Ask someone at random what the United Service Organizations does, and you may get a blank stare. But if you ask about the USO, you’ll likely get the answer that’s on the USO official site. One of the main missions of the USO is to bring a touch of home to service members stationed overseas.
The USO is perhaps best known for holding concerts, stand-up comedy nights and other special events all around the globe with performances by the popular entertainers of the day. Bob Hope was an early and familiar face on the USO circuit during World War II and Vietnam; other celebrities include Steve Martin, Gary Sinise with his Lt. Dan Band and punk-rock legend Henry Rollins.
Several Hollywood films feature the organization and its mission, and books have immortalized it.
What Is the USO?
The USO is a private, not-for-profit organization that 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 more than 200 members.
In 2022, the United Service Organization has a volunteer force of more than 30,000 people, with 250 centers all over the world.
What Does the USO Do?
The USO is likely best known for bringing celebrities to perform 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 traveling service members and their dependents. They feature televisions, internet, sleeping areas, books and other amenities.
Only those carrying military ID (including military ID cards for dependents and spouses) can enter these lounges.
The lounges have a variety of uses, but they are most helpful for those taking long journeys on leave, temporary duty (TDY) or reassignment to faraway places.
Military travelers with extended layovers or traveling Space-A find these USO lounges as quiet places to sleep until the next flight is called and don’t need to resort to hotels or uncomfortable snoozes in the airline’s waiting area.
USO Locations at Overseas Installations and Forward-Deployed Bases
USO facilities found at overseas military bases offer many services, depending on mission and location. Some locations are fully staffed with volunteers, managers and organizers. According to the USO, others, located “in places too dangerous for anyone but combat troops to occupy,” are unstaffed.
Another innovative approach at certain locations is the use of mobile canteens, built out of four-wheel-drive vehicles, that can provide access to email, phone calls and rest services.
In 2019 alone, an estimated 8.1 million people visited USO facilities worldwide.
What Programs Does the USO Offer?
Programs depend on the current state of operations, location, budget and availability of volunteers but may include the following:
The Bob Hope Reading Legacy Program – One of the many features of this program is long-distance bedtime stories. Deployed service members can record themselves reading bedtime stories to send to their families back home.
USO Stronger Families Couples Seminar – This program is designed to help couples strengthen and rekindle relationships, work on tough issues and more in a safe environment that facilitates communication. Some of the important topics addressed in these seminars deal with readjustment issues when service members return home from deployments.
USO Operation Phone Home – Despite living in an age of cell phones and online chat options, the USO’s Operation Phone Home program is still important, connecting deployed and remotely assigned military members with family back home.
This program began 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 receive free calling cards to help stay in touch with those back home.
How Can I Find a USO Center?
The USO official website lists its global sites. You can search the USO database for a specific site based on your current location, by address and by region.
How Can I Volunteer or Donate to the USO?
The USO official site provides electronic forms to help potential volunteers and donors get in touch.
History of the USO
Before the formation of the United Service Organizations, charity groups worked with soldiers deployed in France during World War I. This group of services could be labeled as a proto-USO, but there was no intent to form such an organization at the time.
In 1940, some of those charities assembled in New York City to consider forming a similar operation for World War II. 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 II. Before long, the USO adopted the concept of “camp shows,” which soon toured in Burma, China, Russia, Bermuda and other areas.
An estimated 7,000 performers took part in these shows. Entertainers included the biggest names of the day: Humphrey Bogart, the Andrews Sisters, Dinah Shore, Clark Gable and many others.
The End of the USO?
At the end of World War II, the USO successfully fulfilled its mission and disbanded. But soon, in light of growing concerns over the Cold War, the Department of Defense began making quiet inquiries about reforming the USO.
The six founding organizations of the USO met once more in 1949 and restarted the USO. The organization fell on hard financial times and eventually suspended operations until the Korean War, when the DoD gave it 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 with the Vietnam conflict. While the USO was very busy during the Vietnam conflict, it kept a low profile in the peacetime years. In 1977, it relocated key operations from New York City to Washington D.C., and grew closer to the government.
In 1979, the original founding agencies severed ties with the organization, and the federal government gave the USO its charter.
Toward the end of the 20th century, the agency put greater emphasis on making life easier for military families. The USO played an important role for troops and families in both Gulf Wars, operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Today, the USO has served an estimated 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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