By Danielle DeSimone
USO Volunteers are the backbone of the USO – without them, our organization could not carry out its crucial mission of supporting America’s service members and military families worldwide. However, what many people may not realize is that our volunteers don’t just support the military community – sometimes, they are the military community.
Meet Spc. Luke Dawson, 2021’s USO Volunteer of the Year for the Outside of the Continental United States region, and a member of the U.S. Army National Guard.
How Volunteering Made All the Difference in a Soldier’s Deployment – and in the Deployments of His Fellow Service Members
Dawson, a native of West Des Moines, Iowa, approached his first-ever deployment with no expectations and no realization of how his experience would be changed by volunteering with the USO.
“It was kind of one of those things where what’s going to happen is going to happen and … there’s nothing that I can do to change it,” he said.
Except that Dawson did change it – and in doing so, made an incredible impact on his local military community in Erbil, Iraq.
Although this was Dawson’s first deployment, he had been serving in the National Guard since 2016, and his grandfather and uncle had both served in the Marine Corps. He had briefly been introduced to the USO in his military career but did not truly start utilizing the organization’s programs and services until he was deployed to Iraq, where entertainment and places to recharge post-duties are limited. At bases in locations like this, USO centers provide service members with a place to go – other than their barracks – where they can relax and spend time with one another.
Dawson was doing just that the night he became a USO volunteer; he and a few other service members were at the USO center playing video games when a USO staff member approached them and informed them that they were short a few volunteers, and then asked if Dawson and his friends would consider pitching in and running that night’s cornhole tournament.
He said yes and became a USO volunteer on the spot.
Aside from some downrange expeditionary locations, where a brick-and-mortar USO center is not possible either due to size of the base or safety, there are USO centers in almost all regions in which the U.S. military serves. There are USO staff employed at nearly all of these USO centers, however some USO locations – such as in countries like Iraq – do not have large numbers of USO employees. That’s why USO volunteers are crucial to help run the centers, however, unlike in the U.S. or even regions such as Europe, where American civilians or other members of the military community often serve as volunteers, locations such as USO Erbil have a much more limited volunteer pool.
As a result, these centers rely on service member volunteers to help carry out the USO’s mission. Yes, that means that USO volunteers in this region are service members deployed to the front lines who decide to offer up their free time to support their fellow troops.
And that is exactly what Dawson did. From that first night of a cornhole tournament, Dawson would go on to complete an impressive 500+ volunteer hours at USO Erbil. A large portion of these hours was dedicated to helping renovate the interior of the USO Erbil center, doing everything from painting and hanging shelves to building furniture. However, according to Dawson, what kept him coming back was “the people.”
Dawson explained that USO staff and other USO volunteers were all fun and friendly, noting that one particular USO staff member resembled “a mom figure, which was nice to have over there [on deployment].”
Together, Dawson, the other volunteers and USO staff hosted a myriad of events and programs, including Dawson’s personal project: trivia. Trivia became such a popular bi-weekly activity that almost 50 service members attended each week – bringing in more service members for a non-physical event than had been seen since before COVID-19 restrictions. For Dawson, hosting these trivia events was especially fun for him, as he regularly participated in trivia back home, and by reinstating the activity at the USO center he was able to bring this small piece of home with him on his deployment.
It was Dawson’s commitment to USO Erbil and his thousands of volunteer hours with the organization that earned him the USO 2021 Outside of the Continental United States (OCONUS) Volunteer of the Year award, which was presented to him this National Volunteer Week. He was especially recognized for his leadership, in which he trained and led other USO volunteers, ran programs, supported USO staff and was always willing to help when the center needed more hands, despite the fact that he was balancing a rigorous schedule with his Army duties.
Although Dawson has since returned from deployment and is back home in Iowa, he remains in close contact with many USO staff members who are still in Iraq. Volunteering with the USO had an immensely positive impact on his deployment, and he described the USO as, quite simply, “a home away from home.”
“I think that’s what the big attraction was for a lot of people over there – being able to just sit down and watch a movie or play a video game or [eat] home cooked food,” he said. “It was just an escape from the outside world as far as the war goes. It’s the ability to forget where you are.”
Dawson’s words speak to a large part of the USO’s mission, especially for service members deployed to the front lines. That is, the USO strives to keep our nation’s military connected to home and country, often by providing a space in which they can take a break – even if for just a moment – from the realities of their daily duties. In doing so, they can recharge so that they are ready for the mission at hand.
Providing this support is crucial, and it is all made possible by the incredible work of USO volunteers like Spc. Luke Dawson.
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