By Alex Liccione and Holly Coffer
It’s only 2 days until Christmas, but at an undisclosed military location somewhere in West Africa, it’s almost 90 degrees Fahrenheit.
To the American service members deployed here over the holiday season, it doesn’t quite feel like the holidays. After all, amidst the miles and miles of surrounding desert terrain, there’s not a snowflake in sight, and their options for holiday traditions or activities at this deployment location are extremely limited.
That’s why, this year, the USO traveled to the region to offer support – and ended up receiving support from troops in return.
The Challenges of Being Deployed to Africa During the Holidays
Every deployment bears its own sacrifices and challenges for the brave service members protecting our nation. From being separated from loved ones, to limited access to basic amenities, to added stressors associated with working in austere and dangerous locations … the list may vary, but for service members deployed in Africa, they often select “all of the above.”
Due to the remote and often dangerous nature of these military bases in Africa, the locations are stark, with limited resources. Service members have approximately one dining hall, one general store that is approximately the size of a supply closet to buy basic supplies from and most of their barracks are in trailers and tents. But even options at the store are extremely limited, as mail deliveries to these locations are infrequent, and supplies and basic amenities are not readily available.
Being deployed to a high-pressure location on the front lines can be stressful enough, but without the comforts of home, these locations can have an even further effect on service members’ mental health and morale.
The holiday season only amplifies these hardships while on deployment. Service members must miss family gatherings, favorite meals and participating in heartfelt annual traditions, making it difficult to get into the holiday spirit while thousands of miles away in a decidedly very different environment.
In these critical moments, the USO steps in to provide a connection to family, home and country to deployed troops all across the globe, including Africa, and even in the most remote of locations.
In many locations around the globe, service members deployed to front-line locations can often turn to a USO center on base for a comfortable, home-like setting in which they can relax and recharge. But for some service members, their deployment locations are too far, too small, or possibly too dangerous for a brick-and-mortar USO center to be built.
That is why the USO regularly sends teams to these locations for weeks at a time, in which they travel and arrive to provide temporary relief in an otherwise challenging deployment location.
Through both in-person visits by staff and remote support through deliveries of USO Care Packages, supplies and programs-in-a-box, the USO ensures no opportunity is missed to boost the morale of service members, and this year is no exception.
How the USO Supported – and Was Supported By – U.S. Service Members in West Africa
Recently, USO team members traveled to locations in West Africa to provide USO Holidays programming and cheer to these remote and austere military sites. Through hosting a variety of events including Halloween Pumpkin Painting, Turkey Bingo, Trivia Nights, Spooky Glow-in-the-Dark Dodgeball tournaments, Cinnamon and Pumpkin Pancake Breakfasts and more, the holiday spirit was contagious and service members received a much-appreciated connection to home.
Staff Sgt. Mevis and Master Sgt. White attended several of these USO events and later shared that “the USO has amazing prizes!“
Prizes might seem like a somewhat small thing to focus on in light of their challenging deployment, but for many service members who participated in these USO Holidays events, they can mean so much more. These programs and events go far beyond the thrill of winning prizes - they offer troops in remote and dangerous locations with just a moment of levity and holiday cheer that they otherwise might not have had. And given the restrictions and challenges in mailing supplies to this location, these USO prizes may even be the only holiday gifts that these service members receive this year, serving as reminders of home during the holiday season.
Other service members shared their joy in finally eating a home-cooked meal.
"I love all the activities the USO hosted, especially the pancake breakfast,” said Staff Sgt. Hopper. “We got to eat actual eggs!”
Some of these activities may seem simple at first glance, but for service members who haven’t been able to have something even as basic as eggs for breakfast in months, a home-cooked meal from the USO can make a huge difference in morale.
The USO team on the ground also – accidentally – received an unexpected glimpse into the regular, daily life and sacrifices of service members deployed to austere locations in Africa. When the USO team’s luggage did not arrive to the base until nearly two weeks into their trip, they spent days with no access to basic amenities, clothes, or comforts of home. They only had the clothes on their back and their carry-on bags full of USO program equipment.
Suddenly, the challenges of being deployed to remote locations such as Africa – and the importance of support services from the USO – came to life in real-time for these USO employees.
But luckily, they received support from the very service members they had come to support. Without hesitation, these deployed service members stepped in to offer help to the USO team. Service members took toiletries and supplies from their own limited resources and gave them freely to the USO team members. Even when they had little themselves, they did not even think twice about giving their belongings away to help others in need, stating, “the USO is our family, and we take care of each other.”
It was a clear representation of how our nation’s service members are ready to serve at a moment’s notice – no matter the mission, big or small.
As the USO, we are always by the side of our service members, and they are always by ours as well. The impact of USO Care Packages, supply deliveries and USO programs ripple across locations like this, where service members endure these realities of limited resources on a regular basis.
This December, USO team members will continue to spread holiday cheer across Africa. Through in-person holiday programming in Djibouti and Kenya, to embassy support across the continent, to program-in-a-box and supply deliveries to remote sites in West Africa, the USO is bringing holiday traditions, seasonal gatherings and a taste of home to service members downrange in the most unique ways.
No matter the location, the USO is by their side bringing a piece of home to them during the holiday season and beyond.
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