By Danielle DeSimone
It has been one year since Russia invaded Ukraine, setting into motion the largest air, sea and ground assault in Europe since World War II.
In the 12 months since Russia’s attacks began, the war in Ukraine has destroyed entire cities, claimed over 200,000 lives – thousands of which were civilians – and shattered the stability of the entire European continent.
The United States swiftly took action, stepping up to support our democratic allies. 40,000 American troops deployed to Eastern Europe in response to the invasion, and in total, there are now approximately 100,000 American service members either deployed or permanently stationed in Europe in support of our NATO allies and the Ukrainian protection of their sovereignty and freedom.
Our nation’s military must answer the call, no matter the mission or location, and where they go, the USO goes with them. From the very first days of the war, with troops sleeping in tents in frigid temperatures just miles from the Ukrainian border, to today’s quickly-growing network of USO support throughout the Eastern European region, we have been with these service members every step of the way.
While our troops and their families face the immense hardships of deployment and relocations to Europe, it’s the USO’s duty to make sure they have the support they need in times of crisis and uncertainty. Here’s a look at how the USO has supported the U.S. military in Eastern Europe in the one year since the invasion of Ukraine.
USO Support of the U.S. Military in Europe Before the Invasion of Ukraine
For decades, the USO has been a place for U.S. troops and military families stationed in Europe to turn to, with multiple centers in countries such as Germany, Italy and Spain. Meanwhile, in Eastern Europe – even before Russia invaded Ukraine – the USO already had a footprint of support in the region.
This support initially arrived in the form of expeditionary programs, such as the delivery of USO Care Packages to forward-deployed troops, or utilizing USO2GO kits to build unstaffed, “pop-up” USO centers.
Then, in November 2021, the USO officially opened the doors to its new, brick-and-mortar center in Eastern Europe: USO Powidz, located on Powidz Air Base in Poland.
Since then, the center has served as a home-away-from-home for U.S. troops deployed to this remote and rural part of Poland. 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. Centers like these provide troops with some comforts of home while in a location far from everything familiar.
Just three months after its opening, USO Powidz would become – and remains – a crucial outpost of support for the thousands of American service members deployed to Eastern Europe in the wake of the war in Ukraine.
USO Support of American Troops in the First Days of the War in Ukraine
In the first days of the war in Ukraine, the USO worked quickly to meet the immediate needs of U.S. troops deployed to the region. In fact, two weeks before Russia officially launched its attacks on Ukraine, U.S. troops – and the USO – were already preparing for a possible conflict.
As tensions between Russia and Ukraine escalated, thousands of U.S. troops were placed on heightened alert to deploy and their families had to quickly adjust to the possibility that their loved one might be heading to the front lines at a moment’s notice.
“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, who was on standby to deploy. “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,“ she added.
To help ease the strain of preparing for a possible deployment, local USO centers hosted home-cooked meals for service members and their families, knowing that amid such a busy time, having a warm meal ready can be not just helpful, but also incredibly comforting. USO teams also began preparing to send thousands of USO Care Packages, slated to be distributed to service members on standby for deployment.
Then, on February 24, 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine.
Thousands of U.S. troops began to deploy to Europe to shore up the defenses of our allied nations bordering Ukraine, and thanks to the generosity of our supporters, the USO was able to be by the side of our service members on their way to deployment, both here at home and in Europe, every step of the way. Having this constant support through every stage of the deployment journey can be incredibly comforting to service members and their families during an otherwise stressful time.
As service members prepared to depart the United States and their duty stations in Europe, unsure of how long they would be away from home, USO teams were also at these assembly areas. Here, we distributed snacks, games and activities to take with them, as well as thousands of USO Care Packages.
When these deploying service members’ boots hit the ground in Germany, Poland, Romania and other parts of Eastern Europe, the USO was also there, awaiting their arrival with welcome packs and – crucially – a way to call home.
Many of the first service members deployed to Eastern Europe were ordered to leave personal communication devices – such as cell phones and laptops – at home, which meant they had no easy way to reach their loved ones. Although necessary for operational security, suddenly deploying without access to Wi-Fi or phone calls can be difficult. Even the simple act of sending a short text to your anxious parent or spouse to let them know you’ve arrived safely becomes an immense challenge.
But here at the USO, we understand the importance of connection – and that’s exactly what we provided.
In the first days of American unit arrivals, makeshift USO call centers were set up in tents in the middle of muddy fields at front-line deployment locations, where service members could utilize phones to call home. Service members could make use of these USO phones entirely for free, all while remaining in compliance with U.S. military operational readiness and security protocols.
Additionally, to keep them fueled for their first days on the ground, the USO also began providing troops with home-cooked meals, often prepared outside, right beside these units’ field locations.
“The first hot meal these guys had was from the USO,” said the 82nd Airborne’s Command Sgt. Major David Pitt in March 2022. “It shows our soldiers that people care.”
These initial moments of support may seem simple at first glance, but they can make all the difference. 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 and friends behind, they were not alone. A hot pancake breakfast upon arrival made the prospect of living in a forest clearing for the next few months somewhat less daunting. And when they needed that connection to their loved ones, the USO was there to bridge the gap.
The first hours, days or weeks of a rapid deployment can be incredibly stressful and disorienting, as these service members must leave home at a moment’s notice and go toward the unknown. As Russia’s attacks on Ukraine escalated, these American service members were operating under the knowledge that they were mere miles away from the conflict, and their presence could possibly be the only deterrence to it spreading into allied territory.
That is why the USO’s support was crucial in these first days of U.S. deployments to Eastern Europe, and why we have remained by their side in the months that followed.
How the USO’s Support in Eastern Europe Grew in 2022
As it became clear that the war in Ukraine was going to be a prolonged conflict, the USO – a nonprofit organization – saw the need to expand our physical presence and operations in Eastern Europe, and we quickly got to work in partnership with the Department of Defense (DOD).
Throughout the course of 2022, the USO set up two brick-and-mortar USO centers on bases in Eastern Europe – one in Poland, one in Romania – in addition to USO Powidz, Poland. USO employees staff these centers; that is, American civilians who choose to live and work overseas in support of our troops. These USO staff ensure that our USO centers are a place where troops can recharge and forget, just for a moment, the realities of their deployment.
Home-cooked meals, trivia and bingo nights, arts & craft activities and video games are just some of the programs and events that the USO has hosted in these centers, with the express goal of keeping spirits high.
For those hoping to connect with loved ones back home, service members can visit the USO to utilize free Wi-Fi and phone lines, or participate in the USO Reading Program, by recording themselves reading a book for a child in their life, waiting for them back home.
During the holiday season, service members were still able to celebrate many of their traditions thanks to USO Care Packages and USO-hosted holiday meals and activities, which delivered a piece of home and holiday spirit in a time that can otherwise be incredibly challenging on deployment.
However, for locations too small, too remote or too dangerous for a staffed USO center, the USO still maintains a presence on these bases. In the one year since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the USO stood up six unstaffed USO centers throughout the region, which have all of the same amenities of regular USO centers, but are simply run by a team of service members who use their free time by serving as USO volunteers.
Having a safe and comfortable space to turn to on deployment can be crucial for our troops’ morale and mental health, especially in locations where a comfortable space to unwind in may be hard to come by. Because many of the military outposts in Eastern Europe were constructed immediately after the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, resources on these bases are still being built and expanded upon.
Because of this, service members who arrived in certain parts of the region 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. In addition, many of these bases do not yet have paved roads, so when it rains or snows, service members must slough through mud.
In these challenging physical conditions, USO centers serve as a warm and relaxing place of respite, where service members can use USO resources to either connect back home, take a moment to themselves, or bond with each other.
But for locations with no staffed or unstaffed USO center, the USO remains committed to “go where they go.” USO staff throughout Europe drive hundreds of miles every few weeks to deliver USO programs, meals and activities to service members at these undisclosed locations, ensuring that morale remains high and that they know the American people have their backs.
No matter where service members have been deployed in Eastern Europe in the past year, the USO has always been there by their side as an unwavering pillar of support.
The Road Ahead
When the war in Ukraine first began, the USO had just one staffed, brick-and-mortar USO center in Eastern Europe. Now there are three, with two more centers planned for opening in spring 2023.
In addition to the six un-staffed USO centers stood up in locations throughout the region, six more that will be opening in the coming months.
In just one year, we have delivered approximately 33,000 USO Care Packages, 800 USO Programs-in-a-Box and nearly 1,000 programs in the field. In addition, more than 55,000 service members have utilized USO2GO kits, and in total, we have supported service members more than 240,000 times by USO activations in Eastern Europe.
These numbers demonstrate the USO’s reach and unique ability to go where no other nonprofit goes in support of the U.S. military. But more importantly, they show just how much of an impact our generous donors have made in the lives of our nation’s service members.
Thanks to the USO’s supporters, a soldier in Romania, separated from his 2-year-old daughter for months, was still able to read her a bedtime story. Another soldier, devastated by the loss of his mother while he was deployed to Poland, was able to build a community and find a purpose at USO Powidz. Another soldier has been able to navigate the challenges of his first-ever deployment with the help of morale-boosting USO activities.
“[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.”
Without the support of the American people and thousands of USO volunteers, the USO would not be able to carry out our crucial work in providing deployed troops with a touch of home, keeping spirits high and connecting them to family, friends and loved ones. Thanks to you, they know their service is valued and not forgotten.
Together, we have accomplished so much in the past year. And together, we will continue to support our nation’s military in Eastern Europe, and around the world, no matter how long or how far their service takes them.
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