By USO Staff
Sicily is stunning. With its coastal landscapes, Mediterranean climate and historic towns, it has all the makings of a dream vacation, perhaps spent with family or friends. But for Giovanni Aviles, who is navigating his duty station alone in Sicily, Italy, at the Sigonella Naval Air Station, he’s focused full-time on his 24-hour shifts as an aviation boatswain’s mate handler and volunteering with the USO.
Very few people experience what it is like to leave everything behind to start a new life and career in the military, sometimes thousands of miles from home, in a place where the language and culture are different from everything they’ve ever known. But many members of the military community know this feeling all too well, and it can lead to painful feelings of isolation. Perhaps more so when you move across the world completely alone, away from those you love.
But with the USO, service members around the world have a home away from home, and sailors like Giovanni are never alone. Since moving overseas to Sicily, Giovanni has found a community at the USO Sigonella Center, where, like all USO Centers, service members can build relationships, connect with others who understand what they’re going through and participate in activities that bring them together.
You’ll see Giovanni at the USO Sigonella Center at any time of day — from sharing breakfast with new friends to greeting fellow service members arriving on a midnight flight. As both a service member and USO volunteer, he knows there’s always a place for him at the USO.
And during his eight years of service, we have been with him every step of the way.
Giovanni’s Road to the Military
Giovanni grew up in New London, Connecticut, a short distance from Naval Submarine Base New London in Groton, Connecticut. At the time, he had no interest in joining the military. In fact, at one point he even said it was something he’d never consider.
But then he gained work experience — and life experience — through multiple odd jobs following high school. In the years that followed, he recognized the military as a place to mature and grow, as well as a path to financial security and higher education. He enlisted, and has now been serving in the U.S. Navy for eight years.
It was a quick transition from civilian life to that of a service member, dedicating your life full-time to service. Giovanni recalls the moment everything changed.
“I was in the Navy for only three or four months when they called, saying that we’d be deploying in a week for nine months on a ship, so get yourself together.”
Giovanni was in a long-term relationship at the time, but the distance made it difficult to sustain. While many service members have family members or loved ones to share their journeys of deployments or overseas duty stations with them, his experience is an independent one, which can add to the separation many service members feel when so far from home
Giovanni has kept an optimistic outlook, though.
“I told myself that even though I didn’t know anyone, I was going to have this opportunity in Sicily to be in the middle of everything, to travel by myself, go backpacking … to get better acquainted with myself and enjoy my own company,” Giovanni said.
Giovanni’s Warm Welcome to the USO
The USO stands with the people who serve from the earliest moments of their service. During his early days in the Navy, Giovanni spotted the USO Airport Centers right away during his travels, where USO staff welcomed him with smiling faces, a place to relax and snacks for his travels.
When asked how he would describe the USO to other service members, Giovanni said “I would tell them it is a place to kind of relax [and] decompress. I would just say it’s a major support center for anybody associated with [the] military.”
After several visits to USO Centers in airports as a guest, Giovanni decided he wanted to give back. When he discovered a USO Center at his first duty station in Pensacola, Florida, he eagerly stopped by — and he asked how he could help.
“They said they always have something to do, but first they wanted to know what I was interested in.”
Giovanni had spotted a few small music rooms, so he asked if they had any instruments.
“I said I could re-string the guitars and set them up … and I would take care of the guitars and whatever they had.”
That first time in a USO Center was back in 2015, and Giovanni has volunteered regularly ever since. Now, stationed in Sicily, he can often be found unloading supplies, setting up for events or serving lunch to his fellow service members.
In addition to his 24-hour duty shifts, Giovanni will take the time to open the doors to USO Sigonella and set up the center for crews arriving on midnight flights.
“I really believe in serving others and having a serving heart. And so, when we get to volunteer and see people actually like, have a change in their life, even if it’s something small … I just feel like we are helping. And I like helping.”
One highlight of his time volunteering at USO Sigonella that came to mind for Giovanni is volunteering at a Pride Day picnic.
“I felt like it was a space for them to feel comfortable and surrounded by like-minded people.” When a few attendees asked if he wanted a rainbow flag painted on his face, he said, “Yeah, go for it.”
“That tiny gesture went a really long way [for them],” he added “Which is really neat.”
A Familiar Place in a Foreign Land
Service members often call USO Centers their home away from home. Perhaps it’s the comfortable furniture, favorite snacks or game nights. At some USO Centers, including USO Sigonella, therapy dogs bring an extra touch of home. Giovanni says it’s yet another reason he loves stopping by the USO Center.
“I’m pretty close to the dogs now. They’re very different, and I love ‘em both for their own personalities,” Giovanni said, with a smile in his voice. “Ollie is like a goofball, and he can be very dumb and annoying, and Morgan is just like this prissy little dog. But they both have their moments.” Service members gather around when therapy dogs visit as part of the USO Canine Program. Deployed service members may not have seen their own dogs for months or even years, and the frequent moves common to military life may make it difficult for a service member or their family to have a pet.
Studies have found that spending time with pets can lower blood pressure, reduce stress and release the body’s mood-boosting chemicals, including phenylethylamine, an anti-depressant. Other studies have shown that petting animals also helps decrease anxiety and reduce loneliness — which is critical to service members far from home. And with mental health being a main concern for service members, the use of therapy dogs serves as a reminder that the USO is there for service members and their mental well-being.
For Giovanni and other service members like him, USO Centers see them for the individuals they are. Yes, you might picture a uniformed Giovanni, on a ship in a vast ocean, but outside his uniform, he’s also a guitarist, an adventurer and a volunteer. And each step of the way, the USO will be with Giovanni for everything he does and everything he is, throughout his career as a sailor.
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