By Danielle DeSimone
If you could give a service member a literal piece of home while they were deployed to the front lines, what would it be?
Each year, thousands of service members are stationed overseas and deployed downrange during the holidays, sacrificing time with their family and friends during a season otherwise filled with loved ones – all to protect our freedoms.
As a gesture of thanks for all that they do, the USO hosts seasonal USO Holidays programming, which includes bringing a tangible reminder of home to our service members in the form of USO Holidays Care Packs – just when they need it most. Seemingly small in the face of the insurmountable challenges that go hand-and-hand with military life, USO Holidays Care Packs can bridge the distance between home and the front lines, connecting our service members to the memory of home and the festive spirit of the season.
“It’s a small reminder that no matter where you are in your military journey, or where you are stationed, the USO will always bring a little home to you,” said a service member stationed in Guam in 2020.
But delivering these tokens of holiday joy to service members around the world is not easy. From planning and ordering, to packing, shipping and physically handing them out all across the globe – a lot goes into delivering a USO Holidays Care Pack.
Here is the journey of a USO Holidays Care Pack, and how it makes it from home to the hands of a service member deployed overseas.
The journey of a USO Holidays Care Pack begins long before it’s assembled with care – it begins in identifying a service member’s need for a connection to home and finding meaningful ways to meet this need.
Deploying overseas and to the front lines can be incredibly lonely, as service members are isolated from family, friends and everything familiar. In fact, according to the Blue Star Families 2020 Military Family Lifestyle Survey, time spent apart from family and the effect of deployment on their families were two of the top concerns among surveyed service members.
This separation can be even more difficult during the holidays, when loved ones and time-honored traditions feel especially far from reach. That’s why connecting our military members to home – even through something as simple as a care pack – is so important. It might seem small, but this reminder of home can make all the difference in boosting a service member’s morale and in brightening their time on the front lines.
To address the needs of our military, the USO surveys service members and USO staff working in the field to see what kinds of items the military misses most and wants to receive in their care packs, ensuring that the packs are truly created with service members in mind. The goal of all USO Care Packages – including USO Holidays Care Packs – is always to cater to the needs of our military and connect them back to what gives meaning to their service. So, what do troops really want in care packages?
The contents of USO Holidays Care Packs varies year by year, but they usually are made up of a combination of snacks and fun items for service members to use while overseas. This often includes seasonal snacks to get service members in the holiday spirit, such as hot chocolate, candy canes, cake mixes that can be “baked” in a mug and a microwave and more. Similarly, the other care pack items have included things to keep service members entertained and warm during the holiday season, such as playing cards, a beanie hat courtesy of USO supporter Jeep, postcards to write home with, festive, USO Holidays socks and, in some packs, a thank-you note from the USO’s supporter, the NFL.
A few of the items within these care packs are in-kind donations from USO supporters. In 2021, USO Holidays programming, which includes these festive care packs, was generously supported by Jeep, FedEx and the NFL.
Once all the necessary items are identified and ordered – a process that occurs months before the holiday season – USO staff and volunteers then come together to tackle the next crucial step in delivering a piece of the holidays to service members around the world: assembling tens of thousands of the USO Holidays Care Packs.
Putting together a USO Holidays Care Pack is not just a matter of throwing a few holiday knickknacks into a bag and sending it to the post office – it is a process that has become a way for military supporters to give back to service members through an in-person, hands-on experience.
While some USO Care Packs are assembled by staff, many more are put together by volunteers and USO supporters. This often takes place at stuffing events, in which attendees pass each brightly colored USO Holidays Care Pack bag down the assembly line from volunteer to volunteer until it is filled with snacks and treats.
These kinds of stuffing events are extremely helpful and assist the USO in lowering the labor costs needed to deliver holiday cheer to service members worldwide. They also serve as a chance for volunteers to personally connect with the USO’s mission of supporting the military. As volunteers place items in each bag, they know that the items they are holding will soon be held in the hands of a service member overseas. Some stuffing events include notes for volunteers to write messages on and place in the packs, in which they thank service members for the sacrifices they make or write words of encouragement.
Many of these stuffing events are held by USO supporters such as FedEx, Jeep, Lowe’s and the NFL, who encourage their own employees and supporters to give back to the military through the USO.
For example, in September 2021, the NFL hosted a USO Care Package Stuffing Event at the NFL Kickoff Experience in Tampa, Florida, in which fans stuffed more than 10,000 USO snack packs, which are a part of the USO Holidays Care Packs.
Later, in October 2021, 150 volunteers from Jeep took the time to stuff 6,000 USO Holidays Care Packs at a stuffing event in Detroit.
“Growing up, my dad was deployed multiple times. He was boots on the grounds for Kosovo, so he missed the holidays,” said Adam Taylor, a volunteer at the Jeep USO Care Pack Stuffing Event. “[These USO Holidays Care Packages are] one connection that they have away from home to remind them that people care.”
Putting together a USO Holidays Care Pack allows military supporters – whether they be individual volunteers or entire organizations – to give back to the military community in a real and tangible way that physically connects them to service members deployed overseas. But after they are assembled comes the next challenge: how to get these holiday packs from warehouses in the United States to the hands of service members stationed all around the world.
Shipping is a large part of what allows the USO to deliver – quite literally – its mission to military communities across the globe.
Overall, the USO sends out hundreds of thousands of shipments each year, including everything from USO Holidays Care Packs, to supplies for USO programs, to pallets of furniture for overseas USO centers. These shipments go everywhere from Alaska and Hawaii, to Germany, Kuwait and Japan – and more. It is no easy logistical feat and requires invoices, approvals from foreign governments, U.S. military cooperation and so much more.
That is why the USO is grateful for FedEx, which provides financial and logistical shipping support to the nonprofit. This in turn allows the USO to provide expanded expeditionary support to service members in the field.
After all, as the USO often says, “we go where they go” – and the military goes to some far-off corners of the world. FedEx has major shipping hubs on almost every corner of the map, which helps the USO reach almost all of the locations in which the U.S. military is currently serving. In 2020 alone, despite all the challenges and shipping delays of the global COVID-19 pandemic, the USO still managed to deliver 40,000 USO Holidays Care Packs to service members stationed all around the globe.
“Quite honestly, we couldn’t do what we do without supporters like FedEx,” said Jonathan Matthews, a logistics director at the USO.
“Not only [do] they provide us with the means to deliver that expeditionary goodness, but they help us do it at a cost-effective level, which helps us spend the funds that we do have [in other meaningful ways].”
USO Care Packages – both the standard toiletry or snack variety, as well as the seasonal USO Holidays Care Packs – are sent to USO centers within the United States and overseas, often via FedEx. Once these shipments are received, USO staff and volunteers then work closely with military leadership to coordinate and accomplish the final step of the delivery process: physically distributing the USO Holidays Care Packs to service members on the ground.
After months of preparation, coordination, assembly and shipments, the final hand-delivery of USO Holidays Care Packs to service members is an exciting, and often emotional, moment.
The delivery is what makes all the hard work of USO staff, volunteers and military supporters worth it. It’s the moment in which someone wearing that familiar red, white and blue USO logo – USO Holidays Care Pack in-hand – approaches an unsuspecting service member working at their duty station.
That service member might be a soldier, deployed to a distant location this holiday season, far from the twinkly lights, cookie-decorating, carols and traditions of their family. They could be a tired sailor, who has spent months at sea with limited internet or ability to speak with loved ones back home. They could even be an on-duty Marine standing watch, only a few hours into another long, overnight shift.
Then, suddenly, they hear it: “Happy holidays from the USO!” The service member turns and is met by a smiling face as they’re handed the bright red USO Holidays Care Pack. The service member can’t help but smile too.
As they dig through the USO Holidays Care Pack, they see the hot chocolate packet – it’s not quite the same as the hot cocoa their grandma makes on Christmas Eve, but the reminder of it warms them up just the same. For the briefest moment, miles away from everything familiar and in the face of unspeakable dangers, they’re connected to home and the memory of their loved ones again – and that can make all the difference.
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