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‘We Can Go There and Make it Ours’: USO Volunteer of the Year Talks About Service to Others During Deployment

Monday, October 21, 2013

By Joseph Andrew Lee 

Before then-Sgt. Jeremiah Johnson boarded his first combat deployment flight to Iraq in 2004, a USO volunteer made him a promise. She said she would pray for him every day, and that when he returned she would be the first person to give him a hug.

Eight months later, she was right where she promised.

“She was standing right there on the tarmac,” said Johnson, a Marine. “We made eye contact and the first thing she said to me was, ‘Hey, I owe you a hug.’

“It was just amazing to me that among all the thousands of troops – not just Marines, but from all services – that come and go through there, she was able to build a bond with me in only moments. It takes a special someone to do that, and it was then and there that I decided that I wanted to be a part of it.”

Nearly 10 years of USO volunteer service later, Johnson has been selected as the 2013 USO Volunteer of the Year. He’ll be honored Friday night at the USO Gala in Washington.

But it was the encounter on the March Air Reserve Base tarmac in 2004 that prompted Johnson to seek out every opportunity to volunteer for the USO at his duty station since.

Johnson made a lasting impact at two USO centers during his six-month deployment to Okinawa. First, at Camp Schwab, Johnson helped the center director compile a flag football league for the summer. Then, when transferred to Camp Hansen to attend Staff Non-Commissioned Officer Academy (SNCOA), Johnson “breathed new life into the Camp Hansen USO center, not only with his enthusiasm, but by literally bringing new volunteer recruits through the door,” according to the nomination letter submitted on his behalf.

Johnson recognized that SNCOA valued altruism, so he initiated a partnership between the USO and the academy for ongoing student volunteer service. In order to get the younger Marines interested, he would spend weekends driving them around the island in exchange for their volunteer time during the week. When the USO’s patio roof was ripped off and support beams began crashing through the glass doors during 2012's Typhoon Jelawat, Johnson rallied volunteers to help protect the inside furnishings from the wind and rain. When the storm passed, he found the tools and materials to board up the broken door and get the center open again.

“That’s what I love the most about the USO,” Johnson said. “It’s what you want it to be. You can walk in through those doors and it’s like being at home. If you don’t like something, you can change it. If something is broken you can fix it. Upgrade it. … It’s our home, and we can go in there and make it ours.”

As a father of four and a stepfather of four more, Johnson also saw great value in key USO partnerships like the United Through Reading's Military Program, so he took time to explain that value to his younger Marines. As a skilled chef, Johnson initiated the camp’s Midnight Munchies program to provide troops a trouble-free alternative to going out in town on Saturday nights. He barbequed during special events and weather-induced power outages and he served as a role model for customer service while recruiting numerous new volunteers.

“[Johnson] exemplifies the best of the best in our military today: service to country, family, and community with the utmost honor and integrity and – I’d venture say – a a large dose of humility,” said Betsy McWhirt, USO Director of Volunteer Services. “My experience is that the volunteers who deserve the honor the most are usually the ones who think they deserve it the least, because service, no matter what form it takes, is so integral to their character that they don’t see it as anything out of their normal routine.

“He could be ‘receiving’ all the services we have to offer at the USO, but instead he prefers to be part of the service delivery of the USO to his fellow troops, Marines, sailors, and airmen in order to lift their spirits. This is true leadership from our perspective, and a key reason he was selected as USO Volunteer of the Year.”

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