Full Circle: How One Kind Moment Created A USO Volunteer for Life

The Flores family. Courtesy photo

The Flores family. Courtesy photo

When Nancy Flores stepped off a plane in Germany in 2003 with just her luggage and her cat, there was supposed to be someone from the military there to pick her up. There wasn’t.

“I saw that USO sign and thought, ‘I can go there. They will help me!’”

She was right. A USO volunteer invited her inside the center where more volunteers took the then-23-year-old’s luggage, looked up the phone numbers to her husband’s unit, gave her a snack and even cut down a plastic cup to make a water dish for her cat.

Her husband, now-retired Army communications Sgt. Johnathan Flores, had sent the duty driver to pick her up, but they had left an hour late and were stuck in traffic. It was something the volunteers at the USO at Frankfurt International Airport had seen before.

“At a very young age, I was alone in a foreign country and that was a very huge relief for me to find the USO,” said Nancy, who was 23 at the time. “[My husband is] my security blanket in those situations, so being alone in that situation was scary.”

When the driver arrived, the USO volunteers helped her on her way, and that singular moment of compassion spawned Flores’ lifetime commitment to both the organization and the military community.

“Seven years later I found out we had a USO on Fort Hood and as soon as I could I started volunteering,” she said. “I enjoy every day making soldiers and their families smile.”

She currently volunteers once or twice a week from four to six hours at a time, helping anywhere she’s needed, from flightline welcome home events to working behind a desk in a center.

But her favorite program by far is the Story Time Early Literacy Workshop. She’s volunteered once a month at the USO Fort Hood/Military Child Education Coalition event for the last three years, helping feed breakfast and read books to pre-school-age children who attend with their parents.

But her connection to the USO runs even deeper than a missed ride and the resulting volunteerism. Her son, Johnathan Flores Jr., 10, has watched her husband deploy three times. Nancy says it was the USO that made it possible for her husband and their growing boy to connect.

“We are a family of USO volunteers and we always will be very proud of making moments count for other military families just like the USO did for [us].”

The first time her husband deployed, Jonathan Jr. was only 3 months old. Nancy knew she would have some contact with her husband over the Internet, but didn’t know which moments he’d get to see from afar.

“Daddy does bed time,” she said. “That was a moment every day. And when he left it was sad that we had to break that pattern.

“But then out of nowhere we received these books he recorded at a USO center.”

When the USO/United Through Reading packages arrived, Flores broke down in tears knowing bedtime was back on again.

“I had no idea it was even coming,” she said. “Every night we played the video and, even though it was the same story, it was a moment with Daddy. He knew that Daddy cared.”

“We have that memory,” she said. “And that’s a really cool moment for us. Every time my son was missing Daddy we’d pop in that DVD.

“We were very honest with him that Daddy was away protecting America and doing his job. He learned really young to deal with it and I believe the USO was part of making that happen naturally.

“Now, even though we’re not technically in the military, we’re still very much a part of the military community. We are a family of USO volunteers and we always will be very proud of making moments count for other military families just like the USO did for [us].”

USO Centers Around the Globe Celebrate National Volunteer Week

As National Volunteer Week comes to a close, here’s a look at a few of the scores of celebrations held at  centers around the world. The USO’s 27,000-plus volunteers  donated more than 1.375 million hours last year in service to America’s troops and their families..

USO Fort Hood

USO Fort Hood Programs Manager Isabel Hubbard, left, USO volunteer Frank Wright and USO Fort Hood Story Time Coordinator Andrea McDonald attend Wednesday's event. USO photo

USO Fort Hood Programs Manager Isabel Hubbard, left, USO volunteer Frank Wright and USO Fort Hood Story Time Coordinator Andrea McDonald attend Wednesday’s event. USO photo

USO Fort Hood held a luncheon Wednesday to honor its volunteers who logged a total of more than 22,000 hours last year.

“I’m really proud to stand here and see how many amazing people answer the call,” USO Fort Hood Director Robin Crouse told the Killeen (Texas) Daily Herald, which covered the event.

Read more about the event in the Herald’s story.

USO Forward Operating Base Fenty

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USO Forward Operating Base Fenty volunteers share a joke – and a cupcake – during National Volunteer Week. USO photo

The USO at Forward Operating Base Fenty in Afghanistan showed its appreciation to volunteers – almost all of whom are troops themselves – with some baked goods. They posted photos of the volunteers earlier this week.

“Thanks to all the great volunteers at Fenty for all you do for your fellow soldiers!” USO Senior Vice President of Operations Alan Reyes wrote in a Facebook comment about the celebration.

USO Houston

USO centers know how to get creative. To celebrate National Volunteer Week, the staff at USO Houston put together a JibJab breakdance video.

USO Houston had 248 volunteers donate 20,056 hours to their center last year.

USO San Antonio

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USO San Antonio volunteers pose at Wednesday’s USO Volunteer Appreciation Breakfast at the USO’s airport center. USO photo

USO San Antonio held a USO Volunteer Appreciation Breakfast at their airport facility on Wednesday morning.

“We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again, ‘We couldn’t do what we do without our volunteers,’” the staff wrote on its Facebook page.

–Story by USO Story Development

Why I Volunteer: Suzy Hicks – USO Fort Drum, N.Y.

The USO is highlighting its volunteers from around the world to mark National Volunteer Week, which runs April 21-27. We asked a few of them to tell us why they give their time to the USO. Here is a reply from Suzy Hicks, a former service member, combat veteran and the current USO Volunteer of the Quarter for the Continental United States Region:

Volunteering with the USO Fort Drum is a fun and enjoyable way to give back to our service members who give so much of themselves every day.

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USO Fort Drum volunteer Suzy Hicks, center, is a former soldier who did four combat deployments. USO photo

As a prior service member, I know firsthand the value that the USO has to the troops. From a comfortable place to grab a snack or a cup of coffee on base, at an airport, or even in deployed locations, the USO volunteers can be counted on for a smile and a friendly hello. Our mission is to lift the spirit of America’s troops and their families, and that is exactly what we do at the USO Fort Drum.

The family of volunteers at USO Fort Drum is made up of civilians, family members, veterans and even soldiers who work together to keep the center running smoothly six days a week while operating numerous other events we have going at any given time. I enjoy working with my fellow volunteers towards our goal of putting a smile on our soldiers’ faces. We have so many volunteers who selflessly give hours of their time each week to be there for our troops and their families.

Perhaps the most rewarding mission that I have had the opportunity to be a part of is Here When They Land. As a USO volunteer, I am able to be one of the first people to welcome our brave heroes back from deployment. After a long journey back to the states, these soldiers are always happy to see us with our fresh hot coffee and snacks. It is an honor to personally welcome home and thank our troops for a job well done. I can’t think of a better organization to be a part of!

–Suzy Hicks, USO Fort Drum volunteer

Why We Volunteer: Army Spc. Thibaut Lenkoue and Patrick Jenkins – USO Warrior Center at Ramstein Air Base, Germany

The USO is highlighting its volunteers from around the world to mark National Volunteer Week, which runs April 21-27. We asked a few of them to tell us why they give their time to the USO. Here are two of their replies.

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From left, USO Warrior Center volunteer Patrick Jenkins, entertainer Nick Cannon and Army Spc. Thibaut Lenkoue — also a USO volunteer — pose earlier this month at the USO Warrior Center at Ramstein Air Base, Germany. USO photo

Volunteering for me means love, giving and sharing great moments.

When I first came here, I thought only civilians worked at the USO. I enjoy every single moment that I spend here. The USO [volunteers and staff] are awesome, always polite, hard working professionals. I was happy to spend time here because I had found a home far from home. So when I discovered that I could volunteer at the USO, I decided to do so to take care of other members of this new family [and] give back what I have enjoyed.

It is always a pleasure to take care of people and make them realize that we appreciate all [their] sacrifices.

–Army Spc. Thibaut Lenkoue, volunteer at the USO Warrior Center at Ramstein Air Base, Germany

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Volunteering is an important way to give back what the soldiers have sacrificed and given to me. If you haven’t already taken part of this opportunity of volunteering for the USO, I highly recommend it.

I am a 21-year-old student who recently relocated all the way from Florida to Ramstein, Germany. My mom, a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force, was temporarily deployed here and I took the opportunity to come here and stay for school.

I started volunteering at the USO Warrior Center in February and I have over 350 hours and counting. I don’t think of it as “getting hours,” because I have to, or just being here for the events or the food (even though most people will tell you that all I do is eat). I volunteer for our soldiers [because] we try to make this a home away from home. In return, it makes me feel that I am at home and – in a way – leaves me feeling like I’m helping with the whole mission.

The staff have become my parents and the soldiers and volunteers have become my brothers and sisters. I always say “If I’m not working or at school you can find me at the USO Warrior Center volunteering,” as as I like to think of it as going home (I just have to leave every night).

–Patrick Jenkins, volunteer at the USO Warrior Center at Ramstein Air Base, Germany

Why I Volunteer: Capt. (Select) Mark Kleinhenz, USO of North Carolina

The USO is highlighting its volunteers from around the world to mark National Volunteer Week, which runs April 21-27. We asked a few of them to tell us why they give their time to the USO. Here is one of their replies.

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Navy Capt. (S) Mark Kleinhenz

My name is Mark Kleinhenz. I am a USO Volunteer. I am also an active reservist in the Navy. I have been proudly volunteering at the USO of North Carolina’s Charlotte Douglas International Airport center for just over a year.

It was an honor to be selected as a volunteer. It is something I plan to do for many years to come. Why? Because after 21 years of service to our country, it was time to give back to those I am so proud to serve alongside and those who have served before me.

My volunteer experience has been outstanding and rewarding to the point where I actively recruit my friends to sign up to volunteer with me. I want to share this experience because my fellow volunteers at our USO in the Charlotte airport are family, and they each feel as I do. Every time you volunteer, you see familiar faces – fellow volunteers, folks flying out for their drill weekends and other veterans who are frequent fliers. I volunteer because while I feel serving your country is important, serving those who serve our country is equally important. I get a kick out of the fact that the young soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen and spouses who come through have now idea who just made them a cup of coffee or welcomed them in the door. That is the way it should be at a USO. Rank doesn’t matter when you walk in our doors – only that you served or are serving your country.

Throughout my Navy career, I have stopped into every USO I have run across – Camp As Sayliyah in Qatar, Vicenza and Naples, Italy, both of Dallas’ excellent facilities and many others, including the two best USOs I have ever been to – the USO in Guam and our own USO of North Carolina’s Charlotte airport center. I have always received warm welcomes, something to eat or drink, a free phone call if I needed it, an Internet connection and the ability to swap out a good book out for a trip wherever I was heading. This service year after year while flying in and out of Charlotte and stopping by my USO is what motivated me to volunteer.

USO facilities are great. However, it is USO volunteers that truly make the difference. I can confidently say that USO volunteers are cut from the same cloth in every location. To a person, every volunteer does their best to make every service member – active, reserve and retired – feel special. We strive to ensure people feel welcome and are made to feel at home during their visit. If you want to do something very positive in your life, become a USO Volunteer!

–Story by Navy Capt. (Select) Mark W. Kleinhenz, USO of North Carolina volunteer

We Offer Up Delicious Dishes and Bowling Parties!

We’ve been busy around the world – as usual! – and a few events seem to be particularly popular, no matter where in the world our Troops and their families are enjoying a USO Center.

Case in point: bowling.  Who knew it was just as popular in Iraq as it in in Italy?

Baghdad Duty Manager Courtney Haueter was talking to a group of soldiers who told her they’d been stuck here for 2 days using the USO computers, phones, Play Station 3 games and had each drunk a gallon of coffee. They had run out of things to do, so Courtney suggested they all go bowling. At first they thought she was joking because they had just come in from a small FOB and there was definitely no bowling center there. So Courtney loaded them up since the next chance at a flight was still 16 hours away. Off to Club Baghdad they went!

After waiting two days for a plane to take them on R & R, these Troops combat boredom with bowling. Looks like they did pretty well!

USO Vicenza thanked its volunteers by throwing a bowling party for them in honor of National Volunteer Appreciation Week on Thursday, April 23.  Two of USO Vicenza’s Core volunteers and one of USO Vicenza’s Special Events volunteers were present to celebrate.  U.S. Army Garrison Vicenza’s Arena sponsored two bowling lanes and shoe rentals for the USO to use. Pizza, soda, and a great time were had by all!

A volunteer at USO Vicenza waits her turn to hit the lane during a bowling outing in celebration of National Volunteer Week.

On that same day the USO Warrior Center hosted a BBQ sponsored by the Stuttgart’s Better Opportunities for Single Soldiers (BOSS).  Along with the good food, the BOSS volunteers brought warm smiles and great conversation. During the visit there was one wounded warrior who had not been able to get out of his hospital room. He was very thankful to have the opportunity to leave his hospital bed and eat a good meal around friendly faces. Wounded warriors attended – 115.

One hundred fifteen Wounded Warriors chowed down on hamburgers, hot dogs, brats, and sausages courtesy of Stuttgart's BOSS program.

On April 24, the USO Warrior Center hosted a Chicken Dinner sponsored by the Theta Rho International Chapter.  Along with the good food, the Theta Rho International Chapter served the warriors with smiling faces and kind words. One warrior commented that the chicken was so delicious he didn’t want to return home, he wanted to stay here if he could keep eating this type of wonderful food. Another warrior commented “I just had to try the sweet potatoes; they are out of this world.”

One hundred thirty Wounded Warriors enjoyed a delicious chicken dinner with all the fixin's - yum!