meals for service members,” says Branham.
Members of Post 8437, including Branham’s wife Amy, deliver the meals in large, brown moving boxes the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. Each box includes an uncooked turkey, stuffing mix, potatoes, canned corn and green beans, pies and even fruit, donuts, milk and orange juice for families to enjoy the morning after Thanksgiving. This year, the Post assembled and delivered 25 such boxes.
Over the years, Post 8437 has raffled off some very unusual items in support of their cause. Gift cards are popular, but the offering has included everything from gas cans, to a single pool stick, to a solar-powered alarm clock. Branham asks, “Who would need that?”
Branham has a history with the USO dating back nearly forty years. As a retired sergeant first class in the Army infantry, his earliest USO memory dates back to his very first leave in 1982, as he was trying to return home to Ohio from Fort Lewis, Washington, for the first time in a year. Heavy fog grounded him in the Seattle-Tacoma airport for three days and he was lucky enough to find the USO airport center there.
“The USO provides a sense of security,” he said. “I felt so privileged that I didn’t have to pay someone because I was stranded.”
Each year since 2019, the USO at Wright-Patterson has connected the Branhams and Post 8437 with an unlikely set of beneficiaries for their lovingly-assembled Thanksgiving meals: Navy sailors assigned to recruiting duty in the Ohio River Valley, far away from any ocean.
Chief Sarah Riha of the Navy Recruiting District-Ohio speaks movingly about the impact these meals have on her sailors.
“This year, with COVID, and with lots of spouses impacted in their employment, you can’t put a dollar value on the time, care and thoughtfulness behind this delivery, letting our families know that people are thinking about them,” said Riha.
Chief Sergio Sernas, also of the Navy Recruiting District-Ohio, echoed Chief Riha’s comments.
“A lot of our junior sailors have children and families – this is just going to be a blessing. We very much appreciate the USO and the VFW, helping our sailors out.”
With their 2021 mission complete, Post 8437 has committed to providing Thanksgiving dinners to Ohio-based service members through the USO at Wright-Patterson for the foreseeable future. In the meantime, Post members will look for other ways they can support the troops. As she prepared to depart the center the other week, Amy Branham asked, “We had a great time with this! Is there anything we can share for Christmas?”
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