USO Center in Iraq Transformed into a Cozy Retreat by Soldier Serving as a USO Volunteer

By Heather Huggins

Much like the noncommissioned officer (that is, senior enlisted service members) is often described as the backbone of the military, volunteers are the same source of strength for the USO. It is thanks to the efforts of our devoted USO volunteers that we are able to extend our support to service members across the globe.

U.S. Army Capt. Joseph Anchondo is one of those volunteers who makes the USO mission possible. Currently deployed in Iraq, Joe has been a crucial part in expanding our USO operations on the ground.

After the 2020 Iran attack on the Iraqi and U.S. Armed Forces’ Al Asad Air Base, many USO centers in Iraq were temporarily closed down, as both USO and military personnel were shifted throughout the area. Then, with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and health and safety regulations, it wasn’t until later in 2021 when USO operations were able to pick back up throughout the country.

And so, in December of 2021, Joe raised his hand and volunteered to help transport a USO staff member from a nearby USO center to his forward-deployed location in order to ensure the soldiers stationed there could receive some much-needed holiday spirit. Just before the holidays, the USO arrived at the base and brought some of the service members’ favorite programs and activities to do just that.

Finally, for the first time in over a year and a half of COVID-19 restrictions, service members at this base were able to attend a USO-hosted event. They had a blast playing trivia, participating in the Holiday Hustle 5k, and even trying their luck with bingo.

During this visit, USO staff and Joe sat down to discuss the location’s unstaffed USO center, which had been established there in 2015. An unstaffed USO location includes a lot of the same amenities as a regular, staffed USO center, such as comfortable seating, televisions, video games and other entertainment. However, these centers do not have a permanent USO team working at them, either because the location is too remote or too dangerous. Thus, the responsibility for the upkeep and management of the unstaffed center falls on the shoulders of the service members who are stationed there.

U.S. Army Capt. Joe Anchondo dedicated many hours of his downtime while on deployment to bringing this unmanned USO center back to life so that his fellow soldiers had a welcoming space to spend time in. | Photo credit USO Photo

Joe and the USO’s goal was to revive the unstaffed USO center to its former glory, and Joe was ready to put in the work to make it happen. Joe’s time, effort, attention to detail and follow-through were invaluable in the following months as their vision for a revived USO center became a reality.

Days following the USO’s departure that month of December 2021, Joe drafted the paperwork and submitted everything that was necessary to get the unstaffed USO center renovated with new walls, paint and services. He deep-cleaned numerous storage areas so that more space could be utilized for a new and improved ping pong room, as well as a dedicated space to house the Bob Hope Legacy Reading Program.

This USO reading program is a highly sought-out service in this particular region, as it allows service members to record themselves reading books to their children back home, and have a copy of the book and the recording sent to their child in the U.S. Through this program, deployed service members can stay connected to their families despite the distance and the danger of the front lines that keep them apart.

On the ground, the service members deployed to this location were excited to see new efforts being made to improve their unstaffed USO center. The USO brought in six big-screen TVs for the new video game stations, in addition to a second ping pong table that is helping everyone get a turn at the tables. The center is also now home to a revamped phone and computer room, where service members can utilize the USO’s secure telephone network to get on the phone and speak with a loved one for free, or have a quiet space to go on the internet.

There is even a kitchen in the works that will soon allow service members to get a little of a taste of home and maybe even the opportunity to bake cakes in order to celebrate an overseas birthday away from family.

Improvements are still in the works, but there is a new life on the base that can be felt every week as service members gather around a fire with smores and just relax outside their new, improved unstaffed USO center.

Thanks to Joe’s tireless efforts, his base was able to secure monthly USO visits, revive an unstaffed USO center to its maximum potential and help service members connect to loved ones back home. The USO could not carry out its mission without the support from dedicated volunteers like Capt. Joseph Anchondo.

- Capt. Anchondo will return home to his loving wife and family this summer. We are honored to have worked alongside him and are appreciative of all the support he provided to not only the USO, but all the service members in his area of operation.

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