By Heather Huggins
During this holiday season, service members throughout many bases in the Middle East are digging through old storage areas and dusty shipping containers to try to find any leftover holiday decorations from years past. These left-over lights and wall hangings may be broken, busted and dusty, but they help create the best semblance of the holidays in a land so far from home, loved ones and traditions.
In a place like Al Asad Air Base, Iraq, the holidays don’t always line up with the stereotypical, picturesque settings of snow and carolers. However, the local USO center on base does its best to recreate the same feelings of being home for the holidays through USO Holidays programming. Each holiday season, the USO provides service members stationed around the world with ways to feel connected to the warmth and festivities that they may be missing at home.
U.S. Army Capt. James Turbyfill is one of those service members, currently deployed to Al Asad Air Base. He has found solace throughout his deployment through his interactions with the USO each day.
To get away from the stresses of his front line duties, James spends his free time in the USO center. He and his teammates have a lunchtime ritual: they head to the USO and settle the bet on who that day’s ping-pong champion will be. While James doesn’t always walk away the victor, he and his team have a blast trying to figure it out.
“Throughout my time here at Al Asad, the USO has been a home away from home,” James said.
“From holiday events to daily competitions amongst peers to vouch for the top ping-pong position, the USO has provided plenty of entertainment.”
And in locations such as Iraq, entertainment is crucial. Aside from places like their barracks or the mess hall, service members stationed downrange have limited places to go once they’ve completed their missions or daily duties. It’s important for troops to be able to recharge and relax after a long day out in the field, to keep up morale and operational readiness. Programs, activities and the amenities at their local USO center can make all the difference in keeping spirits high – especially during the holiday season.
As the holidays approached, James and the other members of his unit wanted to get into the spirit of the season, and USO Holidays programming has been instrumental in that effort. The USO Fall Fest was a great experience that kicked off the holiday season and showed James’ team how impactful the USO mission can be in keeping service members connected to home on key holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas.
While these deployed service members missed eating with their families and loved ones that evening, everyone in attendance was able to break away from that feeling of loss by playing games, wining prizes and making the best of their military family for Thanksgiving alongside the USO.
USO Al Asad’s Tree Lighting event was also a pivotal moment for James and his team. Just when they didn’t think they would get the chance to experience the twinkling lights of a decorated tree, they were excited to see that the USO was there to help recreate the magic of a moment they cherished so much from back home.
The base commander was in attendance at this event and provided the perfect dose of motivation and spirit for the occasion. There was a true harmony in the air as the service members counted down to the lighting of the tree with a cup of hot cocoa in their hands. The service members expressed that they were grateful to have an event like this to help them continue experiencing the joys and traditions of their favorite holidays that they would otherwise be celebrating back home.
While James won’t be home to read “A Night Before Christmas” to his two children on Christmas Eve this year, he makes sure to take full advantage of the USO’s Reading Program.
Through this program, service members are given the opportunity to 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.
The USO Reading Program has been a staple for James and his family to stay connected throughout this deployment. Thanks to this program, James has been able to regularly record bedtime stories for his children Cooper and Emma to watch over and over again while he is away. It helps bridge the gap in their nightly traditions, regardless of the distance between them.
“The USO provided additional services such as the [Reading] Program, which allowed me to read books to my two quickly-growing children,“ James said. "Just for a moment, it provided a sense of being closer with my wife and kids.”
James is looking forward to maintaining his title of Ping-Pong Champion at USO Al Asad center during the final months of his deployment, but nothing compares to how much he is looking forward to getting back home to his wife and kids.
In the meantime, the USO will be there for him, keeping spirits bright, every step of the way.
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