Happy Anniversary, USO! And Thank You to All Who Make it Possible…

From the Desk of John Hanson, Senior Vice President of Communications at the USO:

“February 4 is the USO’s 69th birthday.  That’s not a meaningful milestone in itself (unless you’re 68), but it reminds me that in parts of 8 decades, this organization continues to deliver support for troops and families with compassion and relevance.

I’m also reminded that our corps of staff and volunteers around the world show up each day at large and small locations and they solve problems.  When a young soldier appears at the USO at Dallas-Ft Worth Airport after missing his flight, he’s told to relax, get a cup of coffee, it’ll be all right.  Sure enough, the USO volunteer at the desk arranges for the next flight and calls the troop’s next base to explain what happened.

From Chicago to Kuwait, the desk where staff and volunteers sit and greet Troops serves as the nerve center of any USO. (USO Photos by Dave Gatley)

I once saw a recent graduate of the Navy’s boot camp at Great Lakes walk into the USO at O’Hare Airport with her orders and ask what she was supposed to do when she arrived at her first real duty station.  It seems that step was omitted in her out-processing briefing, and it occurred to her on the way to the airport that she was taking the second airplane flight of her life to a place she’d never been and into an environment with which she was totally unfamiliar.  The former sailor behind the counter looked at her orders, looked up the location of the personnel office at the next stop and gave her specific instructions about how to report for duty.

I accompanied a USO entertainment tour through Qatar, Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan a few years ago.  On the way home we stopped to put on a show in Italy.  I met one of our employees of our USO in Vicenza there.  She told me how important the shows were to the troops wherever we went, and she wanted to thank us for stopping in her country.  She went on to tell me that a deployment from Vicenza to Afghanistan just ended, and she mourned as she told me about her “boys” who didn’t return.  “It’s tough on everybody,” she said.  “The families, of course, but also the extended families – the troops who knew them.  It’s really hard on all of us.”

Volunteers at the DFW USO celebrate a USO Birthday with - what else? - a delicious cake in 2009.

She went on to tell me that one day she went into the kitchen at the USO to make a cake.  Soon, troops started coming into the kitchen to “help” her.  There they were, some of the finest soldiers in the Army licking spoons and beaters, helping out as they would back home.

She went on to make more cakes, but she only did it when the USO was busy.  She knew she’d get more help.  “After all,” she said, “it’s not about the cakes.  It’s about MAKING the cakes.”  It was about being with Mom in the kitchen.

In 69 years we’ve moved from providing letter-writing stations to providing free Internet connections.  Films projected onto sheets have become videos on large screen TVs.  There’s still coffee and magazines and comfortable furniture.  There’s still the respite from hard duty.  And, there’s still Mom in the kitchen making a cake.

It’s just like home.”

Some Reflections For Our Anniversary

From the Desk of John Hanson, Senior Vice President of Communications at the USO:

“First, a statement for the record – or at least that part of the record that includes social media. The president’s announcement that the last combat troops would leave Iraq in August could not have come soon enough. No one wants troops home more than my colleagues and I do. We’ve got friends who have served there, and who have been injured there. And, who have died there. Every day someone here sees what war does to the warriors.

But, there should also be a reminder that tens of thousands of troops will still be in the region – not to mention Afghanistan. Please don’t forget that troops around the world are serving around the world – away from friends and families. They’re missing birthdays and anniversaries and the births of children. Many aren’t in combat, but they’re just as likely to be in lonely isolated places, defending us. Their service counts and it’s important. My father is a World War II veteran who never got closer to overseas than San Francisco. I’m counted as a Vietnam veteran, but I repaired aircraft in Guam and Thailand. I am as proud of my service as my father was of his.

On February 4, the USO will enter the last year of its 7th decade (just a few months before I enter the first year of mine. But, this isn’t about me. At least not ALL about me). The USO’s focus from the beginning was on the simple notion of providing morale services for members of the U.S. military. We do that well, by the way.

Over the years, we’ve seen waves of support during times of war, and just the opposite in times of peace. Our challenge is to ensure that we continue to support troops around the world every day of every year – in times of war or peace.

The current conflicts this country is engaged in are complicated. My guess is that we will be involved in one way or another for the foreseeable future. As a veteran of our last long war, I’ve seen how the public’s patience can cause it to focus its discontent on troops, rather than the government. So far, that hasn’t happened. Regardless of how people view our foreign policy, support for the troops and for the USO remains strong. Maybe it’s because my generation realizes how we lost focus more than a generation ago. I hope so.

Wayne Newton entertains Troops on the first USO Celebrity Entertainment Tour in Afghanistan, December 2001.

One more thing. Earlier this week, I saw a brief mention of an attack at the US base at Camp Phoenix, near Kabul, Afghanistan. I paid attention because I’ve been there a few times. The 5-minute drive from Kabul to Phoenix is an exercise in breath holding. The distance is short, but the atmosphere is extremely tense. I hate to talk about being worried, because when we’re there it’s only for a few days. Our troops do this day in and day out for months at a time.

The report underscored what we already know. The U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan are facing difficulties we can hardly imagine. We can’t forget their service and their sacrifice – or that of their families.”