By Daena Moore
It’s 16:30 on the Royal Air Force (RAF) base in Lakenheath, England. Suddenly, vehicles pull over to the left side of the road and stop, airmen stand at attention and render a salute, and civilians place their hands over their hearts.
For a moment, time stands still.
The sound of two nations’ national anthems played over loudspeakers throughout the base marks the end of another day, as “God Save the King” is followed closely by “The Star-Spangled Banner.” These national anthems ring out to honor the two allied countries and those serving them.
In this small village in eastern England, far from home for many of the American service members and military families stationed there, this is a time of reflection until the last note is played. It’s a reminder of why they are there, of the international partnership between the United States and the United Kingdom, and of the countries’ joint mission to protect and defend freedom wherever it is threatened.
And at the USO, it’s an important, daily reminder of our organization’s mission of strengthening our U.S. service members by keeping them connected to family, home and country – no matter where their service takes them.
First USO Center in United Kingdom Supports Thousands of U.S. Air Force Members
Located two and a half hours northeast of London, the remote village of Lakenheath is host to Royal Air Force Lakenheath, which is also home to the U.S. Air Force’s 48th Fighter Wing. While RAF Lakenheath is the main installation in the tri-base area, nearby, RAF Mildenhall and RAF Feltwell are home to U.S. Air Force and U.S. Space Force units that are crucial to the security of Europe.
The American airmen and their military families stationed here in the U.K. serve our country in the air, space and cyberspace while far from home and loved ones.
So, when U.S. military leadership requested a permanent USO center on their base to support the growing number of active-duty service members, military spouses and children in their community in the U.K., the USO stepped up.
Newly opened in November 2021, USO Lakenheath is the first USO center in the United Kingdom. The USO center supports around 22,000 American military personnel in the Air Force, Army and Navy across the island, keeping their spirits high and their community strong while stationed a continent away.
Facing the Challenges of Daily Life Overseas
Although they live in an English-speaking country, American service members and their families in Lakenheath still face many challenges when stationed on this small, overseas duty station. They’re reminded daily that they are thousands of miles away from loved ones and the familiarity of their home country.
The Lakenheath base is not in the center of town, and it takes about 30-40 minutes to get anywhere. The currency exchange rate can be challenging. The price of gas is exorbitant, which can sometimes be double the cost of gas in the U.S.
Perhaps one of the biggest challenges of being stationed overseas is the 5-8 hour time difference between the United States and the United Kingdom, which makes communicating with loved ones difficult. Just as a service member or military spouse is finishing their workday in the U.K., a family member on the other side of the world may just be starting theirs. This schedule change can make it difficult to find meaningful ways to keep in touch with friends and family back home.
Not being able to share their daily experiences with loved ones can leave military community members with an empty feeling that something is missing.
That “something” is a sense of belonging – to family, home and country. According to the Blue Star Families’ annual Military Family Lifestyle Survey, only 30% of active-duty military family respondents feel a sense of belonging to their local civilian community. Nearly a quarter cite “military family quality of life” as a top concern.
Taylor Welisevich, the USO Lakenheath center operations manager, is also a military spouse, and so she knows firsthand the challenges of moving to a small, overseas duty station. USO Lakenheath was not open when she first moved from Omaha, Nebraska, alongside her husband Staff Sgt. Michael “Mick” Welisevich to the United Kingdom.
“The biggest challenge moving overseas was that my husband went [temporary duty in the Mediterranean] for four months when we first moved here,” she said.
“We’d never been overseas before, so I had to navigate a lot on my own, on top of not living on the same continent as my family and not knowing any friends upon arrival. It was hard and overwhelming.”
How the USO and the NFL Work Together to Support the Military
Supporting the military community through challenging tours and deployments overseas is crucial, and that’s where the USO comes in. As a military support organization, the USO is able to provide resources and services to the military community thanks to the support of our generous donors and partners. As a nonprofit organization, the USO relies on the generosity of the American public, organizations and corporations.
We are always by the side of our service members because of strong partners like the NFL, who have been there with us for over 55 years. The USO and NFL’s partnership is an especially personal connection for USO Lakenheath, as the NFL generously supported this brand-new center’s construction.
“Our partnership with the USO is a part of the NFL Salute To Service. It’s our way to honor, empower and connect our service members,” said Melissa Pardi, senior director of social responsibility at the NFL. “It’s really important to us that not only are we a source of entertainment for service members, but really actually [are] empowering the USO to create new centers.”
Because of this partnership, service members stationed in the U.K. now have a comfortable place to relax, reconnect and recharge – making troops feel like they’re still at home.
“The NFL captures the heart and the spirit of the USO’s mission of keeping them connected to the people and places they love,” said Chris Fowler of the USO.
How the USO Delivers a Bit of Home to Our Troops and Military Families Overseas
Now celebrating its one-year anniversary, USO Lakenheath is already making a significant impact on the morale of the military community on base by tackling some of the challenges that come with being stationed in a remote location far from home.
The USO center meets the needs of service members and military spouses by providing free events and giving opportunities for others to meet new friends and establish bonds. But beyond that, the center also serves as a comforting home away from home for the military community at Lakenheath – a place to turn to when everything else feels unfamiliar.
Now that the USO center is open, Welisevich – alongside her small USO team – can help other members of her community going through similar deployment situations as she did. The USO programs and events that she helps facilitate at the USO center play a large role in this.
“It’s nice to provide a place to connect with others because overseas, we don’t live near family,” she said. “It’s rewarding to provide a little bit of comfort to everyone that way … especially while someone in their family might be deployed.”
Helping service members and military spouses build their own support networks is a crucial part of the USO’s support of the military community.
For example, Air Force Maj. Kayce Slayton, an active-duty service member who is expecting, recently participated in a USO Special Delivery presented by Johnson & Johnson event in Lakenheath. These baby showers for expectant military parents, which take place at USO centers worldwide, combine baby shower games, local guest speakers and traditional baby shower gifts. They provide a touch of home for parents-to-be who are often far from their families, friends and support networks during their pregnancies.
“What a great way to [give] service members and spouses a way to celebrate the next chapter in their life,” Slayton said. “Especially being overseas with no immediate family, but instead our military family.”
According to USO Center Manager Taylor Bedford, seemingly simple USO events can profoundly impact service members at these remote duty stations.
One particular meal was delivered to the midnight air support crew, bringing a warmly welcomed taste of home. For these service members, the connection to home is often just as important as a free meal.
“These airmen were really excited because they often feel forgotten. They said, ‘Wow, I can’t believe you remembered us!’” Bedford shared.
The little things can sometimes mean the most and give service members the strength to face the mission ahead.
Regardless of where that mission takes them, from the deserts of Kuwait to a small, isolated village in England, the USO ensures that service members and their families know that the American people appreciate everything they do and have their backs. Thanks to the generosity of USO supporters, our military overseas can still maintain a personal connection to loved ones and home.
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