By Barry Morris
Every year, thousands of young Americans cycle through one of the U.S. Army’s training centers for Basic Combat Training – their first steps toward transitioning from a civilian into a U.S. Army soldier.
More than 35,000 of these soldiers from 20 installations across the United States took part in this year’s Holiday Block Leave period, traveling by planes, trains, buses and automobiles – and through some of the busiest airports in the U.S. – to be with their families during the holidays.
In the Southeast U.S. alone, more than 10,000 soldiers traveled home for the holidays as part of Holiday Block Leave. Also sometimes known as “Holiday Exodus,” this is the time-honored military holiday tradition that authorizes soldiers in basic training to travel home during the month of December to reconnect with loved ones over the holidays.
For many of these soldiers who departed basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, as part of Holiday Block Leave this year, this may be the last time in a long while that they will get to spend precious time with their family and loved ones for the holidays, as it’s not a matter of if, but when they will get deployed overseas.
In these uncertain times throughout the world, our service members are away from home more than ever before. Two U.S. Navy carrier strike groups are currently in the Mediterranean, to include the Bataan Amphibious Readiness Group and 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit are also in the region. And more than 100,000 U.S. service members are now either deployed or permanently stationed or deployed across Europe in places like Poland, Romania and Germany. For many of them, this has meant leaving their homes and loved ones behind.
That’s why this chance to return home for the holidays is such an important one – and why the USO is there to support these young service members every step of the way.
For more than a decade, USO staff and volunteers have worked with Fort Jackson, Fort Moore and Fort Eisenhower leadership to provide a network of support to all service members and trainees traveling home for the holidays. From the minute they depart from their base, to when they get to the airport, to every moment in between, the USO is with them almost every step of the way.
“We are proud to be by the side of our Fort Jackson soldiers, trainees and cadre as they travel home for the holidays,” said Executive Director of USO South Carolina Joanie Thresher.
“From locations on Fort Jackson and our USO Center at the Columbia Metropolitan Airport, our team of donors and volunteers are sharing their time around the clock to provide a snack and friendly smile – every step of the way we are with them.”
A Soldier’s First Stop on their Trip Home – the USO
Soldiers began their journey on Dec. 16 in a staggered manner, departing first from Fort Moore and Fort Eisenhower, and later from Fort Jackson, the largest and most active Army Initial Entry Training Center in the U.S., located just outside of Columbia, South Carolina, on Dec. 18. The soldiers will make the reverse commute and return to training starting the second week of January.
To support these young service members traveling home, USO staff and volunteers work up to 15 hours a day the entire week these young soldiers are transitioning home, ensuring they experience a safe and pleasant voyage.
“We are forever grateful for the USO in providing around-the-clock support to our soldiers as they make their way home this holiday season, said Staff Sgt. James Allred, a member of the training cadre escorting the thousands of soldiers traveling through the airports.
“The USO’s support ensures our soldiers feel welcomed and appreciated.”
Soldiers from Fort Jackson typically travel through Columbia Metropolitan Airport or are bused to Charlotte Douglas International Airport. At both locations, while soldiers wait for their flights, USO airport Center staff and volunteers hand out water, snacks and USO travel goodie bags. These items, along with support and a warm welcome from USO volunteers, ensured traveling service members had all the comfort items they needed until they finally made it home to spend time with their families.
“It’s an honor to support these trainees each year as they travel home for the holidays and to provide them with a little taste of home along their journey,” said Julie Milani, USO North Carolina Charlotte Airport Senior Center Manager. “We are grateful for all our partners who support us as we deliver some holiday goodness to these soldiers, who are excited to head home for a much-needed break from basic training.”
USO Provides Continuum of Support as Service Members in Training Head Home for the Holidays
In addition to the soldiers traveling home from Fort Jackson, over 8,500 soldiers traveled from Fort Moore, Georgia, with another 3,000 from Fort Eisenhower, all making their way home for the holidays.
"Supporting the thousands of soldiers who travel through our airport on their way home for the holidays is a time honored tradition for our USO Georgia team, and we are grateful to support them each year,” said Christina Shively, Center Operations and Programs Manager with USO Georgia.
Roughly 3,000 soldiers from Fort Moore and Fort Eisenhower made their connecting flights through Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, where they were greeted by USO Georgia staff and volunteers, receiving a continuum of USO support throughout their journey home.
“I am truly amazed and grateful for how the USO is treating us, everything is so well organized and everyone is extremely friendly,” said U.S. Army Pvt. Kevin Soto, who was headed home to Reno, Nevada, to spend the holidays with his family and friends who he hasn’t seen since leaving for basic training.
In Northwest Florida, Traveling Service Members Can Lean on the USO, Too
For service members traveling though the Pensacola International Airport over the holidays, the USO – which will remain open for 24-hours now through Dec. 24 – is there to support them, too.
USO Northwest Florida staff and volunteers are providing meals, snacks, a place to sleep, toiletry products, therapy dog visits and much more.
“The journey home may be a long for us soldiers, but it feels great knowing the USO is here for us along the way,” said Pfc. Tyra Pisimaka as she waited hours for her flight home to Hawaii.
By the time Santa’s sleigh takes flight, USO airport centers throughout the Southeastern United States will have supported more than 20,000 service members headed home for the first time in months.
After months of hard training, it’s crucial to provide these service members with the opportunity to relax and unwind before flying home – just in time for the holidays.
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