The USO at 70

Out of Many, One

On February 4, 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt accomplished what might not be possible today.  He asked 6 organizations who had provided morale services during World War I to unite their activities in one effort to help deal with the growing needs of the U.S. military.  Those groups (the Salvation Army, the YMCA, the YWCA, Travelers Aid, the Jewish Welfare Board, and National Catholic Community Service) formed the United Service Organizations – the USO.

From it’s founding as a private, not-for-profit organization, the USO has been lifting the spirits of troops and families around the world in times of war and peace.

Hope, and All That

Bob Hope’s contributions to troop entertainment are well-known.  His TV specials brought joy to troops and comfort to families back home.  Hope’s tireless efforts to bring the best performers to remote locations live on today.  Last year, the USO put on more than 700 events for troops and family members in the U.S., Europe, across the Pacific and, of course, Afghanistan, Iraq and Kuwait. Outstanding entertainers and celebrities from every field volunteer their time to visit troops, and let them know America stands behind them.

But, that’s about 11 percent of what the USO does.

A Bridge Back Home

Connecting troops and their loved ones has been a USO hallmark since World War II.  From letter-writing stations in the 1940s, to today’s USO satellite-based Private Telephone Network in today’s wars, troops and families have come to depend on the USO for finding ways for the American public and troops to connect.  In 2010, troops made 200,000 free phone calls home per month from USO centers in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Kuwait.  Because of the robust bandwidth the network brings us, troops can also communicate face-to-face.  We’ve lost track of the number of births witnessed by fathers thousands of miles away.

And, as before, it is through active engagement with other outstanding organizations that our best work is done.

Small, 45-rpm-sized “Letters on Records” were made at USO centers and mailed home during the early years.  Those were replaced by reel-to-reel and cassette tape messages later.  Today, through a partnership with the great folks at United Through Reading, troops can read a children’s book onto a DVD.  We then send the book and the video recording back home, so kids can “read along” with Mom or Dad as many times as they like.  Last year, 40,000 of those recordings were sent home to families.

The Most Married Military Since the Civil War?

Well, today’s military is very married.  Frequent deployments put a strain on families, especially children. We look out for them, too.

Motivational speaker Trevor Romain traveled to military bases around the world to help 6-to-12-year-olds deal with some of life’s challenges that can seem overwhelming to them.  Whether it’s being bullied or feeling like outsiders or dealing with divorce or a death in a family, Trevor helps give these youngsters and their parents tools to cope.

Our great friends at Sesame Street also came through for us.  For 3 years, we’ve worked with that organization to provide live character shows created especially for military families around the world.  (Did you know that Elmo’s father was deployed?  Elmo knows what it’s like to be lonely.) These outstanding programs have helped families deal with separation and with parents who come home with changes… or parents who don’t come home at all.  A new round of these performances kicks off this spring.

The Ultimate Sacrifice

And, we’re there for families who lose a loved one in service to their country.  USO staff and volunteers at our facility at Dover Air Force Base have met every dignified transfer of remains since 9/11.  We partnered with the base as they built the wonderful Families of the Fallen Center there, to give those families a place to gather themselves as they wait for their loved ones’ final journey home.

Through an active and productive partnership with our friends at the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors – TAPS – we help families of troops who died or were killed on active duty.  We also partnered with TAPS to offer children and spouses the chance to attend TAPS’ Good Grief Camp at Ft. Hood, Texas.  Here, families can find strength in meeting others who suffered the same kind of loss.

The USO and the Moyer Foundation will offer four camps for children whose parents were lost in combat.  Camp Erin, originally targeted at urban youth who lost a loved one, has expanded its focus to include military kids.  The camps will be held at Ft. Campbell, Ky; Ft. Bragg/Camp LeJeune, N.C.; Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, and Ft. Hood.  The participants can be themselves and learn to cope with pain – together.

Later this year, we will partner with Army One Source for our 2nd annual Caregivers’ Conference at Ft. Bragg.  The conference will bring together caregivers of wounded warriors to learn from world-class experts about compassion fatigue, suicide prevention, and depression.

And, Don’t Forget the Centers

The bulk of the USO’s day-to-day work happens at the 160 centers around the world.  These centers, located at U.S. airports and on military bases here and overseas, provide a safe place for troops to relax for a while.  We operate large centers in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Kuwait, and we’re opening small centers at remote forward operating bases in Afghanistan whenever the military asks us to.  Troops have free access to the Internet and they can watch movies or play video games.  Or, they can just sit and talk with friends.

Last year, USO centers had more than 8 million visits, including 1 million from family members.  Those centers offered more than 1,700 family events and programs in 2010.

Coming Soon – the Biggest USO Centers Anywhere

In just a few months construction will begin on the first of two brand new USO centers – the largest anywhere by a factor of about 8.  These 25,000-square-foot facilities will be built at the Ft. Belvoir, Virginia Community Hospital and at the new Walter Reed Medical Center being built in Bethesda, Maryland.  They will serve the needs of our wounded warriors and their families and provide them with places to go outside the hospital.

They will be open around the clock and will offer kitchens for home-cooked meals, a place for children to play, healing gardens, and the chance to watch first-run movies.  We will also make all of the courses offered by the American Management Association free to troops and families.

The centers will be part of wounded warriors’ transition from the military to the rest of their lives.  This effort will also require a partnership … with you and every citizen of every city and town across America.  We hope to help create a national community of care to help these families as they begin the next part of their journey to full and productive lives.

Forever Young

The USO is constantly refreshed and re-energized by our donors and tens of thousands of volunteers who make it possible for us to continue meeting the needs of troops and their families.  Every year brings new challenges and new opportunities for the USO to continue to be the go-to organization for troops and families and for other organizations to partner with to meet those new challenges.

It seems that we’ve only just begun.