By Brittany Laursen
The U.S. military has been increasing its presence in the Middle East for months, and now, with the Israel-Hamas war, thousands more American service members have arrived in the region to serve as a deterrence against any potential escalation.
But an increased number of service members means a need for an increased level of support – and that is especially true of our U.S. Navy ships, where the people who serve on them have had to face sudden deployments, or extended deployments, in the wake of the situation in the Middle East.
So when the USS Bataan was set to arrive in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) while on deployment, the USO team in the UAE immediately got to work.
How the USO Supports Sailors and Marines on Deployment
In a resounding display of teamwork and agility, the staff and volunteers of the USO Dubai and USO Abu Dhabi Centers united to uplift the spirits of over 3,000 sailors and Marines aboard the Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Bataan as they pulled into the Abu Dhabi port in the UAE.
USO Area Director Alex Liccione quickly rallied her team into action as the USS Bataan made its way toward the UAE, where these USO staff members live permanently in support of the people who serve in the U.S. military.
“The team started preparing for the visit approximately one month prior to the visit,” Alex said. “This included adding multiple meetings with port authorities, U.S. Navy and U.S. Embassy personnel.”
The image of a USO volunteer arriving to deliver food and care packages to austere and remote locations on the front lines is a familiar one. However, the USO is also there alongside the people who serve to support them in many other ways, which is especially important for those deployed on ships. When service members come into port in a new country, they often have limited knowledge of their surroundings. They may not know local customs, the language, or even how to get around.
To help ease their time in a place completely unknown to them, the USO assists with things such as hotel stays and tour bookings, making sure everything is safe and secure for these service members to relax while in country. USO staff also host events and bring in local vendors, so service members have a safe space to purchase souvenirs to take back to their families.
The USO team in the UAE did just that, arranging a “pop-up USO morale space” near the port, where food trucks and vendors were brought in, as well as organizing daily and nightly programs for the service members to participate in.
The team also set up tables, chairs, gaming consoles, TVs and lawn games so sailors and Marines could relax and enjoy time together right outside the ship. The USO also set up access to Wi-Fi, so that service members could more easily check in with loved ones back home.
“The USO team was excited to meet the crew and see their reaction to the amazing set-up we completed,” Alex said.
Against the backdrop of this bustling city, a temporary USO oasis sprang to life within the cruise terminal during this five-day port visit. Throughout the week, service members participated in an array of engaging activities arranged by dedicated USO staff.
Each day and evening, the USO hosted a variety of programs for the crew of the USS Bataan inside the pop-up USO space, including bingo, trivia, cornhole tournaments, minute-to-win-it challenges, poker tournaments, paint nights and karaoke.
“It felt like we were waiting to see family we hadn’t seen in a while even before meeting them,” Alex said, explaining the excitement she and the other USO team members felt in anticipation of the sailors and Marines’ arrival.
“We wanted to facilitate special moments for them while deployed, and we are honored to say we were successful in achieving that goal.”
The Center staff also provided service members with access to the USO Reading Program. Through this program, service members are given the opportunity to record themselves reading a book, and then have that recording and a copy of the book sent home to a son, daughter, sibling or any other child in their life. This is one of the most popular USO programs in the Middle East region for the people who serve and are on deployment, as it gives them a chance to stay connected to their families, even when thousands of miles away.
Support didn’t stop there. To bring a taste of home to sailors and Marines, USO teams mobilized food trucks and curated souvenir shops, ensuring the crew felt the warmth of home even on foreign shores. A spectrum of hotel stays and guided tour opportunities allowed service members to explore the captivating landscapes of the United Arab Emirates during their liberty hours.
“After we coordinated the tours, I could see the excitement on [service members’] faces when they were preparing to leave,” said USO Field Programs Manager Hazel Geronimo. “We also had coffee vendors – I love seeing them with their coffee, getting on the bus for their tour.”
The feedback from the USS Bataan crew was nothing short of enthusiastic. They praised the USO for providing a much-needed respite from their strenuous duties.
“I liked playing cup pong and hanging out with friends off the ship - doing the tours and going to Ferrari World was an awesome mini vacation,” said a service member named Pete Padgett after the port visit. “I can’t explain how much I loved having Wi-Fi again. Talking to people back home and getting food off the ship were game changers for me.”
The Supply Officer for the USS Bataan, Cmdr. Carrie Paben, also expressed her gratitude.
“Thank you to you and your team for the phenomenal support leading up to and during BAT’s port visit in Abu Dhabi. USO ‘stole the show’ with the multiple food vendors, merchandise, games and tours you and the team set up for our sailors and marines,” Carrie said. “I heard nothing but compliments from sailors and Marines as they enjoyed a break from underway life.”
This remarkable collaboration showcased not only the dedication of the USO teams, but also the unwavering commitment to the well-being of those who serve.
“This was the first time the USO had supported an expeditionary ship visit in the UAE with this full range of offerings,” said Alex. “It was truly a game changer and showed there are no limits to what we can do.”
Expeditionary support for ships doesn’t stop here –the USO is for all people who serve, and we will continue to support these service members wherever they are.
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