By Danielle DeSimone
“For a lot of us, this is our first deployment,” U.S. Army Spc. Terrance Smith said.
He’s standing between a line of tents on an Army base in Poland – within driving distance to Ukraine. The base is situated in a dense forest, far from the familiarity and comforts of home, and although the weather in October is still crisp, a frigid and long winter looms ahead.
For Terrance and the thousands of other American service members deployed to Eastern Europe this year, this deployment is different from those in recent memory, which have typically brought U.S. service members to the Middle East. Here in Eastern Europe, there is no guaranteed end date for many of their deployments, and the nature of their assignments can be high-pressure as Russia’s war in Ukraine continues to escalate.
Deployments can put both a physical and emotional strain on service members – which is why the USO has quickly pivoted in recent months to build up a network of support throughout Eastern Europe for deployed service members like Terrance.
The Challenges of Deployment in Eastern Europe
Originally from Palm Beach, Florida, the undisclosed location where Terrance is deployed in Poland does not look anything like home. Several military outposts in Eastern Europe were constructed after the outbreak of the war in Ukraine in February 2022, and so resources on these bases are still being built and expanded upon.
This means that many service members will spend the next several months in tents in a forest clearing, surrounded only by trees for miles. In the winter, snow is common, and temperatures can drop below −20 °F. And at the end of long, hard days in the field, these troops have limited places to go outside of their barracks to rest and recharge.
“It’s kind of hard – it takes its toll mentally,” Terrance said. “You can’t really get a break and it’s just a constant workflow.”
But beyond the day-to-day trials of being deployed to an austere, remote location in Poland, a big challenge that service members also face is being separated from their loved ones. Eastern Europe deployments have been especially difficult, as many service members initially deployed in response to the crisis without personal cell phones or laptops, due to operational security concerns. For those who do have personal devices, cell service is expensive and spotty; internet access is limited. This makes it hard to stay connected to friends and family back home, who are also separated by a 6 to 9-hour time difference.
“I’ve been in [the Army] two years and this is my first deployment where I’ve ever really been away from my family like this,” Terrance said. “Sometimes it gets really lonely out here and because I’m not able to talk to my family, sometimes it gets hard.”
Research shows that 8 in 10 active-duty service members have been separated from their families in the past 18 months due to military service. This separation can put a strain on the relationships and mental health of military families who are separated, many of them for six or more months.
It’s crucial to support the military community during these deployments, not only to ensure military readiness, but also to express gratitude for their service – especially given that 81% of service members do not believe that their civilian communities at home truly understand the sacrifices that military families make throughout their career.
That is where the USO comes in – to physically deliver the gratitude of the American people to the front lines through supportive programs, services and USO centers.
How the USO is Supporting Service Members like Terrance in Poland
“[With the] USO being here, it’s morale-building,” Terrance said. “[It lets] the soldiers know that people are thinking of them while they’re overseas and that they’re not forgotten. Sometimes it’s hard, but when people show their appreciation, it gets easier.”
At this undisclosed location in Poland, the effect of the USO was evident from the moment service members saw the familiar red, white and blue logo. As a USO expeditionary vehicle arrived on-base, troops eagerly began lining up. USO staff and volunteers began grilling lunch, a game of cornhole was set up and music suddenly filled the space between the tents.
More and more service members began to emerge, joining together to grab a hot meal, play a game, or just take a few moments to chat together outside of their barracks. Many were handed a USO Care Package, filled with travel-sized hygiene items and snacks that reminded them of home.
In a nearby tent, the pop-up USO location was full of comfortable recliner chairs and warmth from the chill outdoors. In a corner, a group of soldiers laughed together over a video game. Many service members were seated throughout the USO center, taking a quiet moment to themselves on their personal devices to speak with loved ones back home.
Although these activities and services may seem simple at first glance, they make a huge impact on a service member’s deployment. As Terrance explained, knowing that the USO was there alongside U.S. troops in Poland reassured him that he was not forgotten.
“Sometimes it gets really lonely out here and because I’m not able to talk to my family, sometimes it gets really hard,” he said. “But seeing other people here, knowing that they care, it makes it all the difference.”
Terrance credits the USO events and services in Poland with keeping up his morale, as well as the support of his military leadership and the friends he’s made among his unit.
However, when asked what keeps him focused during difficult days on deployment, Terrance explained that he always kept the bigger picture in mind.
“What motivates me, I’d say, is knowing that I’m here for a purpose – to help out in a different country,” he said.
Our nation’s service members continue to serve in Poland and other front-line locations in Eastern Europe to support our NATO allies and ensure the stability of Europe in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
And thanks to the generosity of the American people, the USO is able to be right there alongside them on deployment, boosting morale and keeping them connected to loved ones and a sense of home, just when they need it most.
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