It’s easy to focus on how America and the world changed after September 11, 2001:
- Having to get to an airport 2 hours early
- Government buildings becoming fortresses
- Bag checks at museums and other public places
The cost has been substantial, and we also pay an emotional price for a little more security, or at least the feeling of security.
The world changed that day, and so did the USO.
On the morning of September 11, the USO made the instant shift from an organization serving the needs of a peacetime military, to one that had to adapt to meet the needs of troops that were once again going into harm’s way.
Keeping Troops and Families Connected
Not long after the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom, “USA Today” published a story about the paucity of telephones in Kuwait. Troops were having trouble calling home, and it was expensive. We worked with our friends at AT&T to provide international calling cards to as many troops as we could reach.
That was an interim solution. We still distribute phone cards, but we also added our own satellite-based Private Telephone Network at every USO center in Southwest Asia, so troops could call and email home over a more robust system. The network also makes video chats possible. We’ve lost count of the number of fathers overseas who were able to “be in” the delivery room when their children were born.
“If I can do this, why can’t you?”
Of course, our entertainment tours continued and grew over the years. Toby Keith, one of our stalwarts, takes his band regularly to troops in Afghanistan. He performs with his band for hundreds of troops at large and medium-sized bases around the county, but also insists on taking Scotty, his guitarist to remote forward operating bases on every trip. After one of those FOB visits, he challenged us to deliver USO programs to troops who weren’t at larger, more secure locations, and we took up the challenge.
Today, we have six USO centers at FOBS and firebases around the country. They’re small, but we provide the same kind of break from routine the USO has been famous for for more than 70 years. We supply these forward-deployed USO centers, and the troops there run them.
Who Needs us Most?
We routinely look at how we’re doing on our mission of lifting the spirits of all troops and military families. As we set about doing that, we asked ourselves, “Who needs us most?” The answer changes as conditions dictate, but today our focus is on:
- Troops who are deployed in combat zones, and their families;
- Troops in remote forward operating bases and outposts;
- Wounded Warriors and their families; and
- Families of the Fallen
The last two categories are examples of how the USO has changed most in the ten years since 2001.
The USO runs two centers at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware. Dover is the home for the military’s only mortuary, and every dignified transfer ceremony for troops killed in the current conflicts takes place there. The USO at Dover has participated in every dignified transfer since before 9/11, including those troops killed at Ft. Hood. No matter what time the airplanes bringing remains home arrive, USO staff and volunteers are there to serve the needs of the troops stationed there and the families of the fallen who make the sad journey to Dover to witness the final return of their loved ones. USO centers at airports across the country also assist family members on their way to Dover and on the trips back home. We’re there to let them know the country supports them.
Caring for Wounded Warriors and Their Families
The USO is with troops suffering wounds and injuries in Afghanistan and Iraq almost from the moment they’re evacuated from the field. USO volunteers are at the hospitals there, providing encouragement. When the troops are airlifted to the Army hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, the USO Warrior Center there provides a place of respite for them and the families who go there to be with them.
When those troops come back to the U.S., many of them face months – sometimes years – of recuperation and rehabilitation, often at military hospitals in the Washington, D.C. area. The USO is there for them.
We’re expanding our service to these wounded troops by creating programs in we call Operation Enduring Care. It’s a national fundraising effort to help ease the transition to the next phase in the lives of these veterans and their families.
We recently broke ground on a new Warrior and Family Center at Ft. Belvoir. This 25,000-square-foot facility will be the largest USO in the world. Wounded troops and their families will have a place to meet away from the hospital. They can watch movies, cook family meals in the kitchen, or just relax in a quiet place. A similar USO will be built next year at the new Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, in Bethesda, Maryland.
While these centers will have a real and practical impact on the troops and families who visit there, our goal is to provide something a bit more intangible. These centers will represent the embrace and support of the American people – our donors who make what we do possible. They will be the first building blocks in what we hope will be a national community of care for wounded troops who return to their hometowns to start the next phase of their lives.
Change is a Constant
Today’s USO is changing to meet the growing needs of troops and military families, just as the USO changed from our birth during World War II, through Korea and Vietnam and the events leading us to where we are today. One day, we won’t have troops in combat in Southwest Asia, but we will have troops stationed around the world, far from home. The USO will be there for them, too. We will be there for troops and families, Until Every One Comes Home. – John Hanson, USO Sr. Vice President