It’s hard really to describe what the USO does for troops until you see it firsthand.
Before Friday, my only personal experience with the stateside perks of the USO was at an airport in South Carolina. My husband and I played chess, napped and ate a free snack at the USO while waiting for our flight.
This was a pleasant experience and it passed the time while waiting, but I wondered what it’s like to spend time at the USO center at Fort Hood. No one is really waiting around, so what is it that brings 700 soldiers into the center every day?
“I come here for lunch,” said Sgt. Ruben Garcia, 41st Fires Brigade. “It’s great because they change it up every day. It’s not the same stuff over and over. Restaurants come in here and serve food, too, and I want to say thanks.”
Garcia said when he first joined the Army back in the 1990s, he would visit the USO to just relax. Downrange, he visits USO clubs all the time.
Unfortunately, the Fort Hood USO doesn’t have the volunteers it used to, making it difficult to keep the center open and operating at the same level of expectation soldiers have come to know. It takes about four to six volunteers to keep the center operating on a daily basis, said Isabel Hubbard, Fort Hood USO programs manager.
“We cannot do what we do without our volunteers,” she said. “They are our lifeblood to serving the troops.”
While the USO has lots of programs for soldiers and families outside the center, such as movies on the lawn, children’s breakfast parties and offering snacks and magazines at the airport for deploying soldiers, the center is really the hub of the organization.
“It’s what gets us connected to soldiers,” Hubbard said.
Located inside an old World War II-era building, the center is designed to be a soldier’s home away from home. And it is cozy. On the second floor, where only those 18 and older are allowed to enter, there are leather couches, video games, computers, books, snacks and drinks, all available to enjoy. Downstairs, there’s free wireless Internet.
To find out what makes the USO important to soldiers and what it’s like to spend a day volunteering, I teamed up with Hubbard, who recommended I volunteer during the lunch shift, which is the busiest time at the center.
I arrived just before 10 a.m. Friday and the center was quiet. It hadn’t officially opened yet, but inside two volunteers were busy preparing for the day. Hubbard and I make four total volunteers.
Hubbard set me to work at the snack bar, which is closed before lunch, but responsible for setting out coffee and pastries for visitors. Each day, the Starbucks on Fort Hood Street in Killeen donates its day-old pastries to the center, and I was immediately put to work bagging, dating and counting each pastry. It took about half an hour, but I bagged 54 pastries and set them out with fresh-brewed coffee.
As I worked, I noticed soldiers slowly trickling into the center. Some play video games or read the newspaper, while others sit and talk.
Once I finished with pastries, it’s time to get ready for lunch, which that day was pulled pork sandwiches provided by Texas Roadhouse in Killeen. Five days a week, the USO works with local partners to provide 120 lunches. A framed logo of each partner hangs on the wall of the snack bar, with the day’s donor hanging separately and more prominently.
“What would you eat with a pulled pork sandwich?” Hubbard asked me. “Would you want jalapenos?”
“Sure,” I said.
“Pickles?” Hubbard asked.
“Yeah, I would eat pickles,” I said, not really sure where she’s going with this.
“Well, we don’t have pickles, but we do have jalapenos,” she said, pulling out a large jar of sliced peppers. “We have to work with what we’ve got.”
Apparently, all the USO had that Friday was jalapenos, and a lot of them. I am set to work putting a serving of peppers into individual containers for soldiers to take with their sandwiches. Somehow in the process, I dropped a pepper on Hubbard’s shoe, making it pretty obvious I’m the newbie behind the counter.
Before I knew it, 11:30 was fast approaching and soldiers began lining up at the snack bar ready for lunch. Hubbard said this was normal.
The idea for free lunch originated as a service for those soldiers already at the USO, so they could continue to relax and enjoy themselves without having to leave for lunch, Hubbard said. Quickly, it grew into a destination. Once the sandwiches arrived, the rush began. Everyone who came through the line got a sandwich and chips from Hubbard, and candy and a drink from me. I learned that Peanut M&Ms and Mountain Dew are popular among this crowd.
Hubbard emphasized how important it is to talk to every person who comes through the line. She said to make them feel welcome and appreciated and I tried to do just that.
Before noon, all 120 sandwiches were gone. This is not normal, Hubbard said, but with the two east gates closed due to the Maj. Nidal Hasan trial, it’s harder now to leave post for lunch. Now that people are realizing the USO is a free option, it’s popularity is growing.
The snack bar is open daily until 1 p.m., so I continued to offer snacks and a drink, and felt terrible every time I crushed a hopeful face seeking a full hot lunch.
I took a break from the snack bar long enough to chat with Pfc. Justin Pickard, of 41st Fires Brigade. He doesn’t just visit the USO, but also volunteers about four or five times a week.
“I used to come here all the time, every day pretty much,” he said. “I’ve always liked helping people.”
He’s volunteered at the center for about 2½ years, but also helps with children’s programs. He even dressed up as Batman once. He encourages people to try to volunteer at the USO.
“It’s fun to do, but you have to get training,” Pickard said. “If you have spare time, it keeps you out of trouble and keeps you busy.”
As I left Pickard with his friends, the USO center was packed with people finishing lunch and hanging out.
Then suddenly about 10 minutes to 1 p.m., the center became silent. Everyone cleared out just as quickly as they appeared.
As we cleaned up and restocked the snack bar, I got a chance to talk to the other two volunteers. One is a spouse who volunteers to pass the time while her husband is at work. The other volunteer has a daughter who is deployed to Afghanistan right now. She drives in from Georgetown every Friday to work at the center.
Just before 2 p.m., Hubbard told me I was done. I asked her again how important volunteers are to the USO.
“There are tons of things we could be doing, but we don’t because we just don’t have the help. We’ve got to put it off until we get help,” she said.
After I left to get my own lunch, I sat and thought about what exactly the USO was providing soldiers. I put myself in the shoes, or boots rather, of a soldier — in a strange town and looking for something familiar to feel at ease. It suddenly hit me. The USO is very much like the student union I hung out at while attending the University of Texas. I would go linger there for hours, even napping on the chairs. I had no reason to be there, but just being in a space surrounded by people in my similar situation was comforting.
Except, the student union was paid for with tuition and fees. The USO is paid for by the goodness of people. It doesn’t get more home-away-from-home than that.