From the desk of John Hanson, Senior Vice President of Communications at the USO:
In just a few months USO will open its newest center. It will be a large tent at the U.S. base in Kandahar, Afghanistan. It’s a sprawling base, and our center couldn’t come at a better time. Coalition troops in that part of the country are seeing some of the fiercest fighting in the country. Troops move to and through the base every day, so providing them with a place to relax; to watch TV or to get online or on a free phone call home is more than just nice – it’s critical.
To emphasize the situation there, we recently received an email from the director of the Kandahar center. In part, she says:
“We had some rocket attacks here this week—we had to make a run for the bunker today and stayed there for 2 hours with all of our new neighbors. (Rockets) hit close enough we could all hear them. This place used to be really quiet; the whole environment is changing quickly. Oh, yeah, then it started hailing, we got lightning and then pouring rain. Awesome.”
Awesome, indeed. Then she got to the best part:
“However, really what we have found is that there are thousands of infantry troops around the USO who have absolutely nothing. They have to walk for 20 minutes to get to any form of distraction. You have never seen such a happy group when we told them we were opening in spring. We’ll be busy 24 hours a day.”
She’s right. We’ve learned from experience that our centers in Afghanistan, Iraq and Kuwait are busy around the clock. Troops line up outside, even when the centers shut for an hour or so for cleaning. It’s that important to them.
These centers are heavily used. The conditions are awful – sand, heat and cold take their toll. The furniture gets worn, our computers break, the TVs can’t be repaired, and so they have to be replaced. We do our best to provide upkeep, but it’s an continuing struggle. I don’t know how our folks do it.
Our centers in Afghanistan, Iraq and Kuwait are very thinly staffed – as are our centers around the world. We depend on volunteers. Getting volunteers in Germany or Okinawa is one thing. War zones present certain challenges. Our volunteers there are U.S. troops, giving us the little amount of free time they have. Sure, it helps them deal with the stress and boredom, but it’s more than that. They’re paying something forward. They are our customers and to ensure that the centers can operate for everyone at a base, they help us keep things running. Volunteers from the volunteer force.
In addition to this new operation in Kandahar, we will likely expand what we’re doing at Bagram Air Field – our oldest location in Afghanistan. The current center – the Pat Tillman Memorial USO – was built with the financial assistance from the National Football League. I was there in November, and it’s really crowded all day long. We are looking at finding a site across the base, so more troops can take advantage of our services.
This weekend, troops will gather at all of our centers in the region to watch football and movies; to play video games and maybe to record a children’s book to send back to a son or a daughter.
It’s a routine that’s repeated every day at more than 140 places around the world. Troops show up; volunteers and staff help them. Every day.