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Warrior and Family Center at Fort Belvoir Opens

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

By Eric Brandner 

There were large scissors. There was a large ribbon. And when the ceremonial cuts were finally made, the USO fulfilled one of the most ambitious goals in its 72-year history.

The USO held the grand opening for its first Warrior and Family Center on Tuesday. The 20,000-plus-square-foot building on Fort Belvoir, Va., is the largest USO center ever built and also the first of its kind: a place designed for wounded, ill and injured troops, their family members and caregivers. Inside the center’s brick walls – positioned in the shadow of Fort Belvoir Community Hospital and the Fort Belvoir Warrior Transition Unit barracks – troops recovering from war wounds and injuries have access to state-of-the-art, ADA-compliant spaces to relax, have fun and learn away from the grind of the hospital.

“We told [the architects] that we wanted this building to be designed to the ‘audible gasp standard’ because that’s the reaction that we wanted to elicit from troops and families the first time they set foot inside this center,” USO President Sloan Gibson said prior to the ribbon cutting. “I hope as you have the opportunity to tour the center today, you agree that we have met that standard.”

The USO welcomed nearly 200 guests Tuesday, including Fort Belvoir Garrison Commander Army Col. Greg Gadson, Army National Guard Bureau Chief Gen. Frank Grass, Director of Army Staff Lt. Gen. William Troy, Kuwait Ambassador to the United States Sheikh Salem Abdullah Al-Jaber Al-Sabah and Northrop Grumman CEO Wes Bush. Northrop Grumman’s $5 million gift to the USO was instrumental in building the $12 million complex.

“To all the selfless men and women that the center has been set up to serve, we really don’t have enough words in our vocabulary to say ‘thank you,’” Bush said.

The center is broken into three areas: (1) recreation and normalcy, (2) respite and (3) education and work. Recreation and normalcy offerings are found in every USO – but not to the magnitude that exists at Fort Belvoir. Spaces like the Gaming Center, Sports Lounge and Music Room create fun, competitive and creative environments with wall-to-wall TVs, dozens of video game titles, new musical instruments and a golf simulator donated by Full Swing Golf.

A four-room Respite Suite was designed on the second floor – away from the noisier areas of the center – as a place for troops, their families and caregivers to congregate for quiet chats or moments of introspection. The quiet area extends outdoors, with the Respite Terrace that overlooks the Healing Gardens, where the grounds’ first plants and flowers will soon come into bloom.

The final set of spaces is dedicated to helping troops chart a course for their future. The USO invested heavily in technology for the Learning Center and Business Center, establishing multiple areas troops can connect to the Web, take college-level classes and even link up remotely with career counselors, deployed buddies and loved ones.

“People believe what they see and what they feel as much as what they hear,” Troy said. “And when they see this magnificent structure and they feel the love inside … they will know without any question that they have a home and that somebody does care about them.”

Envisioned four years ago, the USO brought the center to life after extensive research, planning and construction.

The organization – which celebrated its 72nd birthday on Tuesday – worked with STUDIOS Architecture, builder’s representative Huffman Development and Scott-Long Construction to make sure every need expressed by the wounded, ill and injured community was covered.

“These folks have worked so hard,” USO of Metropolitan Washington President Elaine Rogers said of the construction and design teams. “[All parties] working on this center are so excited to be … giving this back to the troops.’”

Like all USO services, the building wouldn’t have been possible without significant donations. Nearly 250,000 Americans have donated to Operation Enduring Care, the USO’s campaign to raise funds for two Warrior and Family Centers – including one that will be built this year at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. – and a plethora of USO Warrior and Family Care programs that help troops heal physically and emotionally and advance their career goals. Major donors to the campaign include Northrop Grumman, the Kuwait-America Foundation, The Anschutz Foundation, Jeep, The Coca-Cola Foundation, The Timken Group, News Corporation, Lowe’s, BAE Systems, jcp and actor Charlie Sheen.

The building – which is open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily starting Feb. 8 – will be run by eight full-time staffers and 350 USO volunteers, four of which will be on duty at all times. It will be open to all servicemen and women, though it was built to serve the specific needs of wounded, ill and injured troops healing at the hospital next door.

And one of those needs – even though its hard to quantify – is the connection to the community the center will provide for recovering troops.

“It’s not about helping people, it’s about saving people,” said Kat Causey, a former USO volunteer and the wife of Army 1st Sgt. Aaron Causey, who lost his legs in a September 2011 explosion in Afghanistan. “It’s reminding them that there is a place to go be themselves.”

“The USO has not only identified a need, but they have taken action,” Gadson said. “I know that my family and so many other families are in a better place because of the efforts of the USO. There’s a lot of personal emotion that I have as I see this … Warrior and Family Center go up. And now it’s about to come alive, with so much hope and so much promise.”

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(USO photos by Mike Theiler) 

* Shop USO Wishbook to donate funds that helps more troops and families enjoy the programs and services that the USO offers worldwide. 

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