You never know where life will take you – especially in the United States military. For U.S. Navy Cmdr. Darcey Reilly, the road began at the University of Akron, where she pursued a career in nursing. Today, that journey has taken her to the middle of oceans for months at a time, to distant islands to provide medical care to fellow service members and now to Naples, Italy, with her husband and two young children.
It was a bit of advice from her grandfather, who had also served as a nurse in the Navy, that sparked the idea of a career in the military. He always told her, “You’ve got to make your dash last.“
“It’s funny, but he meant the dash on your headstone, the parts between your birth and your passing – you’ve got to make sure that dash is really worth something,” Darcey explained.
She saw serving in the Navy as a way to follow that purpose. She could combine her interest in medicine and a desire to help others, thinking she’d serve the country for four to five years and see where that would take her.
“Now I’m at 16 years serving as a Navy Nurse Corps officer and I’m still loving every minute of it,” Darcey said.
Darcey’s nursing career began in the ER before moving to the ICU, and then going into public health as the Deputy Director of the Medical Evaluation and Treatment Team (METT) at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.
“I like helping people when they really need it, whether it’s educating them on their own healthcare or calming them in what is a stressful situation in the ER,” Darcey said. “I feel like I kind of thrive in that.”
She experienced the first stressful situation of her own Naval career in an unexpected place: the San Diego International Airport.
“It was my first time ever flying outside of the East Coast. I stopped at the USO, and I was trying to sort out my uniform and I was so nervous. And I can remember this retired gentleman; he was probably [a retired] admiral, and he could tell I was nervous. He said, ‘Let me help you,’ and helped me just get everything lined up, make sure everything looked good. He did a little uniform inspection on me. He was very kind.”
Darcey described how this USO volunteer at USO San Diego made sure that she knew where she was going, how to enter the gate, what to say – and, in the process, calmed a new sailor trying to find her way.
Darcey finds it comforting that many USO volunteers have a military connection – either because they are currently serving, are veterans, or are family members of someone who served. And because of that, they understand the unique challenges that can come with serving in our nation’s Armed Forces.
“They’ll help you. And if you have questions, if you’re nervous, most of those volunteers have been there and they will be more than happy to either commiserate with you with a shared story or a shared experience, or help you, or give you their thoughts,” Darcey said. “They make you feel at home.”
Throughout her Naval career, Darcey continued to utilize the USO on her travels – turning to USO airport Centers on 30-hour journeys and long layovers for a comfortable place to rest, eat a few snacks and talk with other service members.
Service members like Darcey, who are frequently stationed in remote locations or in countries overseas, are far from not just family and their own homes, but also from familiar comforts and amenities. So, when the USO arrives on a small island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with something as seemingly commonplace as a concert, it can make all the difference on a long deployment.
When Darcey was stationed on the island of Guam, she remembers that the USO brought the musician Matisyahu on a USO entertainment tour. She wasn’t too familiar with Matisyahu’s music, “but I can remember standing in the USO line with the entire island and just being so excited to have this little touch of home, to have the opportunity to go and do something that wasn’t just going to work and living the small island life.”
The USO is with the people who serve, even when they’re out at sea.
When Darcey was deployed on the USS Bataan, an amphibious assault ship, she was out to sea for 10 months, during which they rarely came into port for a break or even just to step foot on land. In their final days of deployment, the USO flew Guy Fieri – restaurateur, author and Emmy Award-winning television personality from The Food Network – out to the ship.
Having someone so famous spend their last days out at sea with them showed these sailors that they hadn’t been forgotten and that their work was appreciated. In fact, upon arrival, Fieri jumped into the ship’s kitchen and began churning out burgers with all the toppings and fries alongside service members – and, as Darcey explained, when you had been living off salad-in-a-can for months, fresh burgers were truly an incredible experience.
“Since we hadn’t had a normal deployment experience because we were underway for so long without touching land, having Guy Fieri come out was such a morale booster for that entire ship,” she said.
Then, as they were just about to return home, The Plain White T’s rock band was flown out as part of a USO Entertainment tour. They performed several concerts aboard the USS Bataan and took the time to chat with sailors.
“You’ve got young, impressionable enlisted [service members], and this might be their first deployment and their first time away from home,” Darcey said. “And whether they’re Plain White T’s fans or not, the fact that someone’s flying over and the USO is making that effort – that’s where you get sailors excited about the USO’s mission and excited about what they’re doing on deployment, when they see all this support.”
Today, Darcey, her husband and their two children – ages 4 and 6 – have just moved to Naples, Italy, for her next duty station with the Navy. A few months ago, Darcey flew to Naples on her own to go through orientation and prepare for her new role there – and the first people she saw at orientation were USO Naples staff.
“The USO was there with coffee and cookies and all kinds of resources for my kids and for my husband, and they asked ‘What do we need help with?’ and ‘How can we be of assistance?’ and they were just offering helpful, friendly advice for a new country that we’ll be embarking on.”
This is the first time the Reilly family has been stationed overseas with their children, and while they are very excited about the unique opportunity, moving to a new country, especially with small children, can be daunting. Although their children moved once or twice when they were very young, this is their first real, big move and the first time leaving the place they currently call home.
Darcey and her husband tried to prepare their children for the move for several months in advance – and one of the ways they tried to make moving less scary is by reminding their children that they would have the USO to turn to once they arrived in Italy.
And for people who serve in the military, ensuring that their family successfully adjusts to the next duty station is crucial. When military spouses or kids are struggling, their service member struggles, too.
“From my perspective, being an active-duty person, if the family isn’t set and everyone’s not good, then it makes it harder for me to do what is needed for work or for my role,” Darcey said.
Darcey’s husband served in the U.S. Navy as a Naval Flight Officer (NFO) for 14 years. Darcey described how it can be a bit challenging in a marriage where both people serve – also known as a “dual military couple.”
The demanding nature of their jobs – aviation and medicine – made it especially difficult to maintain a balance. She and her husband had to make some “tough decisions” about their careers, and they realized that if they wanted to start a family, one of them would have to leave the Navy. They decided that Darcey would remain in service, and her husband would transition out of the military.
In Italy, Darcey’s husband was able to keep his civilian job and work remotely – but that is not always the case for many military spouses, whose careers are often upended every two to three years with each PCS move.
“When we weren’t sure if they were going to be able to move his job remotely with him [to Naples], I was very nervous because that puts a lot of pressure on me, because now you’re moving everyone over to follow one career,” Darcey said.
“And that other spouse, the military spouse, whether they be male or female, is dropping that source of pride, that source of, ‘what am I contributing?’ Which is so important if you’ve always both worked.”
Darcey believes an immense amount of work goes into being a stay-at-home parent, as well as being a spouse who is not in the military.
“My hat is off to those women and men, because I think that’s harder,” she said. “If you’re at home and you’re literally ‘operation home front,’ you are shouldering all of it, whether your service member spouse is deployed or they’re just working down the street, because you don’t have the luxury of that nice, laid out nine-to-five.”
As a career-driven military couple, adjusting to military life with a child presented new challenges for Darcey and her husband, and the USO was there to offer support.
One of Darcey’s favorite programs has been USO Special Delivery: Presented by Johnson’s, which she utilized when she was pregnant with her son.
USO Special Delivery hosts baby shower events for expectant service members and military spouses around the world, providing a touch of home and normalcy for moms-to-be who are often separated from their families, friends and traditional support networks during their pregnancies.
Once their son Will was born, they went to several playgroup meetings with the moms she first met at the USO Special Delivery event. In this group, she could bond with other mothers who understood exactly what she was going through during a difficult time.
“Those USO programs really stood out as being helpful and pivotal during what can be a pretty tough transition,” Darcey said.
Darcey holds the highest respect for the role her entire family plays in her service to the Navy.
“My husband and kids might not be putting on the uniform every day, but they’re all in, to support me when I need to go to work, when I need to take an evening phone call, when I need to fly out to do something. If I need to deploy, I know that they will be all in on supporting me.”
Serving in the military is a 24-hour-a-day job. Darcey explained that as a civilian, you may be working, giving back and doing enormous things for your community, but then you can simply come home, relax, take a sick day or “take a breather.”
“When you’re in the military, you are all in. Those breathers are short-lived, and they’re enjoyed when you can, but you’re ready and available when needed,” Darcey said. “You can’t be ‘partially’ in the military. You can’t dedicate half your heart to it … The country goes to bed at night, and everyone’s sleeping soundly because those that are in the military are all in. And while we are here to support and defend the nation, our families are all in too.”
It’s because of this all-consuming aspect of military life that military support organizations like the USO are so crucial for service members like Darcey and her family.
“I’ve worked with a lot of agencies, and with different organizations that support the military,” Darcey said.
“No one does it as well as USO does … Just looking at the logo, it says, ‘I’m here to support you. I don’t need anything from you except for you to reach out to us and tell us what you need.’ At most touchpoints in my career, every duty station, every assignment and role I’ve been in, the USO has been there.”
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