By Danielle DeSimone
When U.S. Army Pfc. Brandon Gonzales stepped into the back of a USO van, parked in the middle of a field at his deployment location in Hungary, something felt familiar.
The van was outfitted with a cheerful banner, a comfortable chair, a small table with a laptop and stacks of children’s books. As Brandon settled into the chair to record himself reading a book, he realized that this was not the first time he had utilized a USO reading program – his father had sat down in a chair just like this years ago, when deployed to Iraq, and had recorded a video of himself reading to Brandon as a child.
Now, all these years later, life had come full circle and Brandon was doing the same to stay connected to his own child while deployed – all thanks to the USO Reading Program.
The Challenges of Separation for Military Families During Deployment
Although this is Brandon’s first deployment in the military, he’s all too familiar with the challenges of being separated from loved ones due to military duties. After all, as a military kid himself, Brandon grew up watching his father leave on multiple deployments, often for months at a time.
“It was always hard saying goodbye … knowing he’d be gone for another nine months to a year, and miss another one of my birthdays or Christmases,” Brandon said.
However, the challenges of deployment for military children go far beyond missed holidays.
“I worried constantly about his safety and did the best I could to comfort my mother,” Brandon said. “[With him] being away for so long, the most I had to look forward to was a phone call every few weeks.”
Research has found that many military children struggle with higher stress levels and anxiety during their parent’s deployment, showing that aside from the strain of separation, even at a young age, military children can also understand the risks their parent undertakes as a member of the Armed Forces.
The separation of deployment is of course difficult for service members as well. Now, no longer a military child but a service member himself, Brandon was one of the many American troops rapidly deployed to Eastern Europe in February 2022 in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in order to bolster support of our NATO allies. As a result, he has now spent months apart from his wife, Jenna, and almost 2-year-old daughter Natalie – with no return date confirmed yet.
“We deployed here on such short notice that it was hard take in all at once,” Brandon said. “And [Natalie] has already grown so much in the couple months I’ve been out here.”
Research conducted through the Blue Star Families’ 2021 Military Family Lifestyle Survey found that the amount of time spent away from family was the leading issue affecting military families among active-duty, Reserve and National Guard respondents.
That is why bridging the distance between deployed service members and their loved ones is so crucial to boosting our military’s morale, and in keeping our nation’s military families strong. Luckily, the USO’s mission ensures just that, easing the sting of separation and connecting military families– quite literally – across generations.
Military Families Stay Connected Through the USO Reading Program
Brandon’s father, retired Sgt. 1st Class Evaristo “Bill” Gonzales, served for 22 years and was also in the Army, just like Brandon is today. While he was deployed to Iraq in 2007, Brandon was in second grade, and he – along with his mother and brothers – sometimes struggled to stay in touch with his father, as communication was not always reliable.
Then, one day, a package arrived in the mail. It was filled with books and a DVD, and when Brandon and his brothers played the disc, they were suddenly watching a video of their father reading books to them. Brandon even remembers the book his father picked out special for him – “Jenny: The Airplane That Taught America to Fly” by David Weitzman – because Brandon was an avid aviation fan.
But of course, the real excitement came from “seeing” his father while on deployment.
“The most special aspect of that video was seeing his face for the first time again in nearly a year, like he was there in person reading to me,” he said. “Like we were just having another father-son moment and I forgot momentarily about him being so far away.”
It was such an impactful moment, in fact, that Brandon still has his copy of the book and claims it has remained one of his favorites.
Now, years later, Brandon has the same opportunity to read to his daughter. Many service members deployed to Eastern Europe are in locations known as “Tactical Assembly Areas,” or, TAAs.
These locations do not have as many off-duty resources as U.S. military installations in other parts of the region, such as Germany or Spain, where military communities have on-base support, amenities like grocery stores or movie theaters, and – often – USO centers to turn to as a “home away from home.”
For service members in these remote locations in Eastern Europe, isolated from home and everything familiar, activities beyond their daily duties are limited, leaving them with few opportunities to recharge or connect with loved ones back home. In fact, many units were barred from bringing personal cell phones or laptop devices, leaving them with few options to call home.
With no traditional, brick-and-mortar USO locations nearby, which typically provide troops with phone rooms, Wi-Fi and computers free of charge, the USO team in Europe decided to bring that same USO support to Brandon’s unit out in the field.
Aside from other USO programs and activities, the USO staff also arrived at the undisclosed location in Hungary with a USO vehicle in tow, outfitted with all the necessary equipment to provide service members with a USO Reading Program room on-the-go.
Through this program, service members are given the opportunity to record themselves reading a book, and then have that recording and a copy of the book sent home to a son, daughter, sibling or any other child in their life.
Brandon was incredibly excited to get involved with the program and record himself reading a book for his daughter Natalie, who is waiting back home for him in Oklahoma, just as his father once did for him.
“This reading program was as full circle as it gets!” Brandon said. “I never imagined as a kid that I’d have a daughter of my own who I’d be reading a book to while on deployment. The most special thing is staying connected to your family by sending them a personal message, especially in a time when it’s not always possible to stay in contact with your loved ones.”
Brandon was touched not only by the opportunity to record a book for his daughter, but also by how much the USO had an effect on his fellow soldiers, giving them the chance to share stories of their families back home.
“I think everybody should utilize the [USO] Reading Program more,” Brandon said. “It meant a lot to me when I was a kid, and I’m truly grateful to be able to do the same for my family during an especially tough time.”
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