How a U.S. Soldier and USO Volunteer in Honduras Helped Lay the Foundation for a New USO Center

By Danielle DeSimone

The USO’s mission of supporting service members and their families – quite literally wherever their service takes them – is a crucial one. But reaching members of the military community in every corner of the globe is a monumental responsibility, which is why we rely on our team of 20,000 USO volunteers to help run the daily operations, programs and events happening in our centers.

Even USO centers overseas have teams of USO volunteers working diligently around-the-clock alongside USO employees to deliver crucial support to service members stationed or deployed far from home.

But for locations that are perhaps too remote or too dangerous for permanent USO staff to live and work there, some of our USO centers are “unstaffed.” In other words, we must rely on the service members deployed to these particular locations to serve as USO volunteers and run their own centers.

That means that in the midst of serving their nation at front-line locations, there are service members who are using their downtime on deployment to support their fellow troops, and give back to their own communities.

Meet Sgt. 1st Class Michael D. Smith Jr. – a soldier in the U.S. Army, and a USO volunteer who helped establish the USO’s first-ever center in Honduras.

A Legacy of Service

Having grown up in a military family, Michael has been a member of the military community all his life. When asked “Where are you originally from?” – the dreaded, loaded question for all military brats who can easily claim 5-15 different duty stations as “home” – Michael responded with the typical answer: “All over.”

But if he had to choose, Michael claims Memphis, Tennessee, as his home.

Photo credit Courtesy Photo

At unstaffed USO centers such as USO Soto Cano, where the location may be too remote or too dangerous for USO staff to live there year-round, service member volunteers such as Michael D. Smith Jr. are instrumental in helping ensure the USO can still carry out its mission.

Both of Michael’s parents were active-duty Army, which meant that the Smith family truly did travel “all over” the world throughout his childhood. Now, he’s carrying on the tradition while in the Armed Forces himself; or, as Michael calls it, “the family business.”

Michael has served more than 15 years in the Army, so Honduras was certainly not his first deployment. In fact, he had just returned from his fifth deployment to the Middle East when he was deployed again to Central America.

While deployed to Kuwait and Qatar, Michael was a part of Operation Allies Refuge, assisting in the Afghan refugee crisis. Even for the most seasoned service member, this particular mission was a challenging and emotional one. Because of this, Michael’s chaplain made it a priority to arrange morale-boosting support for his unit, to keep spirits high, and Michael quickly jumped in to volunteer his time and experience with these efforts.

Soon after this deployment, when Michael was slated to be sent to Honduras, he researched his new deployment location and realized that a large portion of service members’ work in Honduras included humanitarian missions.

In previous deployments and duty stations, Michael had not had as many opportunities to volunteer due to his responsibilities in day-to-day work.

“So, when I accepted the mission, I kind of went into Honduras being like, ‘Hey, I’m going to volunteer. I’m going to work with the community, all of that.’”

Photo credit Courtesy Photo

Michael D. Smith Jr., right, is pictured here with a fellow service member volunteer and visiting USO staff members.

Soon after arriving at Soto Cano Air Base, Honduras, Michael saw a flyer on base for the USO, calling for volunteers, so he immediately reached out, only to find out that the USO center was still in the process of being set up.

As Michael spoke with USO staff and asked question after question – not only about how he could volunteer, but also about the logistics of opening the center – the USO team realized Michael had the experience and ability to do more than just volunteer at the center. They promptly asked him to run the opening of the center as the lead volunteer – and Michael agreed.

The Beginning of a New USO Center in Central America

Prior to his deployment to Honduras, Michael had mainly used the USO through our organization’s USO airport centers, which served as a place of respite when traveling to and from past deployments. But this deployment in Honduras was the first time that Michael had ever volunteered his time with the USO, and Michael didn’t just volunteer– he helped establish the USO’s first-ever center in Honduras.

When requests were first made for a USO center on Soto Cano Air Base, the logistics of establishing the base were challenging. After all, Soto Cano is not a duty station for the majority of service members who are there - they are technically on deployment. Because the base is largely made up of constantly-rotating units of troops, it was initially somewhat difficult to find consistent teams of people to work on opening this USO center.

“The initial setup for an unstaffed USO with the majority of the volunteers being on a 6-9 month deployment was hard,” Michael said. “Getting people to volunteer personal time in the early phases, while pulling shifts myself and doing my own job, was another challenge.”

Photo credit Courtesy Photo

USO Soto Cano is the first-ever USO center in Honduras. Like the USO’s 250+ other centers around the globe, USO Soto Cano provides service members with a comfortable place to relax and recharge after long days in the field.

While still maintaining high quality work in his daily duties on deployment, Michael also did everything from helping set up furniture and gaming equipment in the USO center, to making center schedules, to coordinating USO MVP events, to organizing volunteer shifts to ensure the center stayed open. He also served as the liaison between the military and USO leadership, which included attending weekly meetings as the USO representative on base, advertising the center and speaking on needed requests for a better relationship with the leadership and base community.

“That was what I found very interesting, because I was meeting people and networking and talking with people that essentially, I probably would not have ever met had I just went and did my job and hung out with my traditional crowd of people,” Michael said.

This USO Soto Cano center is an “unstaffed” USO center, which means that although the center looks like a typical USO center, and has remote support from the USO expeditionary team, there is no boots-on-the-ground, permanent USO employees running the center, as is the case with other front-line locations. Sometimes, the USO builds unstaffed centers in locations that are too remote or too dangerous to also host full-time USO staff.

Because of this, having USO volunteers like Michael is crucial to running these unstaffed USO center operations – and especially important when trying to get a USO center ready to first open its doors in a new location.

Before USO Soto Cano was established, service members could spend their spare time in their barracks and at military-provided buildings and spaces. The USO, however, offered something unique that was otherwise out of reach for many deployed service members.

“The biggest thing that the USO brought to the table for Honduras was the gaming,” Michael said. “That was our target audience – that gamer side … and just a venue to hang out and watch sports and everything else if you didn’t want to involve yourself with [other activities].”

Photo credit Courtesy Photo

The USO outfitted the Soto Cano center with gaming equipment for service members to use while on deployment, which was very popular among the troops.

Gaming isn’t just a fun way to pass time. Studies show that video games can have a positive effect on active-duty service members and veterans who are struggling with the stressors of military life. In fact, about half of military and veteran video gamers specifically play video games in order to deal with military-related stress.

Research has also shown that playing video games on teams and with others – like service members do at USO centers and tournaments – can improve teamwork in daily life.

USO centers around the globe provide service members with a home-away-from-home during deployments and overseas duty stations. | Photo credit Courtesy Photo

Through these games, deployed service members can take a break from their daily duties and realities of deployment to recharge and simply have some fun.

And so, in this remote location in Honduras, the USO set up the center with top-of-the-line gaming equipment including 10 gaming PCs and comfortable seating. Service members specifically came into the center to use the gaming equipment, which was of a higher quality than their personal devices and had a stronger internet connection at the center.

“We do have gamers and stuff in the military, and with these deployments and rotations, you can’t be lugging around an entire gaming PC and all your equipment and everything else.,” Michael said. “So, it really did bring them joy to be able to have those capabilities there.”

Soon, Michael began to notice more and more service members spending time in the USO center, as well as introducing the center to other, newly-arrived troops.

“We started to see people bragging about the USO, bringing in their brand-new people and being like, ‘Yeah. This is the USO. This place is awesome. It just opened up and this is where I’ll be if you need me.’”

Today, the USO Soto Cano center in Honduras has become a place for all service members in this location to turn to when they need a space to decompress from deployment.

“The USO provided a location for everyone on the base, mostly the gamers and club members, to come together in an environment that supported their hobbies,” Michael said. “The venue and location also played a major role in its continued success with it being within walking distance of the barracks for those super hot or rainy days. The service members truly enjoyed the services the USO provided, and that has continued to ring true in all the continued support and foot traffic it has to this day.”

Photo credit Courtesy Photo

“I couldn’t have done it without the support structure from the USO team - including Allyson and Cissy - as well as the Garrison Command team of Col. Hart and Command Sgt. Maj. Murchinson, and all my volunteers past and present,“ Michael said.

This was Michael’s first, major experience with the USO and it had a profound impact. In just about three months, Michael put in more than 250 hours of volunteer work with the USO.

“[The USO expeditionary team] definitely gave me some inspiration and motivation to try and continue supporting the USO and doing what I can. So, I really do appreciate them, and all my volunteers. I honestly couldn’t have done anything without them either,” Michael said.

Now that he has recently returned to the United States, he is pursuing volunteer opportunities with the USO stateside. In fact, he has already worked his first shift at a Virginia USO airport center, and plans to continue to volunteer.

"In all honesty, I wish I’d done it a lot sooner. I did some volunteer stuff earlier in my career for another organization, but … this was the first time I had the chance to focus on volunteering, since I wasn’t deployed in a combat zone and didn’t have service members directly under me,” Michael said.

USO Regional Expeditionary Specialist Allyson Kelly is pictured here presenting U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael D. Smith Jr. with the USO Volunteer of the Quarter Award. | Photo credit Courtesy Photo

“Everything happens for a reason, and I feel it just wasn’t my time. I needed the time to mature and learn skills that helped enable me to be the volunteer that I am today. I couldn’t have done it without the support structure from the USO team - including Allyson and Cissy - as well as the Garrison Command team of Col. Hart and Command Sgt. Maj. Murchinson, and all my volunteers past and present.”

The USO is fueled by a team of hardworking and dedicated 20,000 volunteers across the U.S. and the globe. In downrange locations such as Soto Cano Air Base, Honduras, having the support of service members who decide to spend their downtime during deployment by volunteering for their fellow troops is invaluable.

The USO quite literally could not do this crucial work without our volunteers, and we are grateful to have service members like Michael who help carry out our mission on the front lines.

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