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San Francisco USO Provides Military Travelers Welcome Respite

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

SAN FRANCISCO, April 14, 2008 – As the sun began setting over the city here April 11, retired Air Force Col. Ray Slifka was on duty at the San Francisco International Airport United Service Organizations lounge, providing hospitality and assistance to travel-weary military travelers and their families transiting through the airport.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Navy Seaman Melissa Marrs makes herself comfortable at the United Service Organizations lounge at San Francisco International Airport while awaiting a flight to San Diego as she makes a permanent-change-of-station move from Naval Air Facility Atsugi, Japan. Photo by Donna Miles

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

Slifka, retired from nearby Travis Air Force Base, Calif., serves as the public face of the USO, an organization that’s been serving servicemembers and their families around the world since it was established in 1941.

The USO has had a presence at San Francisco International Airport since 1966, when the USO served troops deploying to and from Southeast Asia. It’s continued 24/7 operations ever since, serving more than 2 million servicemembers, retirees and their families.

On this quiet Saturday evening, Slifka manned the front desk, greeting travelers trickling into the facility and pointing to the coffee pot and cookies that awaited them. Activity would likely pick up in a few hours, he said, when late-evening flights were likely to bring visitors looking for help with travel problems or left stranded by missed or cancelled flights.

As people arrived at the facility, along the Terminal 1 mezzanine, Slifka encouraged them to take advantage of the facilities offered: computers with e-mail access, a big-screen television, video games, books and magazines, lounge chairs to stretch out on, and a nursery for children with games, toys and coloring books. The USO lounge also offers limited overnight facilities, a stowage area for travelers to stash their luggage, and travel tips for those wishing to explore the San Francisco Bay area while awaiting a flight.

Navy Seaman Melissa Marrs said she’s been to USO facilities in Seattle and Dallas, and popped in to the San Francisco facility to take advantage of its services while awaiting her follow-on flight to San Diego. Marrs, who arrived early the previous day from Naval Air Facility Atsugi, in Japan, passed the hours before her 10 p.m. flight curled up in front of the TV with a hot cup a soup.

“They offer us a place to relax, and they always have treats,” Marrs said of the USO lounges she has visited. “And the people working there always have a smile on their face. At every one I’ve been to, they’ve been hospitable and welcoming.”

Diane Otte, a military wife passing through San Francisco en route to Atlanta, where her husband is stationed at Fort McPherson, Ga., joined Marrs in the USO lounge.

“It feels like home here,” said Otte as she plopped down with her book, away from the blare of airport announcements and the hustle-bustle of airport passengers. “They have magazines and food and friendly people at the desk. It feels safe here and relaxing here.”

Otte said she’s been so impressed with the USOs she has visited that she’s considering working as a volunteer at the facility at Atlanta’s Hartsfield International Airport. “It seems like a good thing to do,” she said. “It’s providing a really important service.”

Volunteers are the heart of USO operations, with about 40 serving at the San Francisco facility alone. They typically work a day a week, collectively chalking up more than 7,500 volunteer hours since 2001.

“It’s rewarding work,” Slifka, one of just a few paid staffers at the facility,  said. “It’s nice to be able to help the military after being in the military myself. The people who come in here are always appreciative and always grateful that we’re here.”

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