By Tess Fegan
The USO would not be able to support the people who serve in our nation’s military without dedicated USO volunteers. With nearly 18,000 volunteers dedicating their time at the more than 250 USO locations around the continental United States and the globe, their efforts ensure that we can carry out our mission. But more than that, USO volunteers are often described as the “heartbeat” of our organization – embodying a spirit of giving back to others that inspires us all.
One of those volunteers gave his weekends and early mornings for years to support new U.S. Navy graduates as they deployed to the next part of their journey. David “Dave” Kruger, age 78, passed away earlier this month – but his legacy will continue.
Dave served in the United States Army from 1965-1967 during the Vietnam War as a Chaplain Assistant. During that time, he saw Bob Hope perform on a 1966 USO Entertainment tour and instantly saw the effect the USO could have on service members’ morale. Fast forward to 2004 – Dave, now a veteran, started his first day volunteering with the USO.
In a Chicago Tribune article from 2006, Dave was quoted saying “I told the [USO Center] manager the only thing is, I can’t sing or dance.” Dave was assured that there would be multiple, alternative tasks he would be qualified for that wouldn’t include entertaining the troops on stage – and so began his USO volunteer journey.
At first, he started working one Sunday a month at the USO O’Hare Center in the Chicago O’Hare International Airport, but in addition, soon also started volunteering at the USO Great Lakes Center.
Even toward the beginning of his 18 years with the USO, Dave was quickly recognized for his dedication. In 2006, on a Thursday evening at O’Hare, Dave greeted former United States President George H.W. Bush, who presented Kruger with the President’s Volunteer Service Award. He was shocked and flattered by this honor, but it seems that the intangible honors mattered more to Dave.
Former USO Great Lakes Center Manager Beth Piccolo shared that Dave cherished being a part of the lives of his “extended family” – the service men and women he met every day at the Center.
Included in that extended family for the past 18 years was service member Shane Callaghan. In 2005, Shane had just flown into O’Hare from Montana, where he had spent several days on emergency leave. His mother had just died and Dave, upon seeing him, hugged Shane and talked about the service member’s recent experience.
“From that day on, I talked to him every day for the past 18 years,” Shane said.
After a while, Dave focused his volunteering on only the USO O’Hare Center, so he could assist with meeting the Navy grads getting dropped off early on the weekend mornings – as early as 1 or 2 a.m.
“His passion was to serve our service members, especially the Navy. The USO and the sailors he got to know over the years were his family,” said current USO O’Hare Center Manager Lindsy Wadas.
Dave’s remained committed to volunteering and gradually, a legacy began to build. He was continually recognized for his work, and Lindsy even heard him affectionately being referred to as “Uncle Dave.”
In a USO story from 2013, retired Rear Admiral John Kirby shared how one volunteer at the USO O’Hare Center greeted the young, new sailors, including his son, at 0100 (A.K.A., 1 in the morning) “with a big smile and a bullhorn.”
There was no question of who this might be. Even if you didn’t know Dave’s name, you knew him because of his welcoming smile and readiness to help. At the time Dave was no longer a volunteer, but on staff at the USO, where he worked until 2022.
Admiral Kirby continued to say that he got a “little thick in the throat” watching USO staff and volunteers check the “kids” in and answer their questions. Some had never traveled on their own and each was given a quick morale boost before they headed out into the world.
Up until his last day of volunteering, when Dave called in sick, he was at the USO, welcoming sailors to O’Hare and helping them navigate the airport. Some Saturdays, Dave told Shane that he wouldn’t be able to visit him because Dave would miss the sailors too much. He’d leave his house at 11 p.m. and spend all night at the airport, ushering in the next group of sailors.
“He did what he enjoyed best, seeing the sailors and trying to get them to where they needed to go,” Shane said.
When you’re a new sailor nervously navigating the airport on your way to your first duty station, or a service member who has been traveling cross-country for hours (or even days), all you want is to find somewhere comfortable and safe to rest before the next leg of the journey. Thanks to volunteers like Dave, these service members had just that – a place to turn to, and a friendly volunteer to give them a hand.
These moments might seem simple on the surface, but in the lives of the people who serve, they can make all the difference. Dave’s legacy will be one of service – and of always making sure that our nation’s sailors made it safely to the next step of their military journey.
Interested in volunteering at the USO and making a difference in the lives of the people who serve and their families? Click here for more information.
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