By Danielle DeSimone
Lonnie Jones knows what it means to be a young recruit on your way to training, unsure of what comes next. After all, that was him almost 55 years ago, when he was drafted for the Vietnam War and enlisted in the U.S. Army.
That’s why, in his role today as a veteran and USO volunteer, Jones appreciates being able to reassure military recruits heading to and from MEPS – that is, Military Entrance Processing Stations – where recruits first enter the military.
“As we see those young guys come through the USO center and the airport, then as they’re flying out, we do have the ability to put some calm feeling to [their experience],” he said.
It is just one gesture of service in a long list of many for Jones, this year’s USO 2021 Volunteer of the Year, who has served both on the front lines and at USO centers – but always in service to this nation and its military.
How Jones Relied on the USO to Stay Connected to Home in Vietnam
Originally from Kentucky, former U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Lonnie Jones graduated high school in 1965, right in the midst of the Vietnam War.
“Most of my graduating class, their senior trip was to Southeast Asia,” Jones quipped in reference to the war draft.
Jones went onto a university for a few years, but after reducing his class hours, he himself was soon served his draft notice. He reported to Fort Benning, Georgia, for training shortly thereafter, followed by NCO school and then further training at Fort Polk, Louisiana.
Even before he deployed to Vietnam, Jones was faced with the challenges of military life – such as being separated from his family and loved ones. One night during training, as he prepared to soon be deployed to Vietnam, Jones decided to call his girlfriend at the time.
“I was standing in a downpour rain in Georgia one night and waiting on my turn to get to the phone, which were all outdoors,” Jones said, explaining that recruits were only allowed to use the phones in the short time between training ending and lights out.
“Rena and I were talking and I said, ‘Honey, do you want a husband of Vietnam or a fiancé?’ And she said, ‘A husband.’ Okay [I said], ‘then you know what we’ve got to do.’ So, we married between training sessions.”
Jones and his wife Rena were married in 1967. In 1968, Jones deployed to Vietnam.
Assigned to the 9th Infantry Division, a now-inactive Army infantry division, Jones served in an air reconnaissance unit just south of Saigon, Vietnam. It was a stressful and challenging experience, but he did find comfort in one thing: the USO.
For Jones, the USO was a safe haven. Although he enjoyed the USO Care Packages and the occasional USO entertainment tour that traveled through the region, it was the centers themselves that really made a difference.
“The real bright spots in my time serving in Vietnam were the visits to the USO in Saigon,” Jones said. “You’d go into the USO, and they treated you so well. The cheeseburger, fries, fountain Coke and soft serve ice cream – you didn’t find that in other places in Vietnam.”
When in another country, serving on the front lines while far from everything familiar, something as simple as a taste of home could help bolster the spirits of troops. The USO was also one of the only places where service members in Vietnam could call friends and family back home. According to Jones, he spoke to his wife and family almost exclusively through the phone booths at the USO Saigon center, overcoming the dangers of his duties and an 11-hour time difference to keep in touch with them.
“It was truly live communication, and it did bring you peace and clear your mind,” he said. “We had no cell phones or satellite phones to keep in touch with family at home. These USO calls were the only times I got to talk live to my family during the entire tour.”
Jones served in Vietnam from spring 1968 to spring of 1969 before returning home with two Purple Heart Medals, three Bronze Stars and an Air Combat Ribbon. For the next 45 years, he worked in the commercial building field, moving to multiple cities across the United States throughout his career before finally settling his family back home in the Midwest and retiring in 2013.
Giving Back to His Military Roots Through the USO
“When I retired, I started looking for a way to give back to volunteer, because I just wasn’t going to sit and get old,” Jones said. That’s when he stumbled upon a USO tent at a patriotic concert.
“I told Rena, I said, ‘I’m going to go up and see what the USO is doing here. I haven’t had contact with the USO in many years.’”
After briefly chatting with the USO employee at the concert and being encouraged to volunteer with the organization, Jones went online the next day and signed up right away. Within a few hours, his local USO center reached back out to him and soon enough, Jones was on his way to becoming a USO volunteer.
As a USO Volunteer, Jones helps run the USO Indianapolis International Airport Center, as well as provides technical support to over 150 of his fellow USO volunteers in everything from the center’s Wi-Fi and electronic devices to gaming systems and computers. Jones also helped build and implement the USO’s online Volunteer Management System (VMS), in addition to helping with the USO center’s facility upgrades.
However, Jones’ favorite part of volunteering is getting to connect with USO center guests – that is, active duty, National Guard and Reserve service members and their families who utilize the center as they travel.
“I truly enjoy getting to meet the guests and talk to them,” he said. To Jones, the most rewarding moment is “to have a guest just turn, stop and turn around to say, ‘Thank you guys for being here.’”
Jones is also especially passionate about his role in supporting Honor Flights, in which veterans have the chance to travel to Washington, D.C., to visit the memorials of the respective war they fought in. Jones routinely leaves his house at 2 a.m. to serve these veterans breakfast at the airport, courtesy of the USO.
“It’s an honor to get to see those guys,” he said.
Because of Jones’ passion for volunteering with the USO and the countless hours he has dedicated to his local center, he has been named this year’s USO 2021 Continental U.S. (CONUS) Volunteer of the Year, and received the award this week with his wife, children and grandchildren in attendance.
Years after his time in the military, Jones is still finding ways to give back and serve this nation’s military – only this time, he’s doing it in a USO Volunteer T-shirt, rather than a uniform. However, regardless of the decade or conflict, Jones recognizes the importance of the USO to supporting the military community – especially those service members who are deployed to the front lines.
“When things really get tough and you need some normal and you need some way to get out of it for a little while, find the USO,” Jones said, offering words of advice to current service members. “You’re going to find an atmosphere that gives you the ability to detach yourself from it for a little while. That will give you the ability then, of course, to reassess it – and get back in the game.”
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