8 Ways the USO Connects Troops To Home

A service member uses the internet at the USO.

From the moment they step into boot camp to the time when they transition to civilian life, troops rely on the USO to help them stay connected to their to friends and family. Here’s eight of the ways the USO does it.

1. Getting troops online: Free Internet access is one of the most popular services at USO centers today. While some USO centers offer computers for troops to use, nearly all of them offer free WiFi for people who bring their own devices. Even our Mobile USO units, like the ones we sent to Brooklyn to comfort troops cleaning up after Superstorm Sandy, are WiFi-enabled so troops serving in remote locations can get online.

2. Skyping into the delivery room: Did you know that the USO helps expecting military dads Skype into the delivery room for their baby’s birth, even if they’re abroad? Marine Capt. Nick Whitefield experienced this USO service first-hand when he watched his wife Laura deliver the couples’ second child, Ethan Whitefield, via a USO-provided Skype connection at Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan.

“The fact that I could be there, electronically, over Skype was huge,” Nick said. “It was great. It was a phenomenal experience.”

A troop makes a call from the USO in Bagram, Afghanistan. USO photo by Dave Gatley

3. Free phone calls home: In 2003, the USO launched Operation Phone Home to provide troops with free phone cards so they can call their loved ones at no cost — even when they’re in remote locations. Some USO centers abroad also offer troops access to a private phone network so they can call home on a safe, secure and reliable line inside the center.

One of these free phone calls even helped a new dad hear his baby girl’s first cries in 2006.

“The USO made that call possible for me,” said former Marine Alexander Carpenter. “And to this day I have never said thank you. … Thank you USO.”

4. Keeping story time alive: Thanks to the USO partnership with United Through Reading, deployed troops can record themselves reading a storybook at a USO center and send the DVD recording back home for their children to watch and digitally connect with them in their absence.

Navy Lt. Matthew Stroup records himself reading a book to his children during a United Through Reading event in Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of Matthew Stroup

Navy Lt. Matthew Stroup records himself reading a book to his children. Photo courtesy of Matthew Stroup

While preparing for a deployment form Japan to the Middle East in 2012, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Victor Glover told his squad about the United Through Reading program and received an overwhelming number of requests to participate. He even recorded stories for his own children.

“It was important. They really got a kick out of being able to see me,” Glover said. “At the end of the recordings, I said a message to them. I used each of their names and I said something to the effect of ‘I love you, be good, be supportive to your mom and goodnight’ because I imagined they’d do the books right before bedtime.”

5. Giving the gift of gaming: Video games are one of our younger service members’ favorite ways to unwind. That’s why most USO centers have gaming stations featuring popular video games like “Call of Duty” and “Halo.” At some centers, service members can even play the games against friends and family around the globe online in real time.

But troops aren’t always stationed near brick-and-mortar USO centers. With that in mind, the USO developed the Mobile Entertainment Gaming System (MEGS) so service members can enjoy video games no matter their location.

6. Serving up comfort foods from home: Sometimes, all it takes to make service members feel connected to home is taste of their favorite foods. That’s why USO patrons can always find a variety of snack, drink and meal options at centers around the world. Some centers, like USO Great Lakes, provide a free, home-cooked meals for troops, while others, like many Southwest Asia centers, always seem to be churning out comforting sweet treats, like homemade ice cream.

A Halloween/Thanksgiving USO Holiday Box from 2011.

A Halloween/Thanksgiving USO Holiday Box from 2011.

7. Bringing the holidays to troops abroad: Being deployed during a special holiday can make troops feel even further from home. That’s why many USO centers host a number special parties and events around those red calendar days.

Troops in remote areas far from a USO center can even get in on the fun, too, thanks to the USO Holiday Boxes program. These special seasonal boxes, filled with games, decorations and other festive supplies are designed to help service members celebrate the year’s special days in any location. There are four seasonal boxes units can request throughout the year, including a Halloween/Thanksgiving box that helped a handful of service members have a spooky Halloween back in 2011.

8. Welcoming troops home: Even though a homecoming is already a joyful occasion for military families, the USO has a history of stepping in to make the day even more memorable. From helping arriving troops freshen up before reuniting with their loved ones to coordinating surprise homecomings like this, this, and this, the USO there to celebrate military families finally reconnecting after a long deployment apart.

The Power of a Phone Call Home from the Battlefield

Alexander Carpenter with his daughter, Chloe, shortly after his third and final deployment as a Marine. Photo courtesy of Alexander Carpenter

Alexander Carpenter with his daughter Chloe shortly after his third deployment as a Marine. Photo courtesy of Alexander Carpenter

Six years ago today, then-Marine Alexander Carpenter was going on long patrols in Iraq in the aftermath of the bloody Battle of Ramadi. But the dangerous fighting he and his fellow Marines encountered wasn’t the only stressful situation on his mind.

In this edited email to the USO, Carpenter recalls a phone call made from a USO in December 2006 that changed his life:

I got back from a 12-day-out rotation. It was close to midnight in Ramadi. Our staff sergeant told us to clean our weapons and then we could shower, eat and have some time off. I cleaned my [weapon] so fast … because, my baby girl was to be born that day. I frantically cleaned my [weapon] and got a buddy to go the USO call center with me. (I skipped the chow and skipped the shower.) I called three or four different people and no one answered. I was so scared, I didn’t want to go back out without hearing my baby girl’s cry. Finally, I call one more time and I get an answer. She has been born!!! Ten fingers, 10 toes, healthy and kicking! … I shouted “I’M A DAD!” No one said shut up. No one told me to be quiet. But [the others in the USO] clapped and congratulated me. Tears streamed down my face. I spent six more months of patrols and firefights with my brothers by my side. I came back to the USO every 12 days to call home to hear my daughter. I made it home and saw my baby for the first time May 26, 2007 (she was born Dec. 2006).

I fought from that first phone call on not for oil, not for WMDs, not for Bush: I fought for my brothers to my left and right so we could all see our babies. The USO made that call possible for me. And to this day I have never said thank you. … Thank you USO.

Troops deployed across the globe rely on free calls home from USO centers to celebrate the seminal moments of their lives, connect with family members or just let people back in the States know they’re doing OK. Find out how you can help keep these phone calls free for America’s troops here.