Ask someone at random what the United Service Organizations does and you might get a blank stare. But ask them what the USO does, and you’ll likely get the same answer that’s on the USO official site. One the main missions of the USO is to bring a touch of home to military women and men stationed overseas.
That touch of home includes celebrity performances by the popular entertainers of the day; Bob Hope was an early and familiar face on the USO circuit during World War Two and Vietnam; other celebrities include Steve Martin, Gary Sinise with his Lt. Dan Band, and punk legend Henry Rollins.
The USO hold special events, concerts, stand-up comedy nights, and more all around the globe. The organization and its’ mission has been featured in Hollywood films (including a lot of movies about World War Two and Vietnam), immortalized in books, and has helped more than one entertainer grow a bigger audience and further their career by helping troops deployed overseas.
What Is The USO?
The USO is a private, not-for-profit organization that is not a government agency but works in cooperation with the Department of Defense. The USO is a congressionally chartered organization but is not considered part of the government. It is funded through private philanthropy, donations, volunteer work, and corporations.
In 2003, a bipartisan USO congressional caucus was formed to “enhance the outreach efforts of the American people to U.S. service members and their families, providing another critical link between service members and their representatives” according to the official site. The caucus has a membership of over 200 people.
At the time of this writing, the United Service Organization has an endowment of approximately $25 million, a volunteer force estimated at 12,000 people, with hundreds of centers all over the world.
What Does The USO Do?
The USO is likely best known for bringing celebrities to do shows in war zones. Older generations will remember the legendary Bob Hope USO shows mentioned above, but entertainment is only part of the USO mission.
The USO Airport Lounge
The USO operates centers for service members in a variety of locations including airports, where 24-hour USO lounges are open for both military and their dependents while traveling. Frequent flyers may notice signs pointing to the location of these lounges, which feature televisions, internet, sleeping areas, books, and other amenities for travelers.
Entry into these lounges has been generally restricted to those carrying military ID (including military ID cards for dependents and spouses.)
The lounges have a variety of uses, but they are the most helpful for those taking long journeys on leave, temporary duty (TDY), or reassignment to far-away places.
Military travelers with an extended layover in an airport or traveling Space-A quickly learn to appreciate these USO lounges as a quiet place to sleep until the next flight is called, without having to resort to a hotel or an uncomfortable snooze in the airline’s waiting area.
USO Locations At Overseas Installations And Forward Deployed Bases
USO facilities are found at overseas military bases and offer many services depending on mission and location. Some locations may be fully staffed with volunteers, managers, and organizers. But some USO locations are unstaffed, located “in places too dangerous for anyone but combat troops to occupy,” according to the USO.
As unusual as an unstaffed USO in a highly dangerous location might sound, an even more innovative approach is also used for certain locations; mobile canteens built out of four-wheel drive vehicles that can provide access to email, phone calls, and rest services.
In 2017 alone, there were an estimated seven million visits to USO facilities worldwide.
What Programs Does The USO Offer?
Depending on the current state of operations, location, budget, and availability of volunteers to run a specific program, you may find a variety of options including (but definitely not limited to) the following:
The Bob Hope Reading Legacy Program – one of the many features of this program includes the ability for a deployed service member to walk into a USO facility and record bedtime stories and other material to be sent to the family back home. This service is especially helpful for families with newborn children who have a parent in a war zone or TDY to a far-away location.
USO Stronger Families Couples Seminar – this program is designed to help couples strengthen relationships, rekindle them, work on tough issues, and more in a safe environment designed to facilitate communication. Some of the important topics addressed in these seminars deal with readjustment issues when a service member comes home from a deployment.
USO Operation Phone Home – in spite of living in an age of cell phones and online chat rooms, the USO’s Operation Phone Home program is still an important one, connection deployed and remotely-assigned military members with family back home.
This program started off as a simple phone card program but branched out to include internet access and a private telephone network. Those in forward-deployed locations where phone and internet rooms are not available are provided with free calling cards to help stay in touch with those back home.
How Can I Find A USO Center?
The USO official website has a list of the hundreds of sites available globally. You can search the USO database for a specific site based on your current location, by address, and by region.
Can I Volunteer Or Donate To The USO?
Yes. The USO official site directs potential volunteers and donors to get in touch via electronic forms provided on the site.
History Of The USO
Prior to the events that led to the formation of the United Service Organizations, there were charity groups that worked with soldiers deployed in France during World War One. These services could be labeled a proto-USO, but there was no intent to form such an organization at the time.
However, in 1940, some of those charities assembled in New York City to consider forming a similar operation for World War Two. The National Jewish Welfare Board was an important player in these discussions, as were the Salvation Army, the Traveler’s Aid Association, The YMCA and the YWCA, and the National Catholic Community Service.
These organizations banded together to create the USO.
The USO Evolves
Initially, the USO was a way to keep troops occupied as they waited to ship out to serve in World War Two. But it wasn’t long before the concept of “camp shows” was adopted and soon there were major tours in areas including Burma, China, Russia, Bermuda, and elsewhere.
It’s estimated that 7,000 performers took part in these shows including the biggest names of the day: Humphrey Bogart, The Andrews Sisters, Dinah Shore, Clark Gable, and too many other famous names to list.
The End Of The USO?
At the end of World War Two, it was declared that the mission of the USO had been successfully fulfilled and the organization disbanded. But it wasn’t long before the Department of Defense began making quiet inquiries about reforming the USO in light of growing concerns over the Cold War.
The six original organizations that founded the USO met once more in 1949 and started the USO up once more. The organization fell on hard financial times and eventually suspended operations until the Korean War when the DoD gave the agency a new mandate and approximately $13 million to help troops deployed to support the war.
The USO Evolves Again
The cycle of financial difficulty following the end of a major conflict repeated itself once more, including the USO’s resurgence as the Vietnam conflict started. The USO found itself very busy during Vietnam, but kept a low profile in the peacetime years. It relocated key operations from New York City to Washington D.C. and grew closer to the government.
After the relocation two of the most significant changes occurred almost simultaneously; the original founding agencies severed ties with the organization AND the federal government gave the USO its’ charter in the same year, 1979.
As the agency moved closer to the end of the 20th century, it began putting greater emphasis on making life easier for military families in addition to serving those in uniform. The USO has played important roles for troops and families in both Gulf Wars, operations in Afghanistan, and elsewhere.
Today the USO is estimated to have served some 35 million Americans at home and overseas.
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News
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