By Danielle DeSimone
When Tucker Nicke first arrived in Iraq, the days felt long.
That’s how a deployment to the front lines often feels: long. That can be because when almost everything else in your life is stripped away – friends, family, pets, hobbies, your home – and you’re only left with your work, the days will inevitably feel long.
And not just any work: Tucker is a noncommissioned officer in the South Dakota Army National Guard.
The combination of being far away from loved ones, in an isolated location, while also carrying out a high-pressure job can put a strain on people who serve. In challenging times like deployments, it’s important that service members like Tucker have a place to turn to – a home away from home, of sorts – even on the front lines. It’s important that they have an outlet, away from their work in the military.
It’s important that they know we are with them every step of the way.
Adjusting to Life on Deployment
Although Tucker was born in Alaska, he was raised in South Dakota, and that’s where he calls home. In high school, he watched a classmate and one of his high school teachers serve in the South Dakota National Guard and was impressed by the opportunities their service earned them. Inspired to join, Tucker enlisted in 2019; soon after, inspired by Tucker, his brother joined as well.
“I joined the military for professional and personal growth,” Tucker explained. “I want to learn how to improve on my leadership skills.”
Tucker was activated stateside during the COVID-19 pandemic, but this is his first overseas deployment. Throughout his time on Al Asad Air Base, he has had to adjust to many of the challenges that come with being deployed, such as feelings of isolation.
“Al Asad Air Base is very secluded base and there is nowhere to go and take a break from day-to-day tasks,” Tucker explained.
Beyond their barracks, many service members deployed downrange have limited locations in which to spend their free time. And in that free time, connecting with loved ones back home can be difficult.
“The challenging part is the time difference between my home and Iraq,” Tucker said. “The time difference is eight hours and sometimes it is tough to talk to family and friends.”
Back in South Dakota, Tucker had a passion for games – especially Magic the Gathering and Dungeons & Dragons – and he played every week with his friends. When deployed, it can be difficult to suddenly be so far away from the people and hobbies you’ve built your life around.
“I miss socializing with everyone from home,” Tucker said. “I also have a cat named Pia who is two years old, who I miss a lot.”
And so Tucker, looking to fill his time with the activities that he once enjoyed and a sense of community that he had every week with his friends back home, turned to the USO.
Building a Community in Iraq
Before this deployment, Tucker only had a vague understanding of what the USO was.
“I thought it was an organization inside airports where service members could go and rest,” he said. “I did not realize it was such a big organization and had such a big impact on service members while deployed.”
Then he walked into USO Al Asad.
Outside of the USO Center on Al Asad Air Base stand several high, steel-enforced concrete barriers (often called “T-walls”), intended to be used as protection, that serve as a reminder of the severity of service members’ work here in this region. But inside the USO Center is a different story.
Much of the interior walls of the USO Al Asad Center are wood, which gives the space a warm, cozy feel. There are tables and chairs, comfortable couches and chairs surrounding televisions and video game systems, a coffee machine in the corner and a colorful poster that details all of the upcoming events at the Center.
Aside from the free Wi-Fi that is available at the USO Center, there are also landline phones for service members to use for free to call back home. And of course, there is always some sort of program or event being hosted within the Center, making it a lively and welcoming environment to spend time in.
For service members like Tucker, having a space like this can make all the difference in his daily morale.
“The USO has made my deployment really enjoyable. Being able to go somewhere, watch a movie and just relax is a nice change, instead of always on the go or being stuck in my room,” he said.
Tucker enjoyed the USO Center so much, in fact, that he began volunteering there. With more than 250 locations all around the globe, the USO has members of our team working in all different countries and states – and that includes downrange locations such as Iraq.
However, unlike in the United States, where supporters of the military volunteer their time in our Centers to help carry out our mission, locations such as USO Al Asad rely on the service members deployed there to assist our staff who live permanently in Iraq, alongside the people who serve.
That means that even while dealing with the daily stressors of deployment, service members like Tucker are volunteering their free time in service to their fellow troops.
And for the past several months, that’s exactly what Tucker has done.
He started by simply greeting service members at the door and helping them get video game systems set up, before gradually moving on to helping the USO team host larger events and programs for big crowds of service members. Tucker now volunteers at the USO Center daily, and has even begun training other USO Volunteers on how to run the Center.
Pretty soon after he began volunteering there, Tucker earned a reputation – specifically, for his baking skills.
“What I am known for at the USO Al Asad is baking every Sunday,” he said. “The volunteers and the staff scarf them down. Whenever there is a baking event, I am there to bake and help other service members learn how to bake.”
His favorite dessert to make? S’mores.
“Having the opportunity to bake while away from home is a huge treat in itself,” Tucker said.
Baking once a week may seem like such a simple thing, but when you don’t have a kitchen, can’t cook for yourself for almost a year and are unable to make your favorite snacks from home just when you’re craving them the most, having a space like the USO where you can share your love for baking with others can make a big difference in a service member’s deployment.
Sometimes, other service members will approach Tucker and ask him for help setting up the USO Reading Program.
Through this program, service members can record themselves reading a book to their child; the recording and a copy of the book are then sent to that service member’s family, so that, in a way, they can be present for story time back home.
“Their face lights up and they [share] their past experiences on the Reading Program,” Tucker said. “Seeing other soldiers’ faces light up and knowing they are connecting with their families makes me happy.”
From having weekly game nights with his friends to being in a completely different country, far from everyone and everything familiar, the transition to life on deployment can be a challenging one. But here in Iraq, Tucker has carved out a community by spending his free time in the USO Center and volunteering there.
“My favorite part of volunteering at the USO is interacting with everyone,” Tucker said. “Being a volunteer at the USO has given me the opportunity to meet a lot of people and make new friends.”
Tucker explained that he considers many of the friendships he has made at the USO to be lifelong friendships, which he’ll carry with him even when he returns home from deployment.
For service members like Tucker, having a refuge like the USO to turn to while deployed is crucial. Here at the USO Center, they are more than just a soldier on deployment – they are Tucker from South Dakota, who loves to make s’mores, play games and befriend strangers the minute they walk through the door. Here, they get the support they need to make it through their deployment – whether that be by forging their own community, or connecting to the one waiting for them back home. Here, they know that we’re with them, every step of the way.
“I appreciate all that the USO has done for me,” Tucker said. “I have made so many memorable moments in Al Asad during my deployment.”
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