They gathered in the garden to raise a toast and raise money for a good cause – the USO of North Carolina. The Fayetteville Wine Society, in conjunction with Valley Auto World, held its second annual charity wine tasting April 17 at Fox Hollow, an estate of manicured lawns and flowers near the community of Vander. As guests arrived at the “Gathering in the Garden,” they were greeted with a Champagne entrance, samples from several of Fayetteville’s finest restaurants, cigars in the garden and the sound of Mr. Coffee and the Creamers. Proceeds benefitted the USO’s four North Carolina locations: Jacksonville, Raleigh-Durham International Airport, Charlotte-Douglas International Airport and Fort Bragg, where the world’s first USO center was built in 1941. The USO began in response to a presidential request for civilian support of the military. But as U.S. forces drew down following World War II, the USO was dissolved and its facilities closed with the exception of the center in Jacksonville which remained open thanks to the determined efforts of volunteers. Today, the Jacksonville center near Camp Lejeune is the longest continuously-operating USO facility in the world. It’s obvious to see that the USO of North Carolina has a long-standing tradition but contrary to popular belief, it receives no funding from the national USO which reactivated during the Korea War in the 1950s. Thanks to a small staff and an army of volunteers, the organization that became the USO of North Carolina was established in 1987 and expanded in 2003 to meet the needs of the state’s service members just as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan raged. Today, the two centers at North Carolina’s largest airports cater to military personnel, retirees and their families. Comfortable lounges offer books, magazines, snacks and free access to the Internet and telephones. And what about Fort Bragg? The old USO in Fayetteville holds many fond memories for those who remember the sounds of the big bands that entertained soldiers. Today’s center at Fort Bragg serves as a recreation center, offering free pool tables, video games and Internet access. Center staff and volunteers also oversee several outreach programs: Smiles over the Miles where family members make videos to send to loved ones deployed overseas; United through Reading which allows service members to still read bedtime stories to their children while they are deployed thanks to pre-recorded videos; meals and special programs at holidays for those far from home; care packages for deployments and homecomings; and complimentary tickets and transportation to special events and places such as the Carolina Panthers training camp. And that’s not all – volunteers and staff surprise soldiers with birthday cakes delivered on their birthdays, hold newcomer briefings and stock a food pantry to help families during an emergency. In all, 11 full-time and 12 part-time staff, with the help of 700 volunteers, helps 220,000 soldiers, airmen, Marines and their families in North Carolina every year. In the future, the USO hopes to open at least one, if not two, mobile centers to bring even more services to those who serve their country.