When many people think of the United Service Organizations (USO), they think of World War II dances and women serving sailors coffee. But, the USO is still around today, still a way for civilians to show the military their appreciation.
The USO is actually a non-profit charitable corporation chartered by Congress rather than an actual government office. Endorsed by both the President and Department of Defense, the mission of the USO is simply to support the troops and their families in any way possible, no matter where they are stationed. Many major airports in the United States include USO offices where military can go to find out how to get to their base, relax after a long flight, or just to see a friendly face. There are over 120 USO programs and services located all over the world including Kuwait, Qatar, and Afghanistan. The oldest continually run USO in America is right here in Jacksonville, NC. It has been in operation since April 23, 1942.
Another great tradition of the USO is providing entertainment for the troops both domestically and overseas. Over the years, countless actors, comedians, musicians, singers, and athletes have taken time from their schedule to give our troops a few hours of entertainment.
Actor Gary Sinise on his 18th USO tour
So how do I know so much about the USO? I was a volunteer in Millington, TN, right down the street from NAS Memphis in the 90s. We had a large number of 18-20 year olds stationed there right after boot camp. We had many who were on their own for the first time and needed information on renting cars, obtaining insurance, taking flights home, etc. My best friend and I would go out there every Friday night and help in any way we could. Other than just offering a safe haven for military, they could also buy discount movie tickets, obtain free concert and event tickets, watch television, play video games, use the kitchen to cook a meal, or just hang out.
Our biggest event was the Thanksgiving dinner each year. Unlike Jacksonville, which provides the dinner for the military at the USO, we had a program where civilians could sign up to take young sailors and marines to their home. At one point, there was several hundred families and military involved. It was quite a process, which took several weeks to organize, but I think the families loved it just as much if not more than the marines and sailors. We had the families fill out a profile and the sailors and marines could look through the profiles to find a family with which they would mesh. It was very rewarding to know you were helping those serving our country. Eventually, our USO closed in 1997 due to a base realignment when schools for younger students were moved to Pensacola and the need for the USO diminished.
I have a particularly soft spot in my heart for the USO because I met my husband while doing the Thanksgiving program the very last year it was offered in Millington, so I consider my son Will a “USO baby.”
If you are interested in volunteering for a USO near you or making a donation to their worthy organization, check out the USO home page.