By Danielle DeSimone and Trey Smith
Russia invaded Ukraine one year ago, killing thousands and upending the stability of Europe. This time last year, U.S. troops were immediately deployed to Europe to shore up the defenses of our NATO allies and to protect our freedoms on a global scale.
Deployments are always challenging, but especially when service members are stationed at high pressure, front-line locations such as Eastern Europe. And that is why the USO went right alongside them, providing service members with support, resources and a connection to home, just when they needed it most.
But we couldn’t do this crucial work without our generous supporters. Thanks to you, we were able to open 8 USO centers in the region, deliver approximately 33,000 USO Care Packages and reach about 240,000 individual service members with USO programs and events.
Most importantly, we were able to let our nation’s military members know that Americans have their backs, no matter where their service takes them.
Here are 12 moments in the past year in Eastern Europe that you made happen, thanks to your support of the USO.
1. A soldier stays in touch with his younger brother
It’s a ritual U.S. Army Spc. Lazarus McKinney has done countless times: whenever his little brother has trouble sleeping, Lazarus reads him a book. Then, Lazarus was deployed to an undisclosed location in Poland last year in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
But thanks to generous donors who support the USO, he was still able to read his little brother a story through the USO Reading Program.
The USO Reading Program offers service members 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, from anywhere in the world.
McKinney explained that recording himself reading a book to his little brother helped him remain in a positive frame of mind during an otherwise stressful deployment.
“Hopefully it will make his day [too].”
2. A soldier finds support on deployment
Deployments can take a toll on service members. Between long days in the field, being far from friends and family, living in an environment that’s totally unfamiliar – and the additional stress of being on the front lines of a conflict.
“Sometimes it gets really lonely out here and because I’m not able to talk to my family, sometimes it gets really hard,” U.S. Army Spc. Terrance Smith said.
But there is a silver lining: Terrance credited the USO events and services in Poland with keeping his spirits high on deployment.
“[With the] USO being here, it’s morale-building,” Terrance said. “Seeing other people here, knowing that they care, it makes it all the difference … [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.”
3. Service members deployed without cell phones can still call home
When the first wave of U.S. troops deployed to Eastern Europe in early 2022, many were required to leave behind personal cell phones and laptops, leaving them with very few options to contact loved ones back home.
So, when service members landed in Eastern Europe, the first thing the USO tackled was connectivity. Here, a USO tent equipped with cell phones is pictured in a field at an undisclosed location in Poland. Upon arrival, service members used the phones to call family, friends and loved ones to let them know they had arrived safely.
4. USO Care Packages deliver a piece of home to deploying troops
When U.S. troops arrived in Poland, the USO was there to greet them with welcome kits and USO Care Packages. These welcome kits and care packages were far more than just a bag full of snacks and toiletries – 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.
5. Service members receive a morale boost
In the past year, USO staff have hosted thousands of programs and events throughout Eastern Europe – in both established, brick-and-mortar USO centers and on the road at expeditionary locations – to provide service members with crucial support and keep spirits high. This way, they can return to their mission recharged and focused.
“I just want to say thank you guys and your organization for being here,” said a deployed service member. “This really means a lot to all of us as our morale, in general, has been really low and you brighten our day when you come see us. This is the first time since we got here that we heard music. Thank you!”
6. Troops recharge with a break from realities of deployment
U.S. troops deployed to a remote and austere location in Eastern Europe took a break from the reality of life on the front lines to participate in a USO-hosted bingo event in the middle of a forest.
7. The USO delivers hot meals and a cold Coca-Cola to service members on-the-go
When we say “the USO goes where they go,” we mean it. Service members pictured here at an undisclosed location in Eastern Europe received a hot meal and a cold Coca-Cola, courtesy of the USO.
8. Service members have a comfortable place to turn to in Eastern Europe at USO Centers
Service members are pictured sharing a snack and a laugh inside of a USO center downrange in Eastern Europe. Having a place to go for comfortable seating, entertainment, home-cooked meals and a break from military duties can have a huge impact on deployed service members.
9. Video games provide a chance to unwind and have a little fun on the front lines
Service members in Latvia play video games in a pop-up USO center in a tent. Studies have shown that gaming can improve military mental health and morale, but it also allows service members to bond with each other and take a break from the stress of their daily duties.
10. Service members receive a morale boost from USO Entertainment
Service members in a pop-up USO center in Poland video chat with actor Oscar Isaac.
The USO has long been known for bringing entertainers to the front lines to boost morale and let troops know that their sacrifices are not forgotten. These service members are participating in an 80+ year-old tradition – albeit virtually.
“On behalf of the soldiers in Poland, thank you so much for making this work,” said the brigade commander of those in the crowd. “The soldiers were all smiles tonight after the interview. A much-needed morale boost from the cold, muddy fields in Poland. Incredible!”
11. Military spouses stationed in Poland alongside service members find community through the USO
Although a majority of U.S. troops deployed to Eastern Europe in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine were unaccompanied (that is, sent without their families), there are some military families permanently stationed in Poland.
For the military spouses in these families, being stationed overseas in a location like Poland – especially with an ongoing conflict just a day’s drive away – can be stressful and isolating. That’s why the USO created a space for these military spouses to meet and share their experiences of life in the military through a USO Coffee Connections event in Poland.
“It was great to just connect with everyone, blow off some steam … and just come together as one,” said one of the military spouses at the event. “It’s hard being a military spouse overseas, but having a community like this makes it all the better.”
12. Service members receive some holiday spirit, courtesy of the USO
A service member in Poland receives a holiday treat and a moment of levity from Santa Claus while deployed during the holiday season. “Santa” traveled with the USO’s Expeditionary team to remote outposts throughout the country to ensure that troops – far from home, loved ones and the traditions of the season – could still celebrate the holidays.
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