The USO's Eastern Europe Expansion: Meeting Service Members' Needs Amid Second Anniversary of War in Ukraine

By Danielle DeSimone and Brittany Laursen

It has been two years since Russia invaded Ukraine and began a conflict that has sent shockwaves through Europe and caused hundreds of thousands of casualties. Two years since American service members were deployed at a moment’s notice to support our allies and serve as a deterrent against an escalating conflict. Two years since military spouses and children were given only 24 hours to say goodbye to their loved ones and then left anxiously waiting back home, with limited or sometimes even no way to contact their deployed service member. And it has been two years since the USO immediately stepped up to be by the side of our military community, as we always do – and always will – to support the people who serve.

From the first weeks of deployment to 2023’s need for expansion

When those first 40,000 service members deployed to Eastern Europe, the USO was immediately by their side, providing support on the flight lines as they left, and at bases in-country once they arrived. Back home, we provided support – such as family dinners and military spouse outreach – for the military families left behind, who were still reeling from their loved ones’ sudden departure.

Photo credit U.S. Army/Sgt. Jillian G. Hix

U.S. Army paratroopers assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division depart Fort Liberty, North Carolina, for Eastern Europe in February 2022. One paratrooper has a USO Care Package strapped to the outside of her military gear.

For many of the service members sloughing through fields of mud in snow-covered forests to reach their new deployment location, the USO was their first stop when they touched down, as we set up phone tents for them to use to make free phone calls home and served hot breakfasts in the chill of an Eastern European winter. In times of uncertainty and high-pressure deployments, having these moments of support can be crucial to boosting morale among the people who serve and their families.

Photo credit USO Photo

Many service members who deployed to Eastern Europe in the first wave of deployments in 2022 were instructed to leave their phones and laptops behind. Through the USO’s secure network and provided phones, these troops can still call home and stay in touch with loved ones.

However, service members’ need for support continued to grow far beyond the USO’s initial efforts. With the war in Ukraine now at the two-year mark, there are still tens of thousands of U.S. service members either deployed or permanently stationed in Europe. Throughout 2022, and then again in 2023, the USO stepped up its efforts in order to bolster the resilience and well-being of the people serving in the U.S. military in Eastern Europe.

In 2023 alone, the USO expanded its reach across 2,000 miles in Eastern Europe, north to south — including countries never served by the USO before. The USO established four new staffed – and seven unstaffed – USO Centers, as well as increased our expeditionary support to 70+ remote and isolated locations, all while enhancing Center amenities and prioritizing crucial programs. In the end, the USO facilitated more than 470,000 interactions with service members in 2023.

The challenges of an Eastern Europe deployment and why service members need USO support

Service members deployed to Eastern Europe – both in the initial waves of deployment, and in troop movements today – have faced challenges unique to the region that can make their months away from home, on the front lines, difficult.

Many U.S. service members deployed to Eastern Europe arrived in locations that did not have a U.S. military presence prior to the Russia-Ukraine war. Some of these sites have lacked the infrastructure and services of well-established military posts, or they may be positioned in remote and isolated locations that have limited resources. As these bases are being built and expanded upon, it can be difficult in the meantime for service members to access resources or items that the average American would consider a necessity.

Photo credit DVIDS/Sgt. Gerald Holman

U.S. Army paratroopers place their equipment inside a tent as they settle into their new location in Poland in late February 2022.

Service members who first arrived in certain parts of the region spent – and will continue to spend – months living in tents or shipping containers in a forest clearing, surrounded only by trees for miles. In the winter, snow is common, and temperatures in this region can drop below −4 °F. In addition, many of these bases do not yet have paved roads, so when it rains or snows, service members must slough through mud. Some do not always have access to extensive hygiene products or snacks, and beyond their daily duties and their barracks, there are limited activities for them to spend their downtime.

Many base locations in Eastern Europe are still being built and expanded upon, meaning that service members are largely living out of tents. USO centers in locations like these provide troops with a place to relax outside of their barracks that is comforting and feels like home. | Photo credit USO Photo

“These are troops living in tents, dealing with wind and cold, and walking through mud just to get to the showers and toilets. In some cases, all they have access to are portable toilets,” said Tom Blakely, USO Director of Operations for Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA). “We’re focused on improving their quality of life during these especially difficult deployments.”

Having a safe and comfortable space to turn to on deployment can be crucial for the morale and mental health of the people who serve, especially in locations where a comfortable space to unwind in may be hard to come by. In the face of these challenging physical conditions, USO Centers serve as a warm and relaxing place of respite, where service members can use USO resources to either connect back home, take a moment to themselves, or bond with each other.

Photo credit USO Photo

Sailors are pictured playing video games via in the USO Gaming Program while deployed overseas. This program has been instrumental in connecting service members to loved ones back home, providing them with opportunities to bond with their fellow service members and offering the people who serve with just a moment to relax and escape the sometimes challenging realities of their service.

The USO increased its physical footprint in Eastern Europe in 2023

In 2023, the USO built four brick-and-mortar USO Centers throughout Poland and Romania, and seven unstaffed USO Centers in Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Bulgaria.

USO Centers serve as a home-away-from-home for service members and their families all around the world, but they are especially crucial for service members deployed to the front lines. Like the majority of the other 250+ USO centers across the globe, most of these newly-built Centers have friendly USO staff who are always ready to provide a welcoming smile and conversation. They are also equipped with comfortable furniture, free Wi-Fi, televisions, video games, music equipment, a kitchen stocked with refreshments and other amenities.

Photo credit USO Photo

USO Centers provide service members on the front lines with a comfortable place to relax and recharge, doing activities – such as this game night in Romania – that they love and can share with others.

Through these Centers, service members can also access innovative USO programs, such as the USO Reading Program, which allows deployed service members to read a bedtime story to their children back home, and send a recording of themselves reading – as well as a copy of the book – to their child.

The people who serve in Eastern Europe also participated in the USO’s longstanding tradition of entertaining our nation’s military through USO Entertainment Tours. In December 2023, the 2023 USO Holidays Tour, hosted by Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, traveled with a star-studded cast to multiple locations within Europe, including Germany, Poland and Romania. The tour performed live for 4,000 U.S. troops and family members stationed or deployed in Europe and provided a much-needed morale boost during the holiday season overseas.

USO Centers, programs and entertainment provide troops with some comforts of – and connections to – home, all while in a location far from everything familiar.

How staffed USO Centers made an impact

A “staffed USO Center” means that USO employees physically work at these USO Centers and run the daily operations and programs there, which – in Eastern Europe – are located on-base. The people who run these Centers as USO employees live in the same, remote corners of Eastern Europe as our service members, but year-round. While service members may use their free time volunteering with the USO at these Centers, the permanent USO staff here are largely responsible for hosting events and USO programs for the service members deployed to these locations.

The four, new staffed USO Centers built in Eastern Europe this year include:

USO Drawsko Pomorskie

Only four months into the year, USO EMEA opened the doors to a staffed Center in Drawsko Pomorskie, Poland on April 20, 2023. Unofficially nicknamed “the USO that soldiers built,” this Eastern European USO Center was up-and-running quickly thanks to hard work from many service members who were eager to have a USO Center to call their own.

“My first deployment, I was also taking college courses. I would always go to the USO to use the internet,” said U.S. Army Spc. Mykenna JohnsonFenech, who became a USO Volunteer after USO Drawsko Pomorskie opened.

“Eventually, I started to get a lot of fulfillment from volunteering and helping my soldiers. It’s definitely a morale booster. It’s an escape from the harsh reality of being away from your family and loved ones. I don’t know where we would be without the USO.”

USO Romania

Photo credit USO Photo

Service members deployed to Romania joined the USO for a paint night. Activities like these can help boost morale and provide a relaxing space for service members to recharge after long days on duty.

When Mihail Kogălniceanu Air Base Commander Col. Nicolae Cretu cut the ribbon and USO Romania opened its doors on June 27, 2023, there was much applause and celebration from military leadership and service members, as support in this region was very much needed. USO Romania staff and volunteers got to work immediately, hosting fun events like craft nights, taste-of-home potlucks with delicious food and Sunday game nights.

USO Bemowo Piskie

In the far eastern corner of Poland, bordered by Kaliningrad, Lithuania and Belarus, a beacon of camaraderie and support emerged on September 28, 2023. Service members, USO staff and military leaders gathered to celebrate a new home away from home for the people who serve at Bemowo Piskie Training Area, Poland. Since then, this center has truly become a place of retreat. The dedicated USO staff and volunteers organize a variety of weekly programs, including gaming competitions, arts and crafts, relaxation nights and holiday-themed events, further enhancing the sense of belonging for those who serve.

Photo credit USO Photo

USO leadership and staff, U.S. Army leadership and Polish Armed Forces leadership joined together to celebrate the opening of USO Bemowo Piskie.

“I think what this shows you is just how ingratiated the USO is in this community and how people see this as a place to go, to relax from what we do on a day-to-day basis,” said U.S. Army Col. Grant Fawcett, Deputy Commander of Support for 3rd Infantry Division, during his opening remarks at the USO Bemowo Piskie ribbon-cutting ceremony.

USO Zagan

The opening of USO Zagan on December 21, 2023, not only marked the inauguration of the fifth total Center directly supporting service members in Eastern Europe, but also displayed the collaborative spirit of USO staff and service member volunteers who transformed a vision into reality for their teammates. Every space in this center was designed with service members in mind – from the large gaming area, to the quiet study space and the large kitchen and dining area.

Soldiers decorate a tree at USO Zagan during a USO Holidays event. | Photo credit USO Photo

The challenges of a duty station in a quiet village like Zagan amplify the importance of this Center.

“There is not much to do in the village we are stationed in,” said Staff Sgt. Marcus Burke, a wheeled vehicle mechanic in the U.S. Army. “This USO gives troops a chance to do more than work and sit in their rooms … [it’s a chance] to just have fun or find somewhere to relax and not think about the military for the night.”

How unstaffed USO Centers and expeditionary support provided a boost to hard-to-reach service members

When service members deployed to Slovakia and Poland with less than 48-hours-notice, the USO knew they would need support. So USO expeditionary teams traveled to the front lines to deliver USO Care Packages and a morale boost in this high pressure environment. | Photo credit USO Photo

When some deployment locations are deemed unsafe or too isolated for civilian USO staff members to operate a Center full-time, the USO establishes unstaffed USO Centers, or deploys expeditionary support.

At unstaffed USO Centers, service members can enjoy the same amenities and comforts of a staffed USO Center. However, the difference is that the service members themselves offer up their free time outside of their daily duties to serve as USO Volunteers, rather than having USO staff present. These service members effectively run day-to-day Center operations and events on their own, with the help of remote support of USO staff.

This way, when deployed to remote locations in the field, military personnel can still benefit from the morale-boosting impact of the USO.

The USO opened seven new unstaffed Centers in the Eastern European region in last year, including locations in Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Bulgaria. These locations provided support to over 90,000 service members in 2023.

But sometimes, a location is even too distant or dangerous for a permanent, brick-and-mortar USO Center – and that is where USO expeditionary support comes in, always ensuring that despite the distance and thanks to the support of our donors, the USO is always by their side.

Photo credit USO Photo

Even in frigid temperatures and snowy weather, the USO shows up to provide the people who serve with a connection to home – in this case, in the winter in Poland, it was a home-cooked meal.

Through expeditionary support, USO teams travel directly to service members stationed in remote locations, equipped with all the supplies necessary to host USO programs and events upon arrival. This was especially popular during the holiday season, in which USO Holidays activities were spread far and wide throughout isolated locations in Eastern Europe, keeping spirits bright during the cold winter months.

Additionally, programs like USO2GO and Programs in a Box played crucial roles in delivering essential programs and fostering connections in locations where the physical presence of USO staff was impractical, such as on ships and hazardous environments.

“You can’t imagine how much this boosts morale,” said Grant McCormick, Regional VP for USO Europe, Middle East, and Africa (EMEA). “It’s not just about the food. It’s about camaraderie. It’s a way to bring service members together in a way that feels like family.”

Looking Ahead to 2024

In the mud, in the cold, on windy docks and in remote locales, USO staff and volunteers stand beside the people who serve our country. It is our honor to do so.

Photo credit USO Photo

Service members receive a hot, home-cooked meal from the USO in rugged terrain in Eastern Europe.

Our five staffed USO Centers and seven new unstaffed Centers in Eastern Europe will build on their current success and strive to expand our expeditionary outreach initiatives.

As the war in Ukraine continues, so too does the need for a continued presence of U.S. military personnel throughout the European region. And wherever the people who serve are needed, the USO will be right there with them, always by their side.

More Stories Like This

Every day, America’s service members selflessly put their lives on the line to keep us safe and free. Please take a moment to let our troops know how much we appreciate their service and sacrifice.


Sign Up for Updates

Be the first to learn about news, service member stories and fundraising updates from USO.

By participating, you agree to the Mobile Messaging Terms for recurring autodialed donation messages from USO to the phone number you provide & to the Privacy Policy. No consent required to buy. Msg&data rates may apply.

Take Action

The USO relies on your support to help service members and their families.

Ways to Support