By Alicia Lacy
Fort Hood Herald
COLLEGE STATION - The USO has a history of helping service members and their families for more than 69 years.
The George Bush Presidential Library Foundation hosted "The USO: Lifting the Spirits of America's Men and Women in Uniform and Their Families" Monday to recognize the service the USO provides to millions of troops and military families. The event was at the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library at Texas A&M University.
The program featured panelists Sloan Gibson, CEO and president of USO; Maj. Gen. Jeffery Hammond, U.S. Army Forces Command chief of staff and former 4th Infantry Division commander; actor Gary Sinise and actress Mayra Veronica.
Former president George H.W. Bush also spoke during the event.
The USO was founded in 1941 by President Franklin Roosevelt to provide morale, welfare and recreation-type services to service members and their families. The organization is a private, non-profit, congressionally chartered organization.
Helping troops and their families
In its history, the USO has evolved to meet the changing needs of the military and its families.
Most widely known for its USO tours and celebrity appearances for the troops, the USO operates about 150 centers worldwide and hosts about 500 performances and events every year, Gibson said.
"Ten years ago we didn't have families going through that cycle of deployments that you all know about," Gibson said. "That's hard on families."
Service members make about 200,000 free phone calls home from Iraq and Afghanistan every month through the USO's private telephone network.
The USO continues on a path of evolution. Gibson said the organization is developing a portable internet café that will keep the lines of communication open between deployed troops and their families.
"One of the most powerful things that we can do is to help families stay connected," he said.
"The USO is changed and we need to be there until everyone comes home."
Some of Monday's speakers know firsthand the impact the USO has on the military and its families.
Sloan, a former Army officer, said his first visit to a USO center was in Paris, France.
"I felt like a fish out of water back then, but I can remember going into that USO and felt right at home," he said.
Bush has personal ties to the USO. His father, Prescott Bush, served as the second chairman of the USO in its infancy, and Bush benefited from the USO as a Navy pilot during World War II.
He said the USO was one of the very finest organizations in existence today.
"Back when I was president ... I used to refer to groups like the USO and the people who make it run as points of light," Bush said.
"It may sound like little things to the rest of the world, but it's truly little things that lift morale and improve the quality of life for those who bear the hardest burdens of life and freedom," he went on to say.
Hammond recalled his first encounter with the USO as a lieutenant at an airport in Frankfurt, Germany. He didn't know where to go next and a USO volunteer helped him find a place to stay for the night and get to his first assignment as a young officer.
The USO helped again during Hammond's deployment to the 1991 Persian Gulf War. He was concerned for the health of his wife, Diane, and newborn son, Michael. Radio silence at the Kuwait/Iraq border meant he couldn't call home, but the USO helped.
"Capt. Hammond, your son is alright," came a short message relayed through the USO and other organizations.
Hammond spoke about his time at Fort Hood as the 4th Infantry's commander, saying there are several things soldiers in Central Texas always know. One of them is where to find the USO.
"Robin (Crouse) is the heart and soul of the USO at Fort Hood, Texas," he said of the USO Fort Hood director.
Sinise and Veronica both detailed their experiences on USO tours and the importance of supporting the troops, something both have done for several years.
Sinise often travels overseas and to installations across the country with his band, the Lt. Dan Band, to help lift the morale of service members and their families. Sinise's decision to support the troops was not a hard one to make because several from his family have served or are currently serving.
"I appreciate what they do and proud of that," he said.
Veronica said she made the decision to get involved with the USO after receiving e-mails from service members. It is important because troops are "fighting for the very thing we enjoy and a lot of times we take for granted that they're out there risking their lives," she said.
She recalled a visit to wounded warriors in Germany, and they were eager to return to combat with their fellow soldiers.
"It's very rare to feel heroism - that spirit of heroism," she said.
A day at USO Fort Hood
Fort Hood was the first installation to have a USO center, which opened its doors in 2001.
The center is a home away from home for soldiers and gives them a place to kick back and relax without worrying about the stresses of the outside world, said many who are involved at Fort Hood.
The center provides soldiers with a place to watch a movie, play a video game, surf the web, get a quick snack, watch TV, make copies or fax paperwork.
An average day at the Fort Hood USO isn't average.
"Just this morning ... there's a plane stuck out there at the airfield with soldiers from Fort Lewis (Washington)," Deanna Sump, USO Fort Hood program manager, said Friday.
Sump said the pilot got sick, so USO volunteers stepped in to provide the soldiers with breakfast. Situations like that are typical at USO Fort Hood.
USO Fort Hood hosts several programs and participates in events outside of the center's daily operations. Among them are Motor Pool Mondays, where volunteers provide soldiers with breakfast or lunch; United through Reading, where deploying troops are recorded reading a book aloud for their children; support at troop homecomings and deployments with the mobile canteen and Ride 2 Recovery.
The mobile canteen can bring USO to almost any setting, whether it be field training or a family event.
For the soldiers
"I'm a military spouse ... we're all spouses," Sump said about USO Fort Hood staff. "I know for myself I want soldiers to be treated like I would want someone to treat my husband, so I try to make it better for them and try to do what we need to do to make a good life."
Spc. Kevin Chambers visits the Fort Hood's center at least once a week.
"I might want to play video games or go on the computer," he said. "I can escape the stresses of the day and go back refreshed and ready for work."
Chambers said he visits USO centers at every installation and airport that have them.
"Having it available to you and for the soldiers ... it makes the transition easier knowing people outside the military care," he said.
Barry and Ingrid Davidson have volunteered at USO Fort Hood for three years. The couple helps at the center several days a week and attend other USO events.
Barry recalled returning home from Vietnam.
"I remember what I got when I came home," he said. "Folks weren't tickled to death to see me, so I made up my mind to come out here and volunteer with the USO and make sure that these guys get treated right because they deserve it."
Contact Alicia Lacy at email@example.com or (254) 501-7559. Follow her on Twitter at KDHfeatures.
USO Fort Hood
Fort Hood's USO is located on 50th Street in Building 1871.
Hours: 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday, noon to 6 p.m. Saturday, Sunday and training holidays
For more information, call (254) 768-2771.