By Daena Moore
In February 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine. In the months that have followed, Russia’s war in Ukraine has caused irreparable damage and casualties, threatening the stability of Europe and our NATO allies.
The United States Department of Defense has deployed and repositioned thousands of U.S. troops throughout Europe in response to Russia’s continued escalations. There are now approximately 100,000 American service members either deployed or permanently stationed in Europe in support of our NATO allies and the Ukrainian fight for sovereignty and freedom.
American service members must answer the call no matter the mission or operation. While our troops and their families around the world face the immense hardships of deployment, it’s the USO’s duty to make sure they have the support they need and deserve in times of crisis and uncertainty.
Deploying Troops Have a Network of USO Support, From Departure to Arrival
Since the first waves of deployments in 2022, the USO has been quickly expanding its reach in Eastern Europe, providing more programs and resources to adequately support the permanent troop posture in the region. This has included building physical USO centers in Eastern Europe, adding to the global USO network of 275-plus locations, which are always at the ready to respond swiftly when service members are deployed with little to no notice.
Many of these service members are on rotational deployment stand-by, “on call” for immediate deployment to Eastern Europe – which means at any given moment, a service member can be given a day’s notice that they’ll be deploying and leaving their family behind.
Service members who are rapidly deployed often have very little time to plan, pack or say goodbye to loved ones before being sent on these missions.
To help alleviate the stress of this process, the USO has been delivering USO Care Packages, food and drinks to service members before departure, as well as offering additional support to service members and their military families leading up to – and during – their deployment.
These last comforts of home can remind service members that they are cared for as they deploy into uncertain circumstances. For example, the USO team in Lakenheath, United Kingdom, was able to support one particular Air Force unit from their departure out of the U.K. to their arrival in Poland. Before deploying, the airmen received deployment bags filled with snacks, chips and electrolyte drinks.
“Then a week later, our team in Poland reached out sending [the airmen’s] regards, which was pretty cool to know they were supported there also,” USO Lakenheath Center Manager Taylor Bedford said.
When one USO team “hands off” service members to their next duty station and USO location, they can take comfort in knowing they are in good hands and supported seamlessly by their USO teammates across the globe.
Taylor Welisevich, a USO center operations manager in Europe, explained that deployments are difficult not only for service members, but also for the military spouses and children awaiting their return. For these military families, the experience of a sudden deployment can be unsettling, as they have very little time to prepare for their loved one heading toward potentially dangerous missions.
That’s why the USO has also stepped up to support the families of these deployed service members – to ensure that both our troops and their loved ones never feel alone.
“Being a military spouse, it’s comforting to be able to provide a space for military families to come relax and enjoy themselves, especially while someone in their family might be deployed or [on temporary assignment,]” Taylor Welisevich said. “It’s rewarding to provide a little bit of comfort to everyone that way.”
Sometimes, just the simple act of reaching out to connect and acknowledge our military community’s sacrifice and high-stress lifestyle can make all the difference – especially during times of deployment.
Deployed Air Force Squadron in Europe Receives Boost from the USO
U.S. troops are serving throughout Germany and Eastern Europe, including places like Poland and Romania, from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea – providing training, advanced weaponry, cold weather supplies and intelligence to our NATO allies and Ukrainian forces.
As they deploy in defense of the freedom and values we share with our allied partners, America goes with them under the banner of the USO.
When service members first began deploying to the Eastern Europe region, the USO went alongside them. In fact, the USO was asked by U.S. military leadership to support troops in early January – before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, as tensions were rising – and has been there ever since, providing morale-boosting support.
U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Ray Vinton was stationed at Royal Air Force (RAF) Mildenhall in England when his squadron was called to action early in the war, and he deployed to Poland in February 2022.
As part of the Air Force Special Operations Command, Ray’s unit provided vital air support and overwatch for the American Embassy in Ukraine’s evacuation of Department of Defense and Department of State personnel.
Ray quickly deployed with little lead time. The conditions of this sudden deployment were difficult and demanding.
“We were staying for an unknown duration – two weeks or six months,” he said. “We were working out of a bare area and had to set everything up.”
Because of the U.S. military’s rapid response to the conflict, not all deployment locations were immediately equipped with the typical resources of a base. That is, many of these service members arrived to a clearing of trees in the middle of a forest, just miles away from the Ukrainian border, and those resources and infrastructure had to be gradually built.
A sudden deployment can be a jarring experience, but a sudden deployment to a downrange location with limited support – in the middle of winter – can absolutely take its toll on service members.
But small gestures of gratitude or reminders of home can instill the strength in service members to face the mission ahead. Serving as the “First Shirt” in his unit, Ray was responsible for the morale, health and welfare of his fellow airmen, and has frequently depended on the USO for support throughout his 17-year military career.
So when Ray arrived in Poland, he immediately turned to USO Powidz. This relatively new USO center opened in November 2021 and is located on a forward operating site in Poland, where the USO can provide support to our men and women in uniform.
“The staff at USO Powidz was amazing. During an uncomfortable situation, they tried to make it as comfortable as possible,” Ray said. “They supported us to no end.”
While service members endured harsh, dangerous conditions, the USO provided resources, entertainment and moments of fun to keep their morale high. Through activities such as movie nights, food trucks, grills and games like ping pong, they were able to decompress.
“It provided a huge morale booster for our guys there,” Ray said.
He shared that because of the USO, “our jet team was in good hands.”
Deployed Troops in Remote Locations Turn to the USO
The USO also delivers expeditionary support to reach even more service members who are training in isolated locations or on arduous missions in Eastern Europe. Staff and volunteers provide comforts like USO Care Packages, filled with travel-sized hygiene items or snacks, in addition to hot meals and entertainment to those headed into harm’s way.
When U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Ryan Trickett quickly deployed to RAF Fairford in England, the USO was one of his first calls. After all, his deployment location was extremely small and remote, with no commissary to buy groceries or necessities, and only a small shop on base with limited items.
Being stationed away from loved ones in an isolated location with limited resources can take a toll on the morale of service members, so to keep spirits high, Trickett reached out to USO United Kingdom for support for his entire squadron.
“The USO team was pivotal during my six-month deployment. They sent monthly, themed ‘Programs in a Box’ for all the squadrons on base, as well as provided food for at least six other events, bolstering their success to take care of our [airmen] when only minimal food options were available,” Ryan said.
The USO is also working to convert a facility on base in this England location into an unmanned USO center, which means that although USO staff will not be operating out of the center, service members can still utilize it and its amenities as a place to relax.
“It will give our folks a place outside of our dorms to recharge when they aren’t on shift and the [chow hall] is closed,” Ryan said.
Through acts of care and compassion, service members know that they haven’t been forgotten while they’re serving on the front lines.
Because of the continued commitment that supporters are providing for those who serve and their military families, the USO can maintain the ability and agility that is necessary to deliver on the promise to always remain “by their side” whenever, wherever and under whatever condition they serve.
How Service Members Can Rely on the USO to Connect Back Home
Some service members who have deployed to Eastern Europe were not permitted to bring their personal cell phones or laptops, leaving them with limited options for contacting loved ones back home. Even before thousands of U.S. troops were rapidly mobilized, the USO stood at the ready.
Understanding how important connection is to our service members, the USO raced to set up call centers before troops arrived on the ground. In most traditional, brick-and-mortar USO centers, call center rooms are equipped with phones, chairs, secure connections and free international calling within the comfort of the USO center. But setting up a call center at a new, front-line location in Poland, with no brick-and-mortar USO center nearby, was slightly more challenging.
The most important thing, however, was ensuring that these deployed service members could connect with family and friends back home, and that’s exactly what the USO did. USO teams that were deployed to the region outfitted tents with cell phones equipped with a private, secure telephone network for service members to use entirely for free.
When service members landed overseas, large crowds almost immediately rushed to line up for a chance to talk to their loved ones at these USO call centers. After deploying with very little notice and with no way to reach friends and family, the opportunity to call home offered many service members peace of mind.
Ray himself left behind family – his wife and 14-year-old son. Because of free Wi-Fi and call centers provided by USO Powidz, he was able to securely connect with his family waiting back at their duty station in England to let them know he was alright. Moments like these are a powerful reminder of why the USO’s work truly matters.
American troops remain combat-ready to support our partners in the region. But luckily, service members on high-stakes deployments in Eastern Europe – and their families – can find comfort in knowing they have an extended USO family that offers support and reassurance wherever they are stationed.
So they never feel forgotten. So they can focus on their mission. So they can come home safely.
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