By Barry Morris
For Mary Lou Austin, the word “service” is not just a concept – it’s a lifestyle. After all, the USO Georgia executive director has been working at the USO in service to our nation’s military for 53 years now, and she shows no signs of slowing down.
The USO recently celebrated Austin’s 53 years of dedicated service and sacrifice on Jan 6, 2022. For over the past five decades, Austin has been keeping America’s service members and their families connected to the people and places they love, throughout their time in uniform.
“The dedication of USO’s staff and volunteers brings the USO mission to life and without these contributions, our amazing organization would not be what it is today,” USO CEO and President J.D. Crouch II wrote in a personal memo to Austin. “Thank you for all you have done for some very special people, our service members and their families.”
Born and raised in Scranton, Pennsylvania, Austin attended college at Misericordia University, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in social studies and a minor in education. Throughout her time in college, she developed a fascination with our nation’s political process and the excitement of Washington, D.C., and so she interned in our nation’s capital during her summer breaks, working for key legislators in the U.S. House of Representatives. But soon, Austin discovered her true passion in life: supporting the nation’s military.
A Life Spent in Service to Our Service Members
Austin’s love for the military community began in 1968 when she first learned of the USO while working as an intern on Capitol Hill.
It was during this time that Austin read an ad in the newspaper, soliciting volunteers to join the USO as full-time employees to support service members at home and abroad.
“I saw the ad in the paper, and thought ‘this looks really exciting,’ and I wanted to learn more about how I could help service members who were deployed and defending our nation,” said Austin.
After conducting an interview and screening process, Austin received an invite to join the USO – and the rest is history.
At just 22 years old, Austin’s first assignment was at the USO center at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi, where she provided morale, welfare, entertainment and other recreational activities for the service members at the air base.
When Austin began her work at Keesler Air Force Base, she had never traveled outside of the U.S. In the years since joining the USO, Austin has now served on numerous assignments across the country and overseas.
From those first years in Mississippi, to assisting service members and military families stationed in Germany, South Korea and Okinawa, Japan, Austin has traveled the globe in support of the USO’s mission.
On numerous occasions she has traveled and worked on USO entertainment tours, where she did everything from serving as a cue card holder for Bob Hope during one of his shows aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima in early 1979, to being flown out to aircraft carriers at sea. She has experienced the exhilaration of being inside an aircraft as it catapulted off the flight deck of the USS John F. Kennedy and has gotten to escort now-USO Global Ambassador Kelly Pickler and Joan Jett during their USO entertainment tour to Kuwait and Iraq in 2011.
During her time with the USO, Austin has always been willing to travel the globe to be there for our service members.
“Mary Lou is selfless in all that she does,” said USO South Carolina Executive Director Joanie Thresher. “Besides Mary Lou’s family, service members and their families have been her priority for the past 53 years. No matter the time of day or night, to include weekends and holidays, Mary Lou is always by their side.”
One of Austin’s fondest memories is when she helped a young soldier find the resources he needed to bring his young wife and newborn son home from overseas.
“He really needed our help, as no other organization was able to provide the directions and know-how. He needed to get a visa and bring his wife and child living in Asia to America to be with him,” Austin said. “It was heartwarming to me when, months later, he brought his wife and son to visit me to show their gratitude.”
Austin is not only a member of the USO staff, but is also a former military spouse herself and has served as an active member on the Defense Advisory Committee for the Department of Defense, Women in the Services (DACOWITS) from 1994-1996. She was also co-chair of the Quality-of-Life sub-committee, through which she traveled to Asia to address matters affecting the quality of life of military families living overseas.
Today, Austin serves as the executive director of USO Georgia, overseeing operations at USO center locations throughout the state at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, Fort Benning, Warner Robins Air Force Base and Savannah-Hilton Head International Airport. Throughout these locations, the USO serves as a beacon of support for hundreds of thousands of soldiers, airmen, sailors, Marines and their families who are making their way to training or who simply call Georgia home.
During her time as executive director, Austin has developed long-lasting friendships with service members of all ranks, from private to general, as well as some of the U.S. military’s distinguished leaders, including Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey and Gen. Colin Powell.
“I have known Mary Lou for over 20 years, and I consider her both a friend and a mentor,” said retired Army Sgt. Maj. Scarlett Williams, who now serves as the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport USO center operations and programs coordinator.
“She is a great leader and knows how to be bold and assertive when she needs to be, but she always puts our service members and their families first, showing them empathy and kindness in all that she does for them.”
From her time overseas and support of service members during Desert Storm, Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, to the present day, Austin has welcomed and said goodbye to over 2.3 million service members on their way to and from combat as they traveled through Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
“Words cannot truly describe the level of compassion and commitment she has displayed in keeping our service members and their families connected to the people and places they love over the past 53 years,” said USO Southeast Regional President Jim Whaley.
“Anyone who meets Mary Lou is left truly inspired by her level of commitment in providing comfort and a warm friendly smile to countless service members throughout her distinguished service with the USO.”
Throughout her 53 years of dedicated service, Austin has impacted the lives of millions of service members and their families through her enduring commitment to the USO’s mission of strengthening America’s service members by keeping them connected to family, home and country, throughout their service to the nation.
“There is nothing like the feeling you get when serving the troops. When you see the impact you have on them, brightening a service members day, to see their spirits lifted, it’s amazing,” said Austin. “It’s the little touches of home … that lets our service members know that we are grateful for their service.”
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