By Gabriella Coyle
The great outdoors of Alaska, while breathtaking and vast, can leave many service members and their families who are stationed there feeling isolated and far away from the people, places and things they love most.
And because many military bases in Alaska are located in remote areas, service members have limited options in places to spend time beyond their barracks, which can lead to isolation. Meanwhile, in the summer, the sun is in the sky almost 24/7, making sleeping difficult. And on top of all these challenges, the service members and military families who are stationed in Alaska are often not from there, which means they are separated from their usual support networks of friends and family.
All of these circumstances can lead members of the military community to struggle with their mental health and well-being. The U.S. military has made concerted efforts in recent years to improve military members’ quality of life in Alaska, but through it all, there has always been one place service members can turn to: the USO.
How the people serving in Alaska rely on the USO – and the exceptional dedication of one veteran and USO employee
Service members and their families can take solace in knowing that the USO is always with them, no matter where they go.
Beyond our brick-and-mortar USO Alaska Centers located on Fort Wainwright and Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, USO Expeditionary support extends its reach to the outlying military communities of Alaska. That is, when military communities can’t come to us for support, we go to them.
USO team member Rita Conley serves as the USO Alaska Expeditionary Program Manager, delivering warmth, joy and our signature USO hospitality wherever she goes. This August, the USO celebrates Rita’s remarkable achievement of traveling 20,000 miles across Alaska since the start of 2023, reaching and boosting the morale of many people stationed at various remote locations.
As a U.S. Air Force veteran, Rita found support and comfort when visiting USO Centers during her time in service, and cultivated a deep appreciation for the mission of the USO. Two years ago, after retiring from the Air Force, Rita eagerly embraced the opportunity to give back to her fellow service members throughout the state she calls home. Her husband, who is also an Air Force veteran, stands by her side as her devoted volunteer, together going above and beyond to support their fellow military families.
Alaska’s USO Expeditionary Program delivery is unique in that it requires a USO Mobile vehicle to get to most locations. Through the Mobile USO program’s fleet of vehicles, the people serving in these remote locations can still receive USO support through “USO-Centers-on-wheels.” These vehicles are equipped with many of the same amenities of a typical USO Center (refreshments, air conditioning or heating, free Wi-Fi, gaming systems, a comfortable place to sit and more), but can hit the road to meet service members wherever they are called to duty.
On July 25, 2023, USO Alaska unveiled a new Mobile USO food trailer, made possible by the generosity of corporate partners Delta Air Lines and the Rasmuson Foundation. This new addition to the USO’s Mobile fleet will help Rita further strengthen America’s military service members in Alaska through the delivery food and beverages, outdoor games and entertainment, care packages and much more.
Whether it’s by van or by plane, in leading the vital USO Expeditionary Program across Alaska, Rita has visited most of the outlying military communities in the state, including Ft. Greely, Cordova, Ketchikan, Juneau, Seward, Kodiak, Sitka, Petersburg, Homer, Valdez, Clear Space Force Station and even Dutch Harbor, touching the lives of countless service members.
Dutch Harbor in particular stands out as one of the most remote locations of Alaska, as it takes 3.5 hours to fly there from Anchorage and you never know whether you are going to be able to touchdown or takeoff due to drastic weather conditions. With a small island population of 4,000 residents, there is limited connectivity, and no major hospitals or grocery stores – which is why Rita makes sure to travel there to support the Coast Guard Marine Safety Detachment at this location at least once a year.
Then there are also locations like Cordova, which may not be as difficult to get to as Dutch Harbor, however the cost of living is incredibly high; a bag of Halloween candy can cost you $50. Challenges such as extreme weather conditions, limited connectivity and high living costs can take a toll on our nation’s service members. It is because of these challenges that programs like the USO Expeditionary Program are critically important to boosting the morale of these service members. By providing support, hospitality and a sense of community, the USO helps alleviate some of the isolation and difficulties faced by these brave men and women.
“[Rita’s] presence on behalf of the USO has been instrumental on the maintainers of the 3rd Maintenance Group,” said Christina Trombley, a True North embedded mental health technician in the U.S. Air Force, noting that sometimes, Rita delivers snacks and drinks to service members on duty as early as 4 a.m.
“They enjoy the break from work, especially when they are on the flight line working hard. Moreso, they really appreciate the time you take and very much look forward to your quarterly visits out in their duty locations … The impact over the years of the USO’s support has been fantastic and I hope something that can continue as resources allow.”
Rita is committed to delivering programs that uplift military members, such as Family Fun Days, baby showers, mystery dinners, the USO Reading Program, which is popular among military families, USO Coffee Connections for military spouses and much more. Additionally, thanks to generous major donors and military support advocates like Marilyn Cohen, USO Alaska’s “Thrill of the Grill” program furnished grills, smokers, utensils and fishing gear to every outlying military community throughout the state in 2022. This program equipped people who serve with the tools they needed to create their own barbeques – providing them with not just a fun meal, but a way to connect with each other in a challenging location.
“The USO, and more specifically Rita Conley, has been a vital asset to Marine Safety Detachment Kodiak. When Mrs. Conley visits our unit, it is always such a positive experience for everyone,” said U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Luke J. Milyard, of the U.S. Coast Guard Kodiak Marine Safety Detachment.
“Mrs. Conley brings items to our remote unit that are hard to acquire … From a grill, to fishing gear and even popcorn, she always brings something that brings the crew joy. Mrs. Conley understands the challenges of our members being so isolated and away from family – her services are not just appreciated, but needed. Mrs. Conley has supported MSD Kodiak tremendously in the years I have known her. I truly cannot speak any more highly of Rita.”
Because of our generous donors, our USO programs and the selfless dedication of the USO team – many of them veterans themselves – we can remind military service members and their families that they are not alone and that our grateful nation is always by their side.
While service members are used to finding a USO Center at an airport or on military bases around the world, a lot of them are blown away when the USO arrives at their doorstep. Rita shared that the best part of her job is that she makes friends wherever she goes.
“I want them to know that the USO is here to support them,” Rita said.
And clearly, Rita has done just that.
“Air Station Sitka cannot thank [Rita] and the USO enough for the resources you all provide to the members and the families of southeast Alaska,” said U.S. Coast Guard Command Master Chief Kelly McCarthy of U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Sitka.
Kelly explained that the service members in her unit have looked forward to everything from barbecue dinners to USO events, but that the USO2GO kit provided to her team really made an impact. For service members far from a brick-and-mortar USO Center, these kits provide troops with all the things they need to build their own USO Center. In the case of U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Sitka, their USO2GO kit included top-of-the-line games and gaming equipment, which the unit set up in a room for use by crews working overnight, to boost morale.
“We know you don’t have to do it, but your passion to help others does not go unnoticed,” Kelly said.
In just approximately seven months, Rita and her dedicated USO Expeditionary Program Volunteers have served a total of 3,147 military service members and their families, already surpassing last year’s total of 2,938. The USO Volunteers who work alongside Rita have an incredibly impactful role through the USO Expeditionary Program in Alaska. They amplify Rita’s ability to reach as many service members as possible, at times making it possible for the program to be facilitated even when she is unable to travel to locations herself. Our USO Expeditionary Program Volunteers are in a field of their own, with the majority of USO Alaska’s 22 volunteers being active-duty military or military spouses themselves. When looking for potential USO Volunteers, Rita reiterated the importance of connecting with compassionate and philanthropic individuals who recognize the impact the USO’s presence can make in a military member’s day.
Around the globe, collective efforts by our team of USO staff, volunteers, major corporate partners and community supporters are making a difference, one Expeditionary Program at a time.
Rita and others like her exemplify the power of human connection, community support and the USO’s mission at its finest – and our dedication to being by the side of the people who serve and their military families no matter where their military service takes them.
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