By Danielle DeSimone
You’re smack-dab in the middle of the holiday season, and it’s a balmy 70 degrees and sunny outside. You pass by a corridor of tents, and as you walk through this dry, desert landscape, it doesn’t quite feel like the holidays – after all, quite a few important things are missing, like your spouse, your kids and your home, all of which are more than 8,000 miles away.
But then, you step into one of the tents, and everything changes. There are string lights and holiday decorations strung across the ceiling. Comfortable couches and framed photos on the bookshelves. Familiar music is playing in the corner. And a crowd of people is gathered, laughing, around a table full of food – food that smells like a memory you can’t quit put your finger on.
You pick up one of the cookies from the table, take a bite and close your eyes – but suddenly, you’re not on a military base in the middle of Saudi Arabia anymore. You’re ten years old again, running through your mother’s backyard, up the porch steps and into the kitchen. The room is filled with the smell of chocolate and vanilla extract. Voices and laughter spill out from the next room. Your mother smiles as she turns to you and hands you a cookie. You take a bite and there it is again – that same, exact taste that you always remember from your entire childhood.
You open your eyes – yes, you’re still in the middle of the desert in Saudi Arabia. But for just a moment, in the middle of a USO Center tent, you were home again.
The Importance of USO Centers in Deployment Locations
U.S. Army Maj. Eric Olson is originally from Arizona and has served in the Army for 14 years. This deployment to Saudi Arabia is certainly not his first, but it is the first time he has used the USO Center on base so extensively. While he has fond memories of utilizing the USO Reading Program on his last deployment 11 years ago, he explained that in other USO Centers he’s been in – of which there are more than 250 around the globe – he hasn’t spent much time with the USO staff and volunteers there. But the USO Saudi Arabia Center has been a different experience.
“This USO is small and cozy and they engage you from the minute you come in,” he said.
Eric explained that one of the things that makes the USO such a welcoming place are the people who work and volunteer there.
Eric recounted how recently, one evening, he walked into the USO Center and Anna Gallaher, the USO Senior Center Manager, was seated at a table, unpacking boxes of yarn, which she promptly began knitting. As she worked her fingers around the needle and yarn, she welcomed Eric and other service members into the Center, asking how their day had gone and if they had eaten anything. She was quick to point out some snacks available in the corner should they want any, as the service members made use of the Center’s amenities, such as gaming systems, comfortable seating areas, books, movies and more. Meanwhile, other USO employees were in the corner in a heated debate over whether a certain action film could technically qualify as a holiday movie.
“Anna’s just doing her thing with the yarn … and it’s kind of fun to listen to these holiday movie arguments that you don’t necessarily hear when you’re all walking around in uniform and talking about war,” Eric said. “So, it’s just fun that they’re there, and watching them interact with everybody. It’s a nice break from the usual conversations, and it’s all very calming and very homey.”
What many don’t always realize is that at a majority of these USO Centers around the globe, there are permanent USO employees who live in that location and run the daily – and nightly – operations of the Center. This includes deployment locations such as Saudi Arabia, and other front-line locations in the Middle East region.
These USO staff have left behind their own families, friends and homes to live on-base, overseas and sometimes in dangerous locations in order to support the people serving there. And much like the lives of the service members deployed there, these locations are not always glamorous.
When Anna first arrived in Saudi Arabia, she initially slept in a tent – she has since been upgraded to a metal container that’s been outfitted to live in. Many service members still sleep in tents, and all bathrooms are stall bathrooms in a trailer.
Anna explained that each year, upgrades and improvements are being made to the fairly recently-opened base to make it a more welcoming place for service members, but these challenges are often the realities of life for those on deployment. And for USO employees like Anna, who live permanently on these bases, it’s her reality 24/7. Luckily, Anna previously served in the U.S. Marine Corps, so she’s well-versed in everything from sparse accommodations to quickly heading to a bunker, should the base come under attack, to spending the holidays apart from loved ones.
“It has been a long time since I’ve spent the holidays with my family because I’ve been over here [in the Middle East], but it means so much to be here,” said Anna, who is originally from Montana. “We make such a big impact on people that it really makes up for it.”
Having USO staff and volunteers on these bases who are solely dedicated to improving the daily lives of service members can make a huge difference in the morale of the people who serve. This is especially important during the holiday season, when troops are far from home, and in particular, this holiday season. After all, tensions are currently high in the Middle East; in fact, since October 7, 2023, there have been dozens of attacks on U.S. bases throughout the region. As a result, movement off-base is restricted. That is, while service members used to be able to partake in day trips and explore the surrounding areas, they now cannot leave the base, and their worlds have become considerably smaller.
“People are cooped up right now. They’re just looking for ways to celebrate the holidays,” Anna said.
And so, through the power of family holiday recipes while thousands of miles away from home, the USO and these deployed service members did just that.
Service Members Enjoy Holiday Dishes from Home in Saudi Arabia
“Missing a dish from home?” The Facebook post asked. “We’re going to make it! Send in your recipes and bring all your friends to enjoy!”
The Family Recipes Night that Anna and other USO employees hosted at the USO Saudi Arabia Center allowed service members to submit their favorite family holiday recipes to the team in advance. The USO team then did their best to shop for and assemble all the ingredients, and then cook all the recipes on one night for the event, so everyone who attended could try the different foods.
“It’s one of my favorite programs to do every year because I love to cook. That’s one of my biggest connections to home,” Anna said.
One deployed service member’s sister, who follows USO Saudi Arabia’s Facebook page, noticed the call for recipes online and submitted a holiday stuffing recipe from back home, as a surprise for her brother, who is currently deployed in Saudi Arabia.
Another service member asked if the USO could make their family’s go-to holiday spinach and artichoke dip, which was a huge hit among event attendees, as the dip included plenty of cheese – and cheese is notoriously hard to come by at this base.
“They were like, ‘I can’t believe you got real cheese here,’” Anna explained, laughing. “We had Parmesan cheese and it was great.”
Aside from cheese, it can be challenging to obtain certain ingredients while in a front-line location. For example, due to laws in Saudi Arabia, no pork products can be imported into the country and onto American bases – making some recipes hard to assemble. But Anna and her team managed to get creative with seasonings, making many of the recipes taste just like home.
Anna explained that even if they didn’t submit a recipe, several service members still attended the event and excitedly realized that their family also makes a similar recipe to one of those on the USO’s table during the holidays. Not only were they surprised by a reminder of home, but they could also bond with other service members whose families shared similar holiday recipes.
“It’s just so fun and meaningful to so many people, especially this time of year when they miss so much from home,” Anna said.
One such service member was Maj. Eric Olson, who stopped into the USO Center on a whim and discovered they were hosting the event. And then he found them: the cookies.
“The day that I went in there and found these no-bake cookies, they had a family recipe-themed event going, which I didn’t know about. All I knew was here were these cookies that I used to love when I was a little kid, and I picked one up and it was far better than my mom’s ever were,” Eric chuckled. “Don’t tell my mom that.”
For many, food is an instant connection to home – and an especially important part of celebrating the holidays. When deployed in a location far from everything familiar, not being able to partake in the traditions that you normally celebrate each year can take its toll on a service member’s well-being. That’s why having a program specifically designed to deliver service members’ family holiday recipes to the front lines was so popular at USO Saudi Arabia. Especially Anna’s no-bake cookies, which were designed after a recipe her own grandmother used to make.
“They just brought back all those memories from when I was a little kid. And they don’t just come not just as one memory or two, it’s all of them,” Eric said. “The no-bake cookies I had at the USO for the Family Recipe Event pulled me back to being a kid with eight siblings, wearing hand-me-downs, climbing trees, swimming rivers and remembrances of home-made buttered bread and popcorn movie nights on a three-channel TV. All those memories unfolded from the simplest cookies in the world, at a USO … in Saudi Arabia. Who would’ve thought!”
This night of family holiday recipes is not the only holiday-themed event the USO Center will be hosting. With the holidays currently in full-swing, the USO Saudi Arabia team has quite a few activities planned to keep spirits bright, with everything from a hot cocoa bar night, to holiday movie trivia, to decorating Santa Claus hats.
“People are not only separated from their families, but also a lot of the traditions that really make people feel good around this time of year,” Anna said. “To have something like the USO here, our sole purpose is to focus on celebrating and bringing people’s family traditions from home, to them here.”
For service members like Eric, that separation from family is the hardest part of being deployed. He explained that while he has a much stronger internet connection compared to his deployment 11 years ago, and is thus able to speak to his family several times a week, the distance is still difficult for this husband and father, who has daughters waiting for him back home.
If there’s one thing Eric wishes civilians understood about the military, it’s that in his opinion, deployments are hardest on military families. After all, while it’s difficult to be apart from loved ones, service members are trained and prepared for the moment they’re called to the front lines. But military families also shoulder the burden in their absence.
“It’s probably hardest on the kids, especially if you can’t talk to them. Or even if you can,” Eric said. “There’s always a whole conversation in my head – am I doing enough good out here in the world to offset any of the negative things that my kids are going through? We worry about our kids and what’s going to happen.”
But these sacrifices are made slightly easier by having the support of the American people back home, and through organizations such as the USO – especially during the holiday season.
“I guess if there was one thing I would say to civilians, it would be, ‘Hey, thank you for your support. Thank you for thinking of us. Thank you for watching our families while we’re gone and befriending them and supporting them. And thank you for being a part of a community that we look forward to coming back to.’”
Anna’s Grandma’s No-Bake Cookie Recipe
- Prep time: 10 min
- Cook time: 10 min
- Resting time: 30 min
- Serves: 24
- 2 cups of sugar
- ½ cup of milk
- ½ cup of unsalted butter
- ¼ cup of cocoa powder
- 3 cups of quick oats
- 3 cups of creamy peanut butter
- 1 tablespoon of vanilla extract
- Parchment paper
1. In a large pot, add sugar, milk, butter and cocoa powder. Slowly bring to a boil while whisking. Once at a boil, allow to boil for one minute.
2. Remove from heat and add in oats. Mix well. Add in peanut butter, mix well. Lastly, add in vanilla extract and mix well.
3. Lay out parchment paper on the counter and spoon out the dough into round cookie shapes. Allow to set for 15-30 minutes before eating.
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