By Barry Morris
As American families living along the Southwest coast of Florida received evacuation orders to flee their homes to escape the devastation of Hurricane Ian last month, the Florida National Guard activated 5,000 members – in addition to 2,000 members of the Tennessee, Georgia and North Carolina National Guards – to support the disaster response.
Many of these “weekend warriors” who live in Florida had to leave their families and homes at a moment’s notice, all to help residents of their beloved home state in the wake of nature’s unrelenting force.
Staff Sgt. Brian Whitaker with the 202nd Red Horse Squadron of the Florida Air National Guard and his team mobilized days before Hurricane Ian hit the coast of Florida. They were pre-positioned to provide immediate assistance to the local community, including clearing damage from public roadways caused by the hurricane.
“When I got the call Sunday night, a few days prior to Ian hitting the coast, I was ready to go,” said Brian, who currently lives in Daytona Beach, Florida, where he helps his family run their farm.
“I always keep my deployment bag near the front door, so I am prepared for situations like this, ready to roll when I get the call to help those in need.”
While Brian, the National Guard and the Coast Guard were preparing to support the Florida community, the USO’s Mobile team was preparing to support the military members who were called into action.
How the USO Supported National Guard Members and Coasties Deployed to Hurricane Ian
Even before Hurricane Ian hit the Florida coast, the USO was preparing and staging supplies in Virginia, Georgia and other parts of Florida to be ready to hit the ground running as soon as it was safe.
The USO also delivered support to active duty service members, the National Guard and Coast Guard as they prepared to embark on their mission and conduct rescue, recovery and clean-up operations. This support was made possible by generous supporters of the USO. In addition, the USO bolstered service members’ morale by providing much-needed supplies such as refreshments, home-cooked meals and hygiene items to help them maintain resiliency and strength.
Since Hurricane Ian’s landfall, National Guard and Coast Guard members have been working around the clock, tackling 12-hour shifts in the sweltering heat to provide security and distribute food, water and ice to residents at multiple strategic locations.
Although they are proud to serve, it doesn’t take long for this schedule to become mentally and physically draining for even the most dedicated service member, making any outside connection or entertainment a welcome distraction.
That’s why Mobile USO vehicles are such a highly requested service during a natural disaster response. Whenever National Guard members see the USO’s vehicles and that famous red, white and blue logo they have come to know and love, they see a piece of home waiting for them.
“You guys are my heroes,” said Brian, referring to the USO. “You just pulled out pumpkin spice coffee creamer. It may not seem like much to some people, but to me it’s the little things like this that brighten my day, and the USO coming out there like this was the best way to end our two-week mission.”
As the National Guard gives back to the local community devastated by Hurricane Ian, the American people give back to these hardworking service members working in dangerous conditions by supporting the USO.
Throughout Southwest Florida and the surrounding area, three Mobile USO units have provided a place for service members to relax, enjoy refreshments, use Wi-Fi to connect with loved ones and recharge during their downtime.
Mobile USO teams will often have USO Care Packages on-hand to give to service members, many of whom had little time to pack personal care items ahead of their rapid deployment. These innovative care packages are constructed with a durable, nylon material that has a M.O.L.L.E. system on the back for attachment to most military-issued gear, which is perfect for a deployed National Guard member or Coastie on-the-go.
Acting as ‘USO centers on wheels,’ Mobile USO vehicles and the teams that operate them bring a touch of home and a sense of normalcy to service members working in the wake of natural disasters. In addition to a USO Sprinter Van and large mobile vehicle, the USO also deployed the USO-Kroger Mobile Food Vehicle.
The USO-Kroger Mobile Vehicle – created in partnership with Kroger, America’s largest grocer – is an adaptation of our Mobile USO Vehicles and is fully outfitted with a mobile kitchen unit.
While in Florida, this vehicle supported the troops through hot meals while they carried out hurricane relief missions.
Some junior service members enjoyed their first Mobile USO experience during this mission, including Spc. Damien Servano, who was excited to see the USO team make its second stop at his unit’s location.
“My phone has been blowing up with [text messages saying] ‘the USO food truck is here again, you have to come check it out,’" said Servano, a Hampstead, Florida, resident and small business owner. “It was a nice break to get some different and tasty kind of food today.“
Thanks to contributions from supporters like Kroger, WaWa and Coca-Cola, the USO is always prepared to deploy in the wake of a storm and provide a touch of home to troops activated during hurricane season.
It’s something the USO has been doing for years, and it is something we are quite proud of.
"Every hurricane, activation and mission are different for our guard members, and they have different needs each time,” said Mobile USO Operations and Program Manager Angela Hodge.
“The Mobile USO team takes pride in activating based on the ever-changing needs of our service members, and to remain as a constant reliable source for them just as we have for the past 81 years.”
Although the future of hurricane season 2022 remains uncertain outside of Hurricane Ian, the USO stands ready and prepared to serve any National Guard, Reserve or active-duty troops tapped to help with hurricane relief efforts.
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Every day, America’s service members selflessly put their lives on the line to keep us safe and free. Please take a moment to let our troops know how much we appreciate their service and sacrifice.