By Sandi Moynihan
Birthdays aren’t supposed to be stressful. But when you’re separated by the world’s largest ocean and a dozen time zones, nothing is easy.
Luckily families with loved ones serving in the Pacific don’t have to figure out the closest bakery to base, or if that bakery can translate their message or even deliver the cake. All they have to do is contact the USO and ask about Operation Birthday Cake.
“USO Pacific’s Operation Birthday Cake is an amazing signature program that connects loved ones around the world,” said Carly Harris, USO Pacific Regional Vice President. “USO Okinawa launched the program which soon became so successful that it was adopted by USO Japan and USO Korea.”
So far, the program has delivered over 1,000 surprise birthday cakes to troops serving in the Pacific.
“I actually had phone calls, with moms crying that they were so happy to see their sons and daughters get their cakes,” said USO Camp Schwab Manager Will Stanley.
A sailor in Japan in surprised with a birthday cake.
A Marine is surprised with a birthday cake in Okinawa, Japan.
A soldier shows off his birthday cake at Camp Casey, South Korea.
Sailors show off a birthday cake in Japan.
Soldiers hold a birthday sign at Camp Humphreys, South Korea.
A service member smiles in front of his birthday cake delivered by USO Okinawa.
A Marine displays his birthday cake delivered by USO Okinawa.
Sailors smile in front of an OBC surprise cake in Japan.
Soldiers enjoy birthday cake at Camp Humphreys, South Korea.
Soldiers smile in front of the birthday sign at Camp Humphreys, South Korea.
Soldiers celebrate a birthday at Camp Casey, South Korea
Soldiers smile with cake at Camp Casey, South Korea.
Sailors proudly show off a birthday cake at Camp Casey, South Korea.
A sailor enjoys his birthday cake in Japan.
For many stateside families, an OBC surprise is the easiest way they can send warm wishes and celebrate their deployed loved one’s special day.
“[The service member’s family is] just happy that we could reach out and do something special for their loved one on a day when sometimes they can’t even call because of the time difference, technology, or whatever the issue may be,” said USO Camp Casey Manager Katie Kerr.
The Logistical Layers of Operation Birthday Cake
A regular birthday surprise can take hours of careful coordination, from picking out candles to selecting the color of the frosting on the cake. But for an OBC celebration to get off the ground, the deployed service member’s family must first reach out to the USO via Facebook or email.
“Sometimes [families] know about our OBC program. Sometimes they don’t [and] they just hope that the USO can help [deliver a birthday surprise],” Kerr said.
Once contacted, the USO sends the families OBC request forms. When the family sends the forms back – along with the payment for the cake – the planning process begins. The local USO center orders the birthday cake from the local commissary and, in some locations, starts coordinating the surprise with the service member’s command.
It can take up to two weeks to lock down the perfect moment to spring the surprise. In most cases, the service members have no idea they’re receiving a birthday surprise.
“We have all their friends and platoon mates and soldiers are all there to … have a good time,” said USO Camp Humphreys Program Coordinator Ross Moore.
And we take pictures and they love it. So, it’s been really, really positive feedback.
Not Always a Piece of Cake
Of course, surprises aren’t always going to run smoothly with troops scattered around the region training, working on flight lines or pulling 24-hour guard duty. Last-minute scheduling changes or miscommunications occasionally delay an OBC surprise, but as Dalia Mares-McRae points out, the local USO staff and volunteers will do whatever they can to make sure the cake is delivered to the service member on their special day.
“There are times where we wait there for like an hour [to an] hour-and-a-half,” Mares-McRae said. “We wouldn’t just leave the cake. We want that whole experience.”
Sometimes, poor communication between a service member and his command or his family can accidentally ruin a surprise.
“We did have one kid that showed up to our office the day before we were supposed to go drop off the cake,” Mares-McRae said. “And they were like, ‘My command said I ordered a cake? You know, I don’t know if my mom tried to send me a cake. I’m not sure what’s going on.’
And we were like, ‘No. It’s your birthday! We’re going over there. I’m sorry. Try to act surprised!’
Another time, a cake misspelling made an already special moment even more memorable.
“Actually the last [OBC surprise], the commissary spelled the poor guy’s name wrong,” Moore said. “So we show up and we drop the cake off and I say ‘Hey, listen buddy. I apologize, but the commissary spelled it wrong.’ And then his platoon mates saw it. … They actually sang happy birthday [using the misspelled name] and now he has a new nickname.“
Looking to send a cake to a deployed loved one? Here’s how to contact the various USO Pacific centers: