Isaiah, a 2023 USO Volunteer of the Year, Created a USO Center and a Community While Deployed to Syria

By Danielle DeSimone

Deep in the desert of Syria, in a bunker with thick concrete walls, a board game night was in full swing. The mood could have been tense, rattled, emotional – after all, this forward operating base had just come under attack hours beforehand. But instead, the U.S. service members gathered around the board games were allowing themselves a brief moment of respite and levity. Tomorrow, their duties would resume and they’d be back on the front lines. But for just a moment, here in the safety of this space, they could allow themselves to take a break from the worry, the stress, the realization that home was still thousands of miles and several months away – and just let off some steam with their fellow service members.

For Isaiah Pleiman, a member of the U.S. Army National Guard and a USO volunteer, this was what he had been working toward – the ability to provide a safe space for service members to turn to in times of distress. And throughout his months of deployment, Isaiah did just that, creating not just an unstaffed USO Center at this remote outpost in Syria, but also a supportive, community atmosphere that the people who served alongside him could rely on.

How Isaiah Got His Start in the National Guard

Isaiah is originally from Anna, Ohio, where he owns his own ice cream shop and works part-time as a designer in his mother’s flower shop. He enlisted in the Ohio National Guard in 2018 and has been serving for a little over five years. Although Isaiah had a handful of family members who had previously served in the U.S. Air Force, joining the military had never been something he had always wanted to do. However, he came to see joining the military as a good opportunity to obtain an education and go to college; and in the end, it was an incredibly fortuitous decision, because Isaiah loves life in service.

“I got involved with the Army and I loved my job. I sing praises to my job and I recommend it to anybody who even thinks about joining the military,” he said. “It just completely took a turn for me.”

Isaiah specifically pursued a career as a Religious Affairs Specialist. In this role in the U.S. Army, Isaiah’s primary responsibility is to support the Chaplain assigned to an Army unit in any way that they need in order to provide worship services, as well as spiritual and emotional support to soldiers. Standard responsibilities include planning and setting up religious services, assisting the chaplain with counseling of service members in need of emotional support, maintaining reports and other small tasks that uphold the morale and spiritual readiness of those in the unit they’re assigned to.

This was a perfect fit for Isaiah who, back home, serves as a youth leader in his local church.

“Right when they said that there was a [religious affairs] slot open, that’s immediately what I picked,” he said.

Photo credit Courtesy Photo

U.S. Army Sgt. Isaiah Pleiman, pictured here with Capt. Matthew Kirkpatrick (left) sees serving as a religious affairs specialist as a way to give back to his fellow service members.

Isaiah explained that he believed his role allows him not only to give back to the American people through his service, but specifically to give back to his fellow service members.

“Everybody says that soldiers deployed overseas ‘are doing it for people back in the States. They’re doing it for people over here.’ But nobody ever talks about what people are doing for [the service members] while they’re over there,” Isaiah said. “So that’s what my job allows me to do – I could be that morale booster and a person who actually takes care of the people who are fighting.”

Then, in late 2022, Isaiah received notice that he was going to be deployed.

The Challenges of a Front-Line Deployment

“This was my first deployment and it was one for the books, I’ll tell you that,” Isaiah said.

As far as first deployment locations go, this was a somewhat intense one – Isaiah was deployed to a remote, forward-operating base in Syria for nine months.

When he first discovered where his deployment location would be, Isaiah knew he had to be prepared. In the time that led up to his departure, he researched additional counseling measures and created response plans to various situations he might encounter as a religious affairs specialist. Upon arrival in Syria, he realized he would have to get even more creative.

The front-line location in Syria that Isaiah was deployed to was austere and remote, with limited amenities for service members during their downtime. | Photo credit Courtesy Photo

Isaiah described the downrange location as the very definition of a “field environment,” in which food was limited to whatever the Army cooked for them, sand was everywhere, resources were limited and the extreme weather could shift suddenly. But for Isaiah, being in such an austere environment was a chance for him to make a difference in the lives of those who may have been struggling through their deployment experience.

“I wouldn’t trade it for the world,” he said.

Isaiah explained that when service members had downtime, they were limited in what activities they could partake in, beyond just hanging in their barracks. If they had free time, they would simply continue to work because there was – as is often the case in downrange locations – always work to do. Although the base had a “morale space” for service members to relax and spend time in, it was small, with not as many amenities as they would have liked.

“When you have downtime, that’s when you want to let off some steam. But there was nowhere anybody could go to just be who they would be back home. ‘To take off the uniform’ and relax,” Isaiah said.

He quickly realized he needed to provide his fellow service members with that kind of comfortable environment.

The opportunity arose before Christmas, when several service members asked Isaiah what they could do as a group to celebrate the holidays. So, Isaiah dug around through their limited supply closet and found enough board games and supplies – coupled with his own music speaker – to create a game night for Christmas.

The event was a hit – service members came and went through the chapel, spending time together playing board games and taking just a moment away from their duties to recharge.

“They could escape,” Isaiah explained.

Service members take part in an arts & crafts activity night at the unstaffed USO Center. | Photo credit Courtesy Photo

After seeing how successful the event was, Isaiah got approval from his commanding officer, Chaplain Kirkpatrick, to make game night a regular event.

Isaiah began to host even more events and soon enough, the chapel on base became too small, as the number of service members attending the events began to increase. So then, Isaiah moved his events into the morale space on base and the events continued to grow.

Then, one day, USO Regional Expeditionary Operations Manager Becca Cooper arrived on Isaiah’s base in Syria. In her role on the USO’s expeditionary team, Becca travels to locations where it may not be possible – due to safety or size of the installation – to build a brick-and-mortar USO Center with USO staff employed there. At these locations, she visits for a few days or a week at a time to host USO events and programs, and to provide service members with a break from the intensity of their deployment. If possible, expeditionary team members return every few months to deliver these programs again. Although brief, these visits to downrange locations can make a considerably positive impact on the people serving there.

When Isaiah saw the success of Becca’s USO bingo night on the base, he approached her and told her about his hopes of building a more robust space where service members could go to decompress and feel like they weren’t on a military base.

Isaiah worked hard to translate the morale space into a cozy, welcoming unstaffed USO Center. | Photo credit Courtesy Photo

Becca’s answer? They should build an unstaffed USO Center at the base.

“And she said ‘Okay, well if you want this, shoot for the moon and I’ll get you as close as I can,’” Isaiah recalled.

From there, in partnership with the USO, Isaiah’s plans for supporting his fellow service members only grew. Isaiah worked closely with Becca and the USO team, arranging for the delivery of USO2GO kits in order to help Isaiah build his own USO Center. Developed using feedback from deployed troops, these customizable kits include everything needed to build their own USO Center, from furniture and arts and crafts, to board games and gaming equipment. USO2GO kits can also include toiletries, snacks and other necessities that may be hard to come by.

Once Isaiah received approval for USO funding of an unstaffed USO Center, he reached out to his fellow service members and asked them what kinds of activities they’d like to see in the space on base. Using their feedback, he ordered a list of items to build the USO Center: more board games, LED string lights, a ping pong table and much more. The result was a cozy and lively space that service members could turn to after a long day on duty. When deployed on a remote base with limited places to spend time in beyond your barracks, and even fewer opportunities to simply take a break and have fun, having a space like this can make all the difference in the morale of the people who serve.

Photo credit Courtesy Photo

Isaiah helped turn the small morale space into a cozy, unstaffed USO Center with many typical USO amenities.

As news began to spread about Isaiah’s events and the new unstaffed USO Center on base, more and more service members began to attend the events and spend time in the Center. Now working as a USO volunteer as well as in his role of a religious affairs specialist, Isaiah made sure to organize a game night every Friday to give people something to look forward to, and even increased programming based on how often he heard his fellow service members discuss homesickness.

“In November we all got to this base and had no idea what was going on, and most of us were scared. And by the end of it, I had generals and high-ranking officials coming up to me and thanking me because the morale was so high,” Isaiah said. “I am from a super small town, and so that community feel is exactly what I was going for the entire time I was there.”

Photo credit Courtesy Photo

Service members participate in a tie-dye arts & crafts evening at the USO Center.

Organizing these events as a USO volunteer was also helpful for Isaiah, who had to deal with his own bouts of homesickness while away from his family and friends. Isaiah was able to stay in touch with his loved ones intermittently, when the internet was working, and he strived to call his fiancé back home every other day. But, as he explained, he is a “people person” who gets his energy from others – and so the service members who volunteered alongside him were immensely helpful with creating a team-like atmosphere. While he was leading the organization of all these events and the creation of the USO Center, this team of nearly 20 other service member volunteers were also giving it their all to make sure the set-up of the Center and the execution of these events were a success.

These events included gaming tournaments, sporting and physical fitness tournaments, movie and karaoke nights and much more. Isaiah also continued to monitor and track all incoming supplies of USO Programs in a Box and USO2GO kits, as well as restock toiletries and snacks, organize the library and keep the space clean for other service members. The number of participants at Isaiah’s events exceeded 700 people, and military leadership repeatedly expressed that they had never seen morale so high among service members at this particular location.

Photo credit Courtesy Photo

Isaiah was especially proud of the 5K Color Run he organized, which had a great turnout of service members willing to run in the Syria heat, early in the morning.

Isaiah was especially passionate about the 5K Color Run he organized. This event required weeks of planning and they had to deal with the weather, which was unbearably hot. Isaiah was worried that with a 6 a.m. start-time, people might not show up. But at 5:45 a.m., there were already almost 65 service members ready and waiting at the start line.

“It was amazing,” Isaiah said.

A Legacy of Unwavering Support as the 2023 USO Volunteer of the Year

Little did Isaiah know that this established foundation of support he had created in the unstaffed USO Center would become crucial during a pivotal moment of his deployment. While deployed, their base was attacked, and it greatly impacted the service members deployed there.

“When we got attacked, it freaked people out a little bit,” Isaiah admitted.

In the aftermath of the attack, Isaiah’s first priority was to work with Chaplain Kirkpatrick to ensure the well-being and readiness of those around him. Just by chance, Becca had been on base during the attack while on another USO expeditionary visit, and so she joined in helping Isaiah plan morale-boosting events immediately following the attack. Together, Isaiah, Becca and the chaplain hosted an evening of back-to-back activities in a bunker, jumping from bingo to game night.

Photo credit Courtesy Photo

The evening after their base was attacked, service members gathered in a safe space and participated in a bingo night and game night, organized by Isaiah in an attempt to keep up morale.

Isaiah also organized a USO Reading Program event. Through this program, service members are given the opportunity to record themselves reading a book, and then have that recording and a copy of the book sent home to a son, daughter, sibling or any other child in their life. This program can provide a powerful connection to loved ones back home, ensuring that even while thousands of miles away, service members can be with their children at bedtime and read them a story. All of these events and programs can be immensely comforting to service members who have just experienced an attack while on deployment.

The USO Reading Program allows deployed service members to record themselves reading a bedtime story to the child in their life back home. A copy of the book and the recording is then sent to their child. | Photo credit Courtesy Photo

“That night was probably the highest numbers that we’ve had. Everybody was just in there having a good time because they knew they were safe, because I was holding it in a bunker. Everybody knew they were in a safe area,” Isaiah said.

In the months that followed, Isaiah continued to run the USO Center – and offer his support – 24/7. In fact, because the base was 24-hour operations, service members were working at all hours of the day and night; and with these odd schedules, Isaiah insisted on the USO Center being open at all hours. Even furthermore, he made himself available 24/7. In his role as a religious affairs specialist, it was important that Isaiah’s fellow service members knew they could turn to him in times of need – even if that meant he was asleep in his barracks.

However, making himself accessible to his fellow service members was a crucial part of Isaiah’s role – and he believed in extending that accessibility to the USO Center as well. This meant creating an environment where service members could feel comfortable no matter what. In fact, one aspect of the USO Center that Isaiah thought may have played a part in its success is that it was a place in which rank didn’t matter – it was open and welcome to everyone.

“My commander even came, because any event that I did was for all ranks. There was no, ‘Oh, if you’re this rank, you can’t come, I’m sorry,’” Isaiah said. “I’d walk into an event and I’d see our sergeant major of the entire squadron talking to a specialist friend of mine.”

Another policy Isaiah implemented that was intentional and focused on creating a welcoming space was to refer to people by their first names within the USO Center – not by their last name or rank. And that included his superior officers. In the military, where rank and hierarchy are paramount, this was considered a bold – and some might even say risky – move.

“I called everybody by their first names to make it more comforting, and the first couple times, I got some looks,” Isaiah laughed. “But if I am singing karaoke with you at two in the morning, I’m calling you by your first name.”

Photo credit Courtesy Photo

Isaiah credits part of the unstaffed USO Center’s success with his commitment to breaking down barriers between service members of different ranks while inside the Center.

This innovative approach to building a community on a front-line base in Syria was crucial to the unstaffed USO Center’s success, and to Isaiah’s work as both a religious affairs specialist and a USO volunteer. But of course, Isaiah was ready for this kind of work after years of experience – his role as a youth group leader in his church back home and growing up with a mother who is currently the youth director at their church in Ohio meant that he was well-equipped for this kind of challenge.

“I called my mom one day and I was like, ‘Who knew that helping out with youth at a church would lead to this,’ because everything that I did in Syria are things that we’ve done at church,” he said.

Isaiah explained that he adjusted many of his church’s youth activities so that they’d appeal to an adult military audience and used them while on deployment. His mother’s guidance also came in handy – even while thousands of miles away.

“I ran every idea that I had through her,” Isaiah said. “Every single one. Her and my fiancé are both very, very proud. They were probably the two people that I called most about all this stuff.”

Connecting to loved ones back home can be crucial to service members’ well-being while deployed, but those who have never experienced a deployment do not always realize how much of an impact it can have on the family and friends waiting back home, in addition to the service members. One thing that Isaiah wishes civilians understood about military life are the mental health challenges that service members go through, and that military families go through as well because, he explained, it can be very challenging.

“The people who were with me on deployment were fortunate enough to have somebody who did everything in their power to make sure that they weren’t homesick,” Isaiah said. “Other places aren’t always like that, so just you get bored. When you get bored, then you start getting depressed. And when you get depressed, then you cause family issues back home – and then those family issues can’t be resolved because you’re in a different country. So then when you get home, you have an entire new challenge to [deal with].”

Luckily, the people who served on the base with Isaiah in Syria did in fact have someone there who tried to support them through the emotional challenges of a deployment.

“The positive impact that I was able to provide, and have a team with me to provide, was amazing,” Isaiah said.

Isaiah Pleiman has been named the 2023 USO Volunteer of the Year. | Photo credit Courtesy Photo

Each year, the USO highlights two outstanding volunteers – one based in the U.S. and one based overseas – to celebrate and thank them for their hard work. It is because of Isaiah’s unwaveringly positive attitude, his determination to provide comprehensive support to his fellow service members and his enthusiasm in inventing creative programs and events at this downrange location that he was recognized as the overseas 2023 USO Volunteer of the Year. It is notable that Isaiah’s work was not limited to just his time on deployment – it has continued to have a ripple effect for those stationed at this location in Syria.

In fact, one of the most important things to Isaiah that came out of this experience is that it has made a lasting impact on the base there – even now that he is back stateside, safely home from his deployment.

“It doesn’t stop just because I left. All it takes is one volunteer to get everything going, and after that, it just keeps going,” Isaiah said. “Becca just told me the other week that all those programs and everything that I put in place, those procedures, they’re still going. The next religious affairs specialist over there took over, took it and ran with it.”

For Isaiah, this lasting impact is crucial. He hopes that his work as a USO volunteer – and the work of the other USO volunteers on deployment with him – shows that even if morale support isn’t part of your daily work, anybody can step up to give back and help others out when navigating a difficult situation.

“I want what I did to inspire people,” he said.

Are you interested in giving back to the people who serve and volunteering with the USO? Learn more about what it means to be a USO Volunteer and if there’s a USO Center near you by clicking here!

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