The third and final story in CityView’s USO series.
This is the kind of place where I could truly perfect the art of hanging out.
These soft and roomy red chairs, all fronting a flat-screen TV, beg for my backside. A “Fox News Alert” grabs my gaze and I’m ready to plop down to watch well-coiffed talking heads natter on about Facebook and IPOs. I can top off a cup of brew at the coffee bar, pour in some hazelnut creamer, rip into a plastic-wrapped honey bun and savor the warm feeling that comes when you just … relax. And would you look at all these magazines? Fortune 500. Family Circle. Atlantic Monthly. And, of course, CityView. I could keep busy doing nothing for the better part of an afternoon.
The lounge is in a lull at this particular moment. A lone soldier is slouched in one of the cozy seats and studying the smartphone in her right hand. Specialist Gloria Cruz, 26, is dressed in her camouflage fatigues. She wandered into this recently opened USO travel center at the Fayetteville Regional Airport while waiting for a flight home to New Jersey, where her uncle just passed away. “I like this place,” she tells me. “I would fall asleep, but I can’t. I have to catch a flight in 20 minutes.”
This soldier appears thoroughly at ease, as if she were already home and curled up on a sofa she’s loafed on for years. Every one of us has some focal point of familiarity when our travels steer us into strange surroundings. Some of us look for the AAA. Some of us turn to the AARP. But for soldiers like Spc. Cruz, it’s the USO – the United Services Organizations. Whether it’s an airport in Fayetteville or a forward operating base in Afghanistan, the USO is an old standby.
Uso in the 21st century
In many ways, the modern USO is much like the USO of yore when Bob Hope entertained troops with his comic zingers in combat zones. Show business still works its way into theaters of war. Spc. Cruz has attended USO-sponsored concerts while stationed in Germany and has seen the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders in Afghanistan, courtesy of the USO. “It doesn’t matter what genre of music you listen to, you’re getting away from the situation” — and by “the situation” she means the danger and doldrums of those deployed. They need an escape, a respite, a hint of home.
These days, it’s not Bob Hope and Sammy Davis, Jr. and Dean Martin crooning and cracking jokes to the troops, it’s the likes of Trace Adkins and Toby Keith and Drew Carey.
In 2011, the USO hosted 83 tours in 25 countries, with 130 or so celebrities making the rounds. They visited a big USO center in Basra, Iraq, in 2009 and 2010, when Bev Jackson served as its director. The place was bustling: it provided computers, phones and a movie room where troops could catch flicks 24/7. It also gave troops a chance to reach for the stars. Kellie Pickler of American Idol and country music fame paid a visit. So did country star Darryl Worley, mixed martial arts icon Tito Ortiz, southern rock superstar Zac Brown and the Florida Marlins baseball team.
“The people who volunteered to go over there, they didn’t care what the itinerary was,” said Jackson, who is now assistant director of the Fort Bragg USO center. “They were pretty much always late.” But they had a good excuse for their tardiness: they wanted to meet every soldier, no matter how long the line, no matter how long the wait. The soldiers “shook their hands, got their picture taken, got autographs, told their stories. I’ve seen soldiers bring something special to show,” she said. And when the athletes swung through, “they would play around with the guys, and the guys would tell them stories like ‘I saw you make that play at such-and-such game, and I was there.’ And they would just listen like they were old buddies.”
Tito Ortiz, the famous fighter, refused to have a table put between him and the soldiers when signing autographs – he wanted no barriers, nothing to suggest he was untouchable. “He wouldn’t sit. He would stand with them, he’d wrestle around with them,” she said. Kelli Pickler, the singer, had a crushing migraine headache yet turned down offers to leave early and get some rest. “No, how long is the line?” Jackson recalls her saying. Among war-weary troops, these appearances by the famous and fawned-over went a long way to lift spirits. Boosting morale among our men and women in uniform is still the core of the USO’s mission. (Nothing like a Cowboys cheerleader visiting some mortar-pocked corner of the Kunar province to put a smile on a G.I.’s face.) But the mission goes beyond hosting concerts and meet-and-greets with celebrities.
The USO: for your entertainment, and so much more
“Entertainment is a very small part of what we do,” said Renee Lane, the director of the USO center on Fort Bragg. “A lot of the entertainment the troops have is really overseas.” Here on the home front, the USO quietly and without fanfare goes about making life smoother for service members and their families. The airport travel center is a case in point. It opened in November with a ribbon-cutting ceremony, making it the first USO center for traveling troops in Fayetteville since 1986. Along with the comfy seats and coffee, the 900-square-foot room has computers with internet access and a children’s area with its own TV and stacks of Little Golden Books. “It’s long overdue,” Lane said. Volunteers figure the lounge draws about 80 people a day and up to 3,000 a month. “It’s a home away from home, so to speak, when they’re traveling,” said Robby Roberts, a retired airman who donates his time several days a week there.
If any community should provide this home away from home to soldiers, it’s Fayetteville. The city was home to the world’s first USO center, opening in 1941. The club took up residence in the old parsonage of Hay Street United Methodist Church before relocating to a building on Ray Avenue, about where Festival Park is now. It remained there as a community center, complete with a roller skating rink and snack bar, until 1986. That’s when peacetime budget cuts prompted the USO to pull out. Then in 2002, fire destroyed the building.
For more than two decades, Fayetteville and Fort Bragg would not have a single USO center – until July 2008, when the organization opened a club on Fort Bragg, just east of Bragg Boulevard. Lane describes it as “man cave-like” rather than a place for the entire family, so the USO recently closed it in exchange for space on the bottom floor of Fort Bragg’s Soldier Support Center, where 5,000 people churn through each day. “We needed a better spot,” she said. “And this is it.” It’s a few days before the grand opening of the new USO center on Fort Bragg, and Lane is giving me a nickel tour of the place. We walk past a computer room that’s still a work in progress. “We’re looking to beef this up from six computers to twelve and have a complete technology center here.”
Across the hall is a lounge where a television is tuned to CNN, but a man in uniform and a woman in civilian attire have tuned it out, absorbed in their own personal electronic devices. There’s another man in uniform who just walked in with a blonde-haired little girl. They’re partaking of the Girl Scout cookies displayed on a dish for the munching pleasure of passers-by.
Specialist Corey Mallard has been in the Army for four years. He remembers being a just-signed-on recruit going through the Atlanta airport and feeling the relief of finding a USO center. It helped him navigate into this strange new world with its chains of command and codes of conduct. “I didn’t know which end was up at that point, you know, so I was just thankful for it,” he said as his two-year-old daughter Teagan nibbles on a thin mint cookie. “My recruiter had told me when you get to this airport, go to the USO and they’ll take care of you.” And they did. With a cup of coffee, a bite to eat, and some nourishing words, he was off to basic training.
Seated at a table in the lounge, his back to the TV and his face to a laptop screen, Sgt. Louis Macias was working on retiring from the Army. I asked him about his own experience with the USO, and he recounts an injury he suffered while on a deployment – an injury that forced an early return home. The USO, he said, was by his side all along the way, with volunteers greeting him at the airport in Maryland.
“It was awesome, especially getting from point A to point B.” The conversations about his family, the queries about his condition, the phone cards he received from the USO – he said they were all unforgettable acts of kindness.
All military, all the time
The modern USO is hyper-focused on military families rather than the community at large, as was the trend in earlier years. “That means we serve them 110 percent,” Lane said. “We don’t have to worry about keeping up a roller rink or a dance hall or meeting place or anything like that.” She hands me three pages listing more than two dozen USO-sponsored programs. There’s the sending of care packages to troops overseas. There’s the delivering of birthday cakes to single soldiers. There’s the United Through Reading program, letting deployed parents read storybooks to their children on video. There’s the Families of the Fallen program, which provides assistance to families traveling to and from Dover Air Force Base. When a service member dies in combat, the USO makes sure the family has priority boarding and is accompanied to the gates by USO volunteers.
The local USO is a non-profit organization that gets no funding from the national USO or the federal government. Its operating money comes from donations, corporate sponsorships, grants and fundraisers. “To lift spirits and provide comfort for service members and family in peacetime and war time, that’s a very important mission for us,” Lane said. “We don’t see an end in sight.”
At home with the USO
The USO centers on Fort Bragg and at the Fayetteville airport exude hospitality and practicality and even personality – thanks in no small measure to the older veterans who volunteer to serve this new generation of warriors. The gray-haired servants have spent a lifetime perfecting the art of talking and telling stories. They can keep the conversation and the coffee flowing. As for me, looking around such an inviting place, I’m inclined to put a deep indentation in the cushioned seats and finesse the fine art of just hanging out.
It’s not home sweet home, exactly, but it comes close. It’s the USO.