By Heather Huggins
When the average person thinks about their loved one being deployed, images of Middle Eastern deserts or possibly the new front lines in Eastern Europe come to mind. Yet, many Americans are surprised when their service member explains that they will be heading to Africa instead.
Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, located in the Horn of Africa in east Africa, has long been a base from which our men and women deploy and operate, but over the past few years, northwest Africa has also seen an increase in deployed U.S. troops, and the trend seems to be enduring.
When these deployed service members get on-ground in Africa, they are often greeted with a strong, hot breeze and a short trek to their living area. These living areas are often communal tents and will not only serve as a place for them to rest their heads, but will also serve as their main source of refuge from the summer heat.
There are a lucky few whose deployment locations are fortunate enough to have containerized buildings that can serve as office spaces and potentially provide some very coveted living areas. Even with those amenities, the heat can be quite suppressing and isolation at these remote bases is high. It can be a grueling, challenging deployment, with little opportunity for entertainment or respite from their daily duties.
In many locations around the globe, service members deployed to austere locations can often turn to a USO center on base for a comfortable, homelike setting in which they can relax and recharge. But for some service members, their deployment locations are too far, too small, or possibly too dangerous for a brick-and-mortar USO center to be built.
For example, while there is a USO center at Camp Lemonnier with plenty of USO staff to offer programs and services to service members stationed there, there are many military outposts throughout the rest of the continent that are outside of that center’s reach. With Africa being roughly 5 times the size of the United States, it is easy to see how difficult it may be difficult to extend all the cherished support the USO strives to provide our service members to those on smaller operating bases so far away.
That is where the USO’s Africa Expeditionary Team comes in. Our expeditionary team members are responsible for meeting the needs of the service members deployed to these isolated areas.
During the USO team’s most recent visit, our team visited several different sites in northwest Africa to bring a smile to service members’ faces. USO staff were fortunate enough to be on the ground for the Easter holiday and that morning, service members were surprised to wake up to find Easter eggs outside throughout the base, filled with candy and prizes. These grown adults couldn’t have been more excited to take part in a childhood favorite activity, running around the camp looking under safety cones and all around their tents to find the eggs.
A few days later, the USO busted out the fryer and started serving up fried Oreos. There was so much excitement behind these beloved treats that some service members were even putting on disguises in order to get back in line for seconds and thirds.
“Not only is this a huge improvement from the DFAC, these Oreos are giving me life!,” said one service member, referring to the Dining Facility (DFAC) on base.
“I missed my hometown carnival this year and never thought I would be able to get a fried Oreo out here.”
Another opportunity the USO brought to the troops in northwest Africa was the USO’s Bob Hope Legacy Reading Program. This beloved reading program allows service members deployed across the globe an opportunity to read their child a story before bedtime. Service members record themselves reading a book and then the USO sends that recording – as well as a copy of the book – home to a son, daughter, sibling or any other child in their life.
Over 15 families, all from one location alone, were able to experience firsthand how excited a child could be to see their loved one read to them from 7,000 miles away. It was just as rewarding seeing how excited the service members were when choosing their favorite books from their own childhoods. Sharing experiences like this can make the distance from loved ones seem not quite as far.
When the USO team wasn’t playing Easter Bunny or frying up Oreos, they were hosting trivia and leading bingo. No matter the event, there were always happy service members ready to see what new fun the USO was stirring up.
For remote locations such as northwest Africa, having this kind of support is crucial to maintaining high morale and operational readiness among troops.
At the conclusion of the USO’s Africa Expeditionary team’s three week-long mission to northwest Africa, the service members were sad to see the team leave – but knew they were in good hands and that the USO would be back soon.
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