By Danielle DeSimone
When you join the military, you know that deployments are inevitable. You’ve prepared for the challenges that may come with them – austere and dangerous locations, separation from loved ones, missing the holidays and special events, limited access to the comforts of home and more.
But you can never prepare for the shock and grief of losing a loved one while thousands of miles away on the front lines.
This is the story of how one deployed soldier overcame the loss of a family member by extending a helping hand to his fellow service members – with a little help from football and the USO.
A Solider Inspired to Give Back
U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Traevon Simmons was not new to the concept of military service and the difficulties of deployment when he deployed to Eastern Europe. After all, he had served in the Army for 13 years so far and had also previously deployed to Afghanistan in 2010.
But Traevon, like many other American service members, was deployed to Eastern Europe somewhat suddenly in March 2022, following Russia’s invasion and war in Ukraine. As he left for Lithuania, Traevon left behind his wife, three daughters and numerous other family members and friends.
Compared to his first deployment to the Middle East, this deployment to Eastern Europe was clearly different just at first glance: rather than miles and miles of arid desert, there were miles and miles of forest and snow. Infrastructure in some of these Eastern European locations, built quickly in response to the conflict in Ukraine, was limited. Access to things like internet was notoriously difficult.
But then, a few months later, life dealt him another, even more difficult challenge: his mother passed away while he was deployed, and soon after, his father fell ill. He was given leave to briefly return home to be with his family, and upon his return to Europe, he was repositioned in Poland.
However, with the loss of his mother, Traevon found himself struggling.
“I just felt myself – I wouldn’t say ‘spiraling’ – but I felt myself just not wanting to be alone. It was bad for me to be alone.”
So he went to the USO.
Traevon decided to volunteer within the USO Powidz center in Poland so that he could spend his free time off-duty around other people and in a positive environment.
Because there are no large communities of American civilians in down range locations such as Eastern Europe or the Middle East, these centers – staffed by only a handful of USO employees who live permanently in the location – rely on service members like Traevon as volunteers to help carry out center programs.
Relatively soon after he began volunteering at the USO center, Traevon realized it was the middle of football season and that if he was interested in watching the games live, then other service members might be interested in watching as well. Traevon – a passionate Denver Broncos fan – approached the USO team and offered up his own streaming device, which he had brought with him on deployment, for the center’s use, and also offered to facilitate NFL watch parties for the center.
“He has been utterly instrumental with everything,” said USO Center Operations Manager Dana Quinones, who is one of the handful of USO employees based out of Poland. “He has been completely the one that takes charge. I just get out of the way and he runs through everything.”
Traevon worked with Dana to get an NFL Game Pass so that the USO center could play multiple games at once, on different TVs throughout the center. That way, lots of service members backing all different teams from around the country could cheer on their players.
“All I wanted was just to sit down, watch some games, have some good conversations with people, talk trash a little bit to each other about each other’s teams and have everyone just rooting for the teams,” Traevon said.
Little did he know that his simple idea of watching football games together would build a community.
The Need for a Supportive Community in Poland
Deploying to Poland and other down range locations in Eastern Europe can be challenging.
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. In the meantime, service members who arrived in places like Poland, Lithuania and Romania have spent 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.
These locations are also somewhat austere, located far from large cities, and the bases have limited forms of entertainment, leaving service members with few places to go besides their barracks when they’re off duty.
There is also, of course, the high-pressure nature of some of these locations in that they are only miles from a war zone. Additionally, troops are far from home, separated from their family members and friends not only by distance, but also by time differences and unreliable internet connectivity. As a result, these deployments can take a toll on service members.
That’s why having a place to regroup is crucial. A place where you can connect with each other and loved ones back in the United States. A place that feels welcoming, comfortable and can help you recharge. A place that feels like home.
A place like USO Powidz.
USO Powidz officially opened its doors in Poland in November 2021, serving as a resource on the rural Army base there. Like most of the other 250+ USO centers around the world, USO Powidz is equipped with comfortable furniture, free Wi-Fi, televisions, video games, music equipment, a kitchen stocked with refreshments and other amenities.
“Obviously when the center was originally created, it was without Ukraine as a consideration and the situation with it,” said Dana. “So, it’s a fairly small center, but it’s incredibly impactful now.”
Dana explained that now, with the influx of deployments to Poland following the war in Ukraine, this small USO center hosts thousands of service members each week. These troops treat the center like a second home, many of them staying anywhere between four to eight hours a day, every day, when they’re not on duty.
Providing different programs and activities for this many service members – all with different interests – could be a challenge, but luckily USO volunteers like Traevon were ready to step up and support.
A Football Tradition Builds Community and Positivity
As soon as Traevon was given the green light to organize NFL watch parties, he jumped into action.
“Once he talked to his friends and they talked to their friends, we ended up getting an additional 20 volunteers just to help for the NFL watch parties,” Dana said.
In preparation for each watch party, which take place every Sunday night, Traevon took it upon himself to cook and prepare snacks. With everything from chicken tacos, to pizza rolls, to pasta, these homemade meals offer his fellow service members a little taste of home in a location where Super Bowl Sunday snacks aren’t very common.
Given the time difference, most football games begin at 7 or 11:30 p.m. and carry on through the night, with some service members so dedicated that they will stay in the USO center until 3 a.m. – or sometimes even 6 a.m. – to cheer on their favorite team. Through it all, Traevon stays through the night into Monday morning to facilitate the watch parties and run the USO center.
Traevon was surprised by how enthusiastic service members were about the watch parties. It turned out that he wasn’t the only one who had brought his team’s gear – service members arrived for each of the watch parties decked out in their home team’s jerseys, hats and more.
Then, with multiple games playing on different TVs, the enthusiasm and energy around the games was magnified, with each viewing party in the center cheering or booing as they watched their teams play. Each week, the viewing parties have become a consistent evening of light and levity in an otherwise challenging deployment location – and especially for Traevon, who was initially inspired to organize these events after the death of his mother.
The loss of his mother while deployed gave Traevon a unique perspective on how, in addition to all of the daily challenges of deployment, other service members around him could also be struggling with unseen, personal challenges, just like him. Suddenly, the NFL watch parties became so much more than just football, and Travon’s role as a USO volunteer became so much larger than simply volunteering during his free time.
“I knew that if I’m going through something, somebody else can be going through something,” he said. “And they can come here to just escape that for a little bit, just to get some smiles or just pure happiness.”
Whether service members watch sports or not, Traevon explained that the goal of the football watch parties was to simply gather service members together in order to recharge and be ready to deal with those personal challenges the next day.
In fact, by happenstance, with the games taking place on Sunday evenings, the watch parties were the perfect way to end – and start – the week. The games give service members something to talk about among themselves that Monday morning and throughout the week, but they also help them stay connected to loved ones back home. Because he can keep up with the games live, Traevon can also discuss them with his friends and father-in-law back home via text messages, which helps with feelings of isolation during deployment.
And during months-long deployments, that isolation can be all-consuming. As a married father of three, Traevon understands how important these little moments of fun and connection can be to those deployed far from loved ones.
“Being away is never easy. Doesn’t get easier, it gets hard – especially when you start having kids and your relationships and your marriages … And then you just get ripped away for nine months to a year at a time and it can hit hard.”
As a result, service members have to find a sense of home, community and connection in other, more creative ways – such as by watching football games at the local USO center, which was designed specifically to be a source of comfort for those far from home. And much of that sense of “home” is thanks to dedicated volunteers like Traevon, who understands all too well what it’s like to be separated from loved ones during a difficult time.
“If I can bring a little bit of home to everyone – and especially if someone’s going through something – and just help them get through the day, just to want to get out of bed … whether they share their stories or not, if I can just help them and let them know, hey, you’re not alone,” he said.
“It is tough out there. It is rough out there. But trust me, there are people here. You do have people here that can become family and that will help them through it.”
And Traevon’s work during the football watch parties in Poland is doing just that – helping people. The USO Powidz center has received feedback from service members on how much of a positive impact the watch parties have been having on their deployments. Traevon shared that it meant a lot to hear that his attempts at lifting others up was working within his own military community in Poland.
“Traevon’s work and the volunteer work that he does motivates me to be more positive,” Dana said, explaining that he has inspired her to be more optimistic not only in her USO work, but in her day-to-day personal life as well. Dana acknowledged that their location in Poland can be an especially difficult one, even for USO staff.
“And so when you have people around you that are so positive and so uplifting, it makes even the USO staff want to work even harder.”
Now, after almost nine months away from his loved ones, Traevon, who was USO Powidz’s Volunteer of the Month for November 2022, will soon be able to return home – just in time for the holidays. Or, as he puts it, “I’ll be home for the Super Bowl.”
However, he has full confidence in the service members who will take up his mantle after he leaves Poland, and will continue the watch parties without him. In true, positive Traevon fashion, he suggested that his successors may even have some new ideas to improve the watch parties and “make it even better.”
As Traevon’s deployment in Eastern Europe ends, he leaves behind a legacy of positivity, kindness and the love of football in his wake.
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