Soldier Deployed to Iraq During the Holidays Keeps Spirits High Through the USO

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.

Photo credit DOD/Army 1st Lt. Leland White

Soldiers assigned to the 1st Squadron, 3rd Cavalry Regiment, await extraction via a CH-47 Chinook during an aerial response force live-fire training exercise, Al Asad Air Base, Iraq, Oct. 31, 2018.

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.

Photo credit USO Photo

Capt. James Turbyfill (pictured right) wins a prize at a USO Mustache Contest.

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.

Capt. James Turbyfill (pictured center) makes holiday cards to send home to family alongside fellow soldiers during a USO Holidays event. | Photo credit USO Photo

“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.

Photo credit USO Photo

USO Holidays programming at Al Asad Air Base has been instrumental in keeping service members connected to home and traditions.

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.

Photo credit USO Photo

Service members play games at USO Al Asad’s Fall Fest.

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.

Two service members having fun at the USO’s Tree Lighting Event | Photo credit USO Photo

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.

Photo credit USO Photo

The base commander at Al Asad Air Base speaks to service members at the Tree Lighting Event.

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.

Photo credit USO Photo

A military mom reads a book to her child in the back of a pickup truck, which the USO turned into a makeshift reading room in Iraq for deployed service members during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

“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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