Robert, an Army Captain, Remains Resilient While Leading Troops Through an Eastern Europe Deployment

By Danielle DeSimone

For U.S. Army Capt. Robert Hannon, the key to success while deployed to Eastern Europe was resilience. Remaining resilient himself, yes, but also ensuring that the soldiers under his command remained resilient too.

Because even while tackling the challenges of deployment on the front lines of Russia’s war in Ukraine, Robert was always thinking of his soldiers first, displaying an inner strength and commitment to his unit that are inherent parts of being a leader in the military. But as the USO likes to say – service members are simply ordinary people doing extraordinary things. And in a remote, rural part of Poland, Robert was doing just that.

Adjusting to Life on Deployment

Originally from Syracuse, New York, Robert was not the first in his family to join the U.S. Armed Forces. In fact, the Army is a family affair – both of his grandparents served in the Army during World War II, and his great-grandfather served in the Army during World War I.

When he was on deployment in Poland in October 2022, Robert was serving as the company commander of his company. His unit, along with the many other service members deployed to this rural location in Poland, was there to support the United States’ NATO allies.

As the company commander, Robert was responsible not only for his own actions on deployment, but also for those service members of his company. That also means that even while dealing with his own challenges of being far away from home on deployment, Robert had to focus on leading his unit and ensuring that they were successfully navigating this deployment as well.

Photo credit DVIDS/Sgt. Gerald Holman

U.S. Army paratroopers place their equipment inside a tent as they settle into their new location in Poland in late February 2022.

Robert explained that one of the first, initial challenges that he – and his unit – had to adjust to upon arrival in Poland was something simple: the weather.

“Coming from Fort Hood, Texas, to out here … you know, the cold is definitely one of the things [that stands out]. We get used to a hot climate and then come out here and it is pretty chilly,” he said.

But beyond being in a geographic location that can feel completely different from home, Robert explained that another challenge was the rigorous, daily schedules of life on deployment. Back in the U.S., troops have lives outside of uniform – they have families to come home to, friends to spend their weekends with, hobbies and activities that they can pursue in their free time. But on deployment, they are suddenly disconnected from all of that.

“Just getting used to doing the Army all day, every day [is challenging],” Robert said. “Especially when we first got out here and we had to get to a certain posture. We’re working every day, so just getting everyone motivated and keeping them motivated for that kind of tempo.”

Photo credit USO Photo

U.S. Army Capt. Robert Hannon explains that the thing he misses the most while deployed to Poland is his family – but thanks to the USO, he’s still able to stay in touch with them, despite the distance and time difference.

Robert explained that although he and his fellow soldiers train for deployments and are prepared to tackle them head-on, there is inevitably an emotional impact on those deployed to the front lines of Eastern Europe – and especially for those who are experiencing their first-ever deployment.

“For a lot of them, this is their first time away from home. It’s my first time in Europe,” he said. “So, I’m keeping them engaged and keeping them motivated as they spend time away from their families and their loved ones, but also doing their part for their country.”

How the USO Supports Soldiers like Robert in Eastern Europe

A deployment to Europe might sound simple, at first glance. But for those deployed in support of our NATO allies in the wake of Russia’s war in Ukraine, it is anything but.

Several military outposts in Eastern Europe were constructed after the outbreak of the war in Ukraine in February 2022, and so resources on these bases are still being built and expanded upon. This means that many service members have spent the past several months in tents in a forest clearing, surrounded only by trees for miles. In the winter, snow is common, and temperatures can drop below −20 °F. And at the end of long, hard days in the field, these troops have limited places to go outside of their barracks to rest and recharge.

Photo credit USO Photo

Service members rapidly deployed to Eastern Europe in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine line up at a USO tent to utilize USO cell phones to call loved ones back home.

And beyond the day-to-day trials of being deployed to an austere, remote location in Poland, a big challenge that deployed service members also face is being separated from their loved ones. Eastern Europe deployments have been especially difficult, as many service members initially deployed in response to the crisis without personal cell phones or laptops, due to operational security concerns. For those who do have personal devices with them, cell service is expensive and spotty, and internet access is limited. This makes it hard to stay connected to friends and family back home, who are also separated by a 6 to 9-hour time difference.

“I think the thing I miss most from home would probably be my family – my parents, and especially my brother,” Robert said. “I miss just being able to go see them when I want to.”

All of these challenges, coupled with the non-stop tempo of deployment duties and the pressure of knowing a war is being waged only a few miles away, can have an effect on service members.

Although service members train for these moments, it’s in these moments that they often need a little extra support in order to remain resilient throughout their deployment. And that is why the USO has built USO centers in places like Poland and has provided expeditionary support to those in remote areas of Eastern Europe.

Photo credit USO Photo

A USO employee delivers USO Care Packages to service members deployed to Poland.

These centers and USO services offer resources that many service members might not otherwise have access to, providing support during a challenging time. USO centers at these downrange locations serve as a comfortable place to spend time in outside of their barracks, where service members can watch TV, play video games, get a snack, play a board game, or use the free Wi-Fi to connect back home.

“The first time I heard about the USO was the first day I got on ground here,” Robert said. “Everyone was like, ‘Hey, you gotta check out the USO tent, see what they got for you in there.’ And my soldiers have been going there ever since, pretty much daily.”

Photo credit USO Photo

Troops in the USO Drawsko-Pomorskie center in Poland spend time together playing video games.

Robert used the USO primarily for its reliable Wi-Fi, explaining that cell service and internet connectivity is extremely limited in this particular remote, rural location in Poland. So, having reliable Wi-Fi that he can use to contact his loved ones back home has been helpful when contacting his family and friends via social media or video calls. The time zone difference can be challenging, but he and his family members have learned how to be flexible with their schedules to make it work and remain in touch over the long months apart thanks to the USO’s Wi-Fi.

Aside from a physical space where service members can relax and recharge, the USO also offers programs and activities to keep service members entertained and engaged. Not only does this help service members fill their downtime, it also helps them bond with one another and ensure that they are not isolated in their barracks.

“When the USO comes through, morale definitely increases,” Robert said. “The USO provides a lot of opportunities for the soldiers to kind of break away and get away from work a little bit, providing them with a space to just be normal and be out of the operational environment and reset.”

Photo credit USO Photo

Service members deployed to Eastern Europe have shared that the deployment has brought them closer together as a unit.

As the U.S. Army states, “resilience is not meant to eliminate your stress or erase life’s difficulties.” At the end of the day, soldiers like Robert and his company will still be in an austere location in a forest in Poland, working all day, every day, under high-pressure conditions. They will still be thousands of miles and several time zones away from their family members and their friends, unable to do the things they love the most. They must still face the challenges of life on deployment, and be able to perform their crucial jobs of protecting NATO allies – and our freedom and safety – overseas.

But with a little help with the USO, these service members can also hopefully build the resilience they need to push through – keeping spirits and morale high, every step of the way.

“It means a lot to have the support of the USO out here. Being away from home, I can speak for myself and a lot of my soldiers, it’s uncomfortable at times,” Robert said. “But with the support of the USO, it makes it much more tolerable and much better out here.”

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