In Remote Locations in Syria, Service Members and the USO Work Together to Improve Troops’ Quality of Life

By Brittany Laursen

In the heart of challenging environments, where service members face immense pressures and demanding duties, the USO Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) region’s expeditionary efforts shine as a beacon of support and respite. At the forefront of these remarkable endeavors stand our dedicated USO volunteers, like Captain Matthew Kirkpatrick and Sergeant Isaiah Pleiman, a U.S. Army Squadron Chaplain and U.S. Army Chaplain’s Assistant assigned to Task Force Saber in Syria.

At the USO, we often say “we go where they go” because of our organization’s far reach of support at more than 250 locations around the globe. However, there are some locations that are simply too remote or too dangerous for the USO to build a brick-and-mortar center, staffed by USO employees; in these locations, service members like Matthew and Isaiah dedicate their free time on deployment to supporting their fellow troops by delivering USO programs as USO volunteers.

Service Members Volunteer with the USO to Improve the Lives of Their Fellow Troops

Amidst his responsibilities for the Unit Ministry Team’s mission, Isaiah has also stepped up to volunteer with the USO, establishing a USO presence in Syria and organizing a plethora of initiatives at a combat outpost. Through his unwavering dedication and enthusiasm, Isaiah has significantly contributed to the enhanced morale, well-being and overall success of the Task Force in this location.

When asked why he started volunteering with the USO, Isaiah explained, “As we began to understand our location and mission, I saw a need that had to be met. I didn’t really see this specifically as a volunteer opportunity with the USO at first, but just as doing what needed to be done.”

U.S. Army Sgt. Isaiah Pleiman unloads a truck full of USO Programs in a Box and USO Care Packages for his teammates. | Photo credit USO Photo

As soon as Isaiah connected with USO EMEA Expeditionary Manager Becca Cooper, further preparations to increase morale among service members in Syria began. Isaiah and Becca worked closely together, planning programs, ordering and gathering supplies, as well as implementing more fun events for troops to enjoy in their downtime.

The USO has long been known for our “we go where they go” mindset. This is crucial for service members stationed in downrange locations such as Syria, where the intensity of their missions can take a mental and physical toll.

“[The USO’s] expeditionary team has the privilege and honor to be able to immediately activate support through various services,” Becca said. “The boots-on-ground mindset is pivotal to developing a comprehensive programming plan with each expeditionary site.”

Together with Isaiah’s forward-thinking mindset and the tools and resources available through the USO, Isaiah and Becca have been able to craft specific programming to fit the needs of this group of service members.

U.S. Army Sgt. Isaiah Pleiman sets up the library to host a USO Reading Program event, where service members can record themselves reading a bedtime story to their children and have the recording and a copy of the book sent back home. | Photo credit USO Photo

“A service member on my last expeditionary trip stated, ‘When you see the USO hit ground, you know things are about to get better,’” Becca said. “The opportunity to actively engage and listen to the service members’ creative ideas, insight and suggestions allows me the ability to execute specific tailored programming for that specific community.”

Isaiah’s remarkable dedication and efforts led to a well-deserved recognition — he was chosen as the USO EMEA Regional Volunteer of the Quarter in 2023, honoring his outstanding contributions. But he does not carry out programming alone — Isaiah has a fantastic leader and counterpart in Squadron Chaplain Capt. Matthew Kirkpatrick.

Over the past six months, together Isaiah and Matthew have carried out several programs as USO volunteers, such as a Color Run 5K, a Super Bowl Party, volleyball tournaments, karaoke, line dancing, darts, cornhole and movie nights.

“I was concerned that no one would participate due to the heat, rough terrain and early morning start,” Isaiah said after hosting the Color Run 5K. “But as we got closer to the start of the race, more and more people kept showing up, all excited and smiling. After everyone was finished and covered in crazy colors, I had troops coming up to me saying it was their favorite event, as well as many who had never participated in any other USO event, saying they had a lot of fun and were happy they came out for the run. A lot of friendships were built that morning and many of those newcomers have started coming to our other events.”

Photo credit USO Photo

The conditions of a front-line deployment in Syria can be challenging – in addition to the daily stress of their missions, months spent apart from loved ones and home can take their toll on troops. That’s why it’s crucial to provide service members with resources that can help improve morale and mental well-being while they’re downrange.

All of these planned USO events provide an avenue for service members to create lasting memories, enjoy themselves, build camaraderie and alleviate the stress inherent in their daily tasks and responsibilities while deployed.

“My favorite thing is to see the different ranks interacting and people being people,” said Isaiah. “There are a lot of people that talk about how they can’t wait for the next event or for their next opportunity to ‘dethrone’ the current champion of a particular event. Even the building of the schedule has not been a solo endeavor, but we have incorporated the suggestions and ideas of others and created a program schedule that people want to participate in because they have a role in it.”

Photo credit USO Photo

Bonding with their fellow service members through USO programs or even just a simple game of cards can help improve morale while troops are deployed overseas for 9 months or longer.

Ultimately, it is the selfless contributions and positive energy of individuals like Isaiah and Matthew that shape and deliver the USO’s mission in front-line locations such as Syria, leaving a palpable impact on the lives of other service members.

As the Squadron Chaplain, Matthew listens and does what he can to provide strength and guidance for his service members.

“The USO has meant to me a lot over the years. As a military kid, it has always been a steady presence no matter my location. But I have never worked so closely with the USO as I have on this tour and my appreciation for the entire organization has only grown,” Matthew said.

“Now my thoughts are beginning to more and more revolve around the laughter and joy that has filled soldiers who are dealing with all kinds of internal and external conflicts on a daily basis. I couldn’t be prouder to work alongside the USO and what it represents!”

Photo credit USO Photo

U.S. Army Capt. Matthew Kirkpatrick (left) and Sgt. Isaiah Pleiman (right) volunteered with the USO to carry out fun morale-boosting programs for their fellow soldiers in Syria.

Moving forward, the USO EMEA expeditionary team will continue to expand and establish enduring environments that allow service members to stay connected to one another, to their loved ones back home and to the very concept of “home away from home.”

“Captain Kirkpatrick and Specialist Pleiman are true advocates for creating and sustaining an environment that only enhances the lives of countless service members,” said Becca.

“Their selfless contributions, positive energy and creative collaborations have been crucial in developing and delivering the USO mission. Truly, it is our deployed USO advocates and USO volunteers who are the legacy builders. We could not do this without them.”

Thanks to the American people who support the USO, and thanks to the incredible and selfless efforts of service members like Isaiah and Matthew, our organization is able to provide crucial, morale-boosting services to troops no matter where they are deployed.

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