By Danielle DeSimone
It has been nearly one year since Russia invaded Ukraine, launching a war that has killed soldiers and civilians alike, displaced thousands of Ukrainians from their homes and destabilized the entire European region.
Nearby, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania – all of which are NATO allies – border Ukraine as the fighting escalates and threatens to spill over into NATO territory.
The United States has pledged to defend every inch of NATO land, which is why, in the wake of Russia’s first attacks in February 2022, thousands of U.S. service members were deployed to Eastern Europe in support of our allies.
During this uncertain time, American service members and their families were dealing with the real-world ramifications of the war as they quickly packed their bags and deployed across the globe – often with only 24 hours-notice.
But through it all, even before their boots hit the ground, the USO was by their side thanks to the generosity of military supporters. In the months following the initial invasion, as more than 100,000 U.S. troops have been deployed and stationed within Europe, the USO has continued to offer crucial programs and services to the military and their families when they need it most.
Here is a look at the USO’s support of U.S. service members in Eastern Europe so far, and how we plan to do even more in the coming years.
The USO’s Immediate Response to American Deployments Following Russian Invasion of Ukraine
Early in 2022 during the surge of deployments, some units had been put on standby to deploy, while others were given very little notice. This meant that all the stress and anxiety of preparing for deployment was condensed into a matter of days or hours, rather than weeks or months. These sudden deployments can be jarring not only for the service members, but also for their families.
“This is something they train for. Soldiers do layout after layout preparing to grab their bags and go at a moment’s notice,” said the spouse of a soldier on Fort Bragg, North Carolina, whose service member was on standby to deploy in February. “Each time the phone rings or he gets a text, we wonder if it’s time.”
“No matter how much a spouse mentally prepares, nothing can explain the way it feels to watch them walk out the door.”
The USO understands how disorienting and difficult deployments can be for the military community, so we immediately jumped into action and stood by the side of our service members and military families every step of the way.
As service members departed both the United States and their duty stations in Europe for their assigned destinations along the Ukrainian border, USO teams were at assembly areas, providing snacks, games and entertainment to take with them, along with USO Care Packages filled with helpful items like travel-sized toiletries, or additional snacks and drink mixes. These care packages are constructed with a durable nylon material and are designed to attach to most military-issued gear – ideal for troops on the move.
For military families left at home, the USO provided a warm and welcoming place to come together. Here, caring staff and volunteers prepared home-cooked dinners to help ease the burden of day-to-day tasks during a stressful time and provided a sense of support and community among fellow military spouses.
When service members arrived at their destinations, USO teams in Europe were ready and waiting to greet the newly arrived troops with welcome kits. The welcome kits and USO Care Packages that these service members received throughout their journey were far more than just a pouch strapped to their bags – they were a reminder of home, a token of appreciation, a promise that even as they left their families behind, they were not alone.
The Challenges U.S. Service Members Face on Eastern European Deployments
Upon arrival in Eastern Europe, service members faced the unique challenges of this particular deployment.
Several military outposts in Eastern Europe were constructed immediately after the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, and so resources on these bases are still being built and expanded upon.
“We were staying for an unknown duration – two weeks or six months,” said U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Ray Vinton, who was deployed to Poland in February 2022. “We were working out of a bare area and had to set everything up.”
Many service members who arrived in places like Poland and Romania spent – and will continue to spend – months living in tents in a forest clearing, surrounded only by trees for miles. In the winter, snow is common, and temperatures in this region can drop below −20 °F. Many of these bases do not yet have paved roads, so when it rains or snows, service members must slough through mud.
Beyond the physical challenges of being deployed to an austere location in Eastern Europe, another challenge is connectivity – specifically, being able to connect back home with loved ones.
Many of those who first deployed in February and March of 2022 were ordered to leave personal communication devices at home, which meant that they had no easy way to reach their loved ones.
Although necessary for operational security, suddenly leaving on deployment without quick access to Wi-Fi or phone calls can be difficult. Even the simple act of sending a short text to your anxious spouse to let them know you’ve arrived safely becomes an immense challenge.
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, who are also separated by a 6 to 9-hour time difference. As we approach the holiday season, this separation from loved ones and the inability to easily stay in touch can take its toll.
“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,” said U.S. Army Spc. Terrance Smith, who was deployed to Poland. “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.
And because many of these bases are still being built up, 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. Given the high-pressure nature of some of these locations, only miles from a war zone, having a place to regroup is crucial.
But thanks to the generosity of supporters like you, the USO continues to be able to provide crucial support to service members in this region, connecting them to home and keeping spirits high no matter the challenge.
How the USO Has Worked to Meet the Needs of Deployed Troops in Eastern Europe
Over the past year, the USO has pivoted to meet the needs of the tens of thousands of service members suddenly stationed or deployed to Europe.
When troops first arrived in Eastern Europe, one of the first challenges the USO tackled was connectivity. This was especially important for service members deployed without personal devices such as cell phones or laptops, and so the USO immediately set up “connectivity tents” filled with cell phones on a secure network, so that troops could safely call home and get in touch with their loved ones.
The USO also wanted to ensure that service members deployed to the region didn’t feel forgotten, and knew that the USO – and by extension, the American people – had their backs. And so, USO expeditionary teams quickly began traveling throughout Eastern Europe, bringing USO programs, services and a piece of home on-the-go. This could include everything from a warm, home-cooked meal to a game of trivia to the delivery of USO Care Packages. For service members eating MREs (that is, a “Meal, Ready to Eat” field ration), who have limited entertainment resources, or just need a reminder of home, these moments can make all the difference.
For service members deployed to remote locations where travel to a center may be difficult, the USO sent USO2GO kits and “Programs in a Box,” so that these units could still enjoy entertainment and USO support, no matter where they were deployed.
Deployed service members can still read their children bedtime stories from the forests of Eastern Europe, miles from the war in Ukraine, thanks to the USO and its supporters. The USO expeditionary team took the USO Reading Program on-the-go by outfitting a USO vehicle with all the necessary equipment for the program and delivering it to troops deployed to undisclosed locations in Eastern Europe. Through this program, service members can 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.
As winter turned to spring and then summer, the USO began expanding its physical presence in Eastern Europe as well. After all, when deployed in a location that’s far from everything familiar, there’s nothing more comforting than a home away from home – and that’s exactly what USO centers offer service members stationed overseas.
We established USO centers in locations including Poland, Hungary and Romania, which were equipped with comfortable furniture, free Wi-Fi, televisions, video games, music equipment and other amenities that are standard at the more than 250 USO locations worldwide.
Here, service members who previously had limited places to go besides their barracks after duty now have a place to turn to for rest and relaxation. They can utilize the internet access to stay in touch with loved ones back home, recharge after a long day on a comfortable couch, bond with their fellow service members over a video game, record themselves reading a book to their child through the USO Reading Program, or take advantage of the numerous other USO programs and activities offered by USO staff in the region.
During the holiday season, these programs are especially important. It can be incredibly difficult to be far from home and loved ones during a time when most Americans gather together, which is why the USO aims to keep spirits bright during this time of year. This includes everything from driving pies across multiple countries’ borders to deliver a taste of home and Thanksgiving, to hosting holiday arts and crafts activities, to offering games and movies that remind service members of home.
Most importantly, these USO centers serve as a comfortable space that service members know they can turn to on the most challenging days of their deployment. And even for those service members stationed in locations that do not yet have a USO center, USO staff drive hundreds of miles every few weeks to deliver USO programs, meals and activities, ensuring that spirits are high.
“[With the] USO being here, it’s morale-building,” U.S. Army Spc. Terrance Smith 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.”
The Future of the USO and the U.S. Military in Eastern Europe
Although the generosity of our supporters has allowed the USO to provide this crucial support to service members throughout Eastern Europe over the past few months, there is much more to be done.
With more than 100,000 service members now deployed or stationed in Europe in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the number of military families in need of support has increased dramatically with no signs of stopping. In fact, the United States officially announced in June 2022 that there will be a more permanent U.S. troop posture in Europe moving forward, given the instability that is now permeating the region.
Where our military goes, so too does the USO. As the U.S. military expands its posture in Europe for the foreseeable future, the USO plans to do so as well. Through the Europe Expansion and Family Support Campaign, the USO hopes to expand our operations and the number of USO centers throughout the region, to better support the service members, military spouses and military families who need us most.
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