By Barry Morris
More than 45,000 Soldiers from 20 installations across the U.S. took part in this year’s Holiday Block Leave period, traveling by planes, trains, and automobiles – and through some of the busiest airports in the U.S. –to be with their families during the holidays.
In the Southeast U.S. alone, more than 9,000 soldiers departed basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C. as part of Victory Block Leave – the time-honored holiday tradition that authorizes soldiers in basic training during the month of December to travel home to reconnect with loved ones over the holidays.
For more than a decade, USO staff and volunteers have worked with Fort Jackson leadership to provide support to all soldiers and trainees traveling home for the holidays.
“It’s the little things that matter the most to these young soldiers as they travel home for the holidays, whether it’s a friendly smile and directions to the Columbia Metropolitan Airport USO center, a cup of coffee to a weary traveler, a bottle of water or a hot sandwich before their flight, the USO is always there to brighten the holidays for these young soldiers and their families,” said USO South Carolina Executive Director Joanie Thresher.
A Soldier’s First Stop on the Trip Home – the USO
Soldiers began their journey on Dec. 17 in a staggered manner departing from Fort Jackson, the largest and most active Army Initial Entry Training Center in the U.S., located just outside of Columbia, S.C. The soldiers will make the reverse commute and return to training starting the second week of January.
To support these young service members traveling home, USO staff and volunteers spend up to 15 hours a day the entire week these young soldiers are transitioning home, ensuring they experience a safe and pleasant voyage.
“The USO is an integral part of making the experience a pleasant one for our soldiers,” said Brig. Gen. Patrick R. Michaelis, commanding general, U.S. Army Training Center, Fort Jackson. “There hasn’t been a soldier that’s come through Fort Jackson, that hasn’t commented on the phenomenal support they receive from volunteers and staff of the USO.”
Soldiers from Fort Jackson typically travel through Columbia Metropolitan Airport or are bussed to Charlotte Douglas International Airport. At both locations, while soldiers wait for their flights, USO airport center staff and volunteers hand out water, snacks, USO travel packs and assist soldiers in finding their departure gate. These items, provided thanks to USO supporter Kroger, along with support and a warm welcome from USO volunteers, ensured traveling service members had all the comfort items they needed until they finally made it home to spend time with their families.
In addition to the soldiers traveling home from Fort Jackson, over 8,500 soldiers traveled from Fort Benning, Ga., with another 3,000 from Fort Gordon, all making their way home for the holidays.
Roughly 3,000 soldiers from Fort Benning and Fort Gordon and made their connecting flights through Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, where they were greeted by USO Georgia staff and volunteers, receiving a continuum of USO support throughout their journey home.
“Although the Army has trained us to be tough, it’s still very nice to hear a friendly voice, and receive a warm smile from the USO, especially as I head back home to see my family for the first time in over eight weeks,” Pfc. Eyad Alghool said.
In Northwest Florida, Traveling Service Members Can Lean on the USO, Too
For service members traveling through the Pensacola International Airport over the holidays, the USO – which will remain open for 24-hours now through Dec. 23 – is there to support them, too.
USO Northwest Florida staff and volunteers are providing meals, snacks, a place to sleep, toiletry products, therapy dog visits, and much more.
All said and done, USO airport centers throughout the Southeast U.S. will serve more than 20,000 service members headed home for the first time in months. These service members are grateful for the opportunity to relax and unwind before flying home just in time for the holidays.
“The USO has definitely provided us a little taste of home,” Pfc Hunter Stimpson said. “It’s such a nice relief to see the USO, after being away from family for the past eight weeks.”
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