81 years after it was founded, the USO is making changes to remain relevant to today’s troops

The service organization is closing some of its centers, opening new ones, and expanding its online programs to respond to funding reductions and troops’ changing needs.

By Jay Price, American Homefront ProjectNovember 18, 2022 9:30 am,

From the American Homefront Project:

The USO, the iconic support organization for service members and their families, has quietly been closing dozens of airport lounges and on-base hospitality centers. But it’s also opening others, including some in the military’s most remote locations.

The 81-year-old organization — famous for its lounges, care packages, and celebrity entertainment tours — is facing modern challenges.

Its budget is off several million dollars from pre-pandemic highs, USO leaders said, partly because the number of Americans and potential donors with ties to the military has been shrinking.

The organization has also been adjusting to shifts in where troops are deployed and what they need the digital age. This year, it has closed 32 of its centers where service members can rest, grab a cold soda, play games and watch TV. It expects to shut about eight more by January.

USO Chief Operating Officer Alan Reyes said those that are closing have seen less use. Most are at smaller domestic airports and sites where troops are processed before moving to boot camp for initial training.

But he said the USO also has opened 28 new centers this year, including several in places where troops’ stress is especially high or they’re unusually isolated.

The changes are part of a long-range strategic plan, he said.

“We do pride ourselves with the fact that we have as a global organization the opportunity to reach millions and millions of service members and families,” he said. “But we want to make sure that we are reaching those that need us the most, and oftentimes, they are in more remote locations.”

Many of the new centers are in places like Eastern Europe, where troops began deploying early this year in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Soldiers take advantage of computers and printers at the USO Center at Fort Bragg, N.C.

Other new sites include Fort Irwin in the Mojave Desert not far from Death Valley. Another is at the military’s most isolated installation: Thule Air Base in northern Greenland, where temperatures can drop under 20 below, winds have topped more than 200 miles per hour, and there’s total darkness for months each winter. A unit of Space Force Guardians is stationed there.

“We’re able to provide some great connectivity for the Guardians that are serving there,” Reyes said.

The USO also has boosted the number of truck-based mobile centers, which are useful for National Guard deployments after natural disasters like hurricanes. The organization also has sent trucks to the U.S. southern border to support troops during the ongoing federal National Guard mission there.

Balancing tradition with modern needs

Sgt. Darien Wolf of the 82nd Airborne Division visits the bustling USO center at Fort Bragg, N.C. almost daily. He was hanging out in a lounge area one recent day, sipping a Sprite, as other soldiers used computers, played video games, or just sprawled on a couch watching TV.

“I was dealing with depression,” Wolf said. “Just coming here got me a chance to kind of get out of that mode, and kind of relax.”

Wolf found the same kind of USO comfort in Poland on a recent deployment. Several thousand 82nd Airborne Division soldiers were sent there in response to the fighting in Ukraine. For security reasons, they were ordered to leave their phones at home. But the USO provided secure call centers as well as its usual array of couches, games, and snacks.

“My whole team was going every week,” Wolf said.

You can’t mention the USO without at least a nod to its most famous touring act, comedian and actor Bob Hope.

He toured to entertain troops, sometimes by the tens of thousands, beginning in World War II. Hope became synonymous with the USO and made its live tours an institution.

But his last one was in 1990.

The USO is still sending celebrities on tour, but it’s added another approach: live video appearances online in which celebrities may perform, chat with a host, and then interact with individual troops around the world.

In one recent production, U.S. soccer star Christian Pulisic talked about the World Cup, then talked individually with soldiers in Turkey, Kuwait, and Qatar.

Reyes said the approach became important during the pandemic, when live tours weren’t possible. But he said it’s also a good way to reach young troops online, where they’re used to spending so much of their time now.

The video meet-ups aren’t the same as joining the crowd at a live USO show. But Reyes said they can be more intimate, allowing personal connections with the celebrities.

“That does not mean we’re going to stop sending tours to bases and places as well, but we now have a way to serve in both capacities,” he said.

The USO is honing other kinds of online programming and is adding capabilities such as eSports to its centers. The Fort Bragg USO, for example, already has two donated — and startlingly realistic — NASCAR simulators and holds regular contests on them for prizes.

“Tradition is very important,” Reyes said. “But also I think relevance is even more important to us.”

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans.Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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