Fort Hood USO provides home away from home for troops
June 27, 2011
FORT HOOD, Texas, June 28, 2011 -- With more than 150 centers worldwide, the USO provides a home away from home for servicemembers.
“We uplift the spirits of our military service members and their families by providing quality programs and services,” said Robin Crouse, Fort Hood USO director, about the USO mission and her team of volunteers.
All of the centers offer gaming systems and games, televisions, computers, and home-like environments provide Soldiers a home away from home on the confines of the installation.
Visitors to any of the USO centers will find Soldiers gathered in groups playing video games, watching movies, working on personal computers or just hanging out enjoying snacks.
On average, 5,000 Soldiers visit the Fort Hood USO each month, and another 4,500 stop by the North Fort Hood Center, Crouse said.
Sgt. Paul Russel-White stopped by the Fort Hood center for lunch and to visit with friends last week.
“It gives me something to do at lunch and saves me from driving home at lunch,” he said. “It’s a great place to hang out with people.”
Crouse and her team of volunteers operate two stand-alone USO centers and three USO-sponsored centers to carry out the nonprofit organization’s mission.
Fort Hood’s Warrior Transition Brigade is home to two USO-sponsored dayrooms under the USO’s wounded warrior program. The dayrooms are scaled down versions of the full-service centers, Crouse said, and are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The newest USO-sponsored center, located on West Fort Hood, opened its doors Jun 17, 2011, with a ribbon-cutting ceremony in the 504th Battlefield Surveillance Brigade’s Soldier Service Center.
In all, June 17 was a busy day for the Fort Hood USO and its volunteers.
Following the West Fort Hood opening, volunteers headed to Larkin Terminal at Robert Gray Army Airfield to hand out snacks and cold drinks to Soldiers heading to Iraq and Afghanistan. More than food and drinks, the volunteers delivered smiles, hugs and kind words to the deploying Soldiers.
That evening, the North Fort Hood USO Center hosted “Movies on the Lawn” for the reserve-component Soldiers training there.
Soldiers assigned to the 1st General Support Aviation Battalion, 171st Aviation Regiment, New Mexico National Guard, enjoyed free hot dogs, hamburgers, nachos and cold drinks to complement an outdoor screening of “The Green Hornet” on the USO’s massive inflatable movie screen.
Soldiers not watching the movie gathered in the air-conditioned center to play video games and pool, relaxed on leather sofas while watching TV on flat screens, and talked in groups at cafe tables.
“Movies on the Lawn” nights are held throughout the summer at North and South Fort Hood in conjunction with different brigades. The selection process is done by a lottery, and 19 screenings are scheduled this season, Crouse said.
The next “Movies on the Lawn” night is scheduled for July 8, at Comanche III Village, and will feature “Despicable Me.”
“We pick movies geared toward families,” Crouse added.
In addition to the centers and “Movies on the Lawn,” the USO offers core programs such as United Through Reading and free lunches for Soldiers during the work week. Mobile canteens from the USO take some USO services on the road to where Soldiers are working.
Unfortunately, Fort Hood’s mobile canteen was lost in a fire last year, and the organization is looking to replace it.
The Fort Hood USO sponsors United Through Reading year-round to help Soldiers stay connected with their children. At Casey Memorial Library and in unit footprints, Soldiers can be videotaped reading a book to their children. The recorded DVD as well as a copy of the book the Soldier read is then sent to the families.
On the flight line at Robert Gray Army Airfield, the USO is the only food source for deploying troops. Volunteers man the tables and keep an assortment of salty snacks and sweets, as well as cold water and canned sodas on hand for deploying troops.
On post and off, in garrison and in theater, the USO is there to serve Soldiers.
Sgt. Jason Alward recalled the USO in Kuwait and being greeted by USO volunteers at airports in Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas, and Bangor, Maine.
“The people are always so courteous and nice,” Alward said.
Staff Sgt. Patrick Kelleher, a regular visitor to the Fort Hood USO, said the USO is a great place to decompress, not only because of the free amenities, but because of the people.
“They always treat us right,” he said. “They deserve every bit of praise.”
The Fort Hood center has the distinction of being the first USO center located on a military installation in the United States. Since the center opened its doors in August 2001, the USO has grown exponentially.
Now the USO can be found around the world, in airports, on military installations and online, but all the components serve a single mission -- to provide a home away from home for servicemembers.
For Crouse, that mission is her life’s calling. She has been a volunteer with the USO since 2003 and the Fort Hood center director since 2007.
To Soldiers, Crouse has become the face of the USO for Fort Hood. She considers the servicemembers her family and works each day to enhance and expand services.
Crouse started working with the USO after watching the 4th Infantry Division case its colors for its first deployment in 2003.
“To see those kids standing on that field, going to someplace and not knowing what to expect,” she said.
That day, Crouse decided to give her life in service to those Soldiers.
She started on the flight lines, distributing snacks to deploying troops. And she cried.
“I cried because I was scared for them, but I was also enamored by them because they cared enough to stand up for this country,” she said. “I cried at the homecomings, too. That was a moment to exhale for them.”
Watching troops deploy and redeploy has only fed Crouse’s desire to serve.
She does not accomplish all of this alone. With only a few paid staff members, the Fort Hood USO relies heavily on those willing to donate their time, energy and talents.
Volunteers are key to the success of the USO mission, Crouse said, and much time is devoted to recruiting and training volunteers. The USO offers volunteer training each week for those interested.
Many of those who donate their time are former servicemembers.
Retired Command Sgt. Maj. Joe Gainey, former III Corps and Fort Hood command sergeant major and the first senior-enlisted advisor to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spent a recent Wednesday handing out hot dogs and joking with Soldiers at the Fort Hood USO.
“When I was in uniform, I could always go to the USO and get a smiling face, food and a cold drink,” Gainey said.
Smiling faces are the standard for the USO.
III Corps and Fort Hood Deputy Commander Canadian Brig. Gen. Peter Atkinson is a big fan of the USO, its programs and volunteers.
“The folks from the USO are always there, no matter what time,” Atkinson said. “They are always there with a smiling face for the Soldiers.”
Sometimes being there all the time means being there in the worst of times.
Volunteers and staff from the USO were there for Fort Hood following the shootings on Nov. 5, 2009. They kept Soldiers and law enforcement officials fed and offered some measure of comfort to those working non-stop in the aftermath of the incident.
They go wherever Soldiers go, offering up comforts of home and words of encouragement that go beyond a single person or entity.
“What we are is an extension of the American people,” Crouse said. “I love what we do.”