USO Innovates to Better Support Troops
By Army Sgt. 1st Class Tyrone C. Marshall Jr.
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jan. 31, 2012 The USO has served America’s troops and their families for seven decades, but thanks to innovations and adaptability, it’s not the same old USO, the organization’s president said.
“We have basically the same mission we’ve had for the last 71 years -- to lift the spirits of America’s troops and their families,” Sloan D. Gibson told American Forces Press Service.
“But one of the things we realized is that the needs of troops and families are changing all the time,” he added. “So we’ve tried to change and adapt over those 71 years to make sure that we’re meeting the most urgent needs. And [that we’re] also using the most up-to-date technology to meet those needs.”
Gibson said the USO continues to seek ways to better serve the nation’s service members and their families.
“We ask a simple question of ourselves: ‘If our mission is to lift the spirits of America’s troops and their families, who needs us most?’” he said. “The answer today is certainly different than it would have been before 9/11. So as we think about that with all the things that USO does. We want to make sure we’re taking care of our forward-deployed troops that are serving in harm’s way.”
Gibson said the USO also strives to meet the needs of military families enduring the stresses of multiple deployments, as well as healing heroes and their families and the families of fallen service members.
“So what you find are facilities and programs that are delivered all over the world that are designed to help those that need us most today,” he said.
Although the USO is best known for entertaining service members and families, Gibson said, the organization has become attuned to other needs.
“Entertainment is still a big part of the USO, … but as you think about the needs of troops and families, we’ve got to constantly adapt,” he said. “For example, we now operate eight USO centers -- soon to open our ninth USO center -- in Afghanistan.
“These centers are visited more than 100,000 times a month,” he added. “We know that connecting forward-deployed troops with their families back home is really important, so we’ve installed in those centers high-speed Internet connections and a private telephone network where troops are making over 2 million free phone calls every year.”
The USO president said these kinds of changes take place based upon the needs of today’s troops and based upon the important role that military families play today. The organization also adapts to mission changes, he noted, such as the end of the war in Iraq.
“We closed our last center in Iraq during the fourth quarter of 2011,” Gibson said. “We’ve taken the large majority of the resources that we were investing in Iraq and shifted those into Afghanistan. That’s one of the reasons that we’ve been able to support such a large growth in our presence in Afghanistan -- most through our centers, but also through a program called ‘USO2Go,’ where we actually ship pallet loads.”
Gibson said the average “USO2Go” shipment weighs a ton and consists of everything from video games to snack foods.
“They tell us what they need right there at their small combat outpost or small forward operating base, and we ship it out there,” he said. “And it arrives right there. It’s like Christmas when it shows up.”
Gibson said the USO also has created programs to help meet the needs of wounded, ill and injured troops.
“We’ve looked at those that needed us most, focusing on healing heroes and their families and our families of the fallen,” he said. “We’ve begun to build an array of programs that are designed to best meet their needs.” These programs cater to those suffering from invisible wounds as well as physical ones, he added.
“We’ve launched a new public service announcement that really focuses on the invisible wounds of war,” Gibson said. “One of the roles that the USO has played historically is we’ve been kind of a bridge between the American people and their families. So this is another one of those examples where we’re reaching out to the American people to help them understand the challenges that many of our troops and their families are facing right now with these invisible wounds.”
Gibson said it’s a “labor of love” for the USO to create new ways to serve service members and their families while ensuring their needs are met.
“We all care very deeply about what we do,” he said. “I get the opportunity -- I have the privilege -- to spend time with these men and women. I can’t say that I know what they go through, but I certainly have an appreciation for that. And if there’s something that we can do to say ‘Thank you,’ to express our gratitude, that’s really, really important.”