World's Largest, Most Modern USO Center Opens Doors
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Feb. 9, 2000, Feb. 9, 2000 More than 250,000 service members and their families are expected to find "a home away from home" annually at the recently opened USO lounge at Baltimore- Washington International Airport.
The $1.1 million, 5,000-square-foot lounge is the USO's largest and most modern. The state-of-the-art full service facility will serve 99 percent of the service members traveling to and from duty stations in Europe, Southwest Asia and the United States. The lounge is open to active duty personnel, reservists, retirees and their families from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily
Jan. 20 was the official grand opening, but the center started serving service members and their families more than a month earlier, said Adrian Schultz, lounge director.
"We opened the doors on Dec. 16 in the nick of time for the mass exodus of troops from Fort Lee (Va.) and Aberdeen (Proving Ground, Md.) for the Christmas holidays," he said. "More than 2,200 soldiers in uniform came through heading home for the holidays."
Several top military leaders and local, state and national political representatives were joined by actor James Brolin at the ceremony. Brolin, best known for his starring roles in the long-running TV series "Marcus Welby, M.D." and "Hotel," is the star of the weekly syndicated series "Pensacola: Wings of Gold."
"I feel so much appreciation for the USO," Brolin said. "It is your work that conveys our country's appreciation to its service members." And to service members everywhere, he added, "whatever you are doing in the service of this country, never doubt that you are doing it for a good reason, no matter how menial it may seem at the time."
Schultz said many military travelers "are amazed that this is a USO." "They're used to USO centers in a hand-me-down room with old furniture," she said.
"This lounge was designed especially for the modern needs of traveling service members and their families," said Elaine Rogers, president of the USO of Metropolitan Washington. "Everything is self-contained, including a kids room, rest rooms inside the center, and a sleeping room with top-of-the line sleeping chairs and lights that can be dimmed or turned to total darkness.
"We also have a technology center with computers outfitted with top-of-the-line software and Internet service," Rogers said. The lounge has a complimentary snack bar, and its caf tables are wired so travelers can plug in their laptop computers to access the Internet and send e-mail messages, she noted.
The lounge also features a television lounge with a 72-inch screen, and a nursery filled with cribs, toys, books, children's furniture, a television and videocassette recorder "with a slew of children movies," Schultz said.
"There is never enough baggage storage space at USO centers worldwide, but we've solved that problem here," Rogers noted. "When service members enter the center with carts stacked with duffel bags and other luggage, we have a huge baggage room where they can store their belongings.
"This is a quality of life issue and we wanted to provide the best possible service for service members and their families," Rogers said. "Our four corporate sponsors -- Microsoft, Cendant, Lockheed-Martin and AT&T -- have contributed $1 million to maintain the center in a first-class manner." Rogers said technology firms also outfitted the center with up-to-date fax machines, copiers, telephone systems and security systems.
Noting that Baltimore-Washington International is the Air Force Air Mobility Command's newest and largest gateway, Rogers said the command installed flight monitors in the center so everybody can check flight information without leaving the USO.
Service members are surprised by some of the assistance the lounge provides, Schultz said. For example, she said, a young soldier paid a woman $100 to drive him to Washington to get a passport so he could get on a space-available flight to Germany. The woman ran out of gas on the way and the soldier hitchhiked to get gas for her. When he returned to the USO, the staff noticed he'd spilled the gas on his clothes.
"We told him if he had something to change into, we'd be happy to wash his clothes for him," Schultz said. "He was thrilled that we have a washer and dryer here. We also have irons and ironing boards.
"He said, 'There's a God up there looking out for me,'" Schultz said.
The only full-time employee, Schultz said the lounge is staffed by volunteers, including active duty military personnel, reservists, military retirees and civilians. She plans to expand the hours when she gets enough volunteers to staff the hospitality desk.
Two of the charter members of her volunteer staff are Bette and Carlo DePorto, recent recipients of the USO of Metropolitan Washington's first lifetime volunteer service award in recognition of their 41 years of combined service as USO volunteers. The couple met in 1942 at a USO dance at Fort Lewis, Wash., where Bette was a volunteer and Carlo was a soldier. They celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary Jan. 22.
"No organization is better than the USO," Carlo DePorto said.
"The USO couldn't run this facility without volunteers like them," Rogers noted.