By Master Sgt. Krishna M. Gamble, 3rd Infantry Division Public AffairsJanuary 14, 2014
FORT STEWART, Ga. (Jan. 14, 2014) -- A Fort Stewart Soldier deployed to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom was honored as the United Service Organizations' 2013 Southwest Asia Volunteer of the Year in a ceremony, here Tuesday.
Spc. Raymond "RJ" Castle was presented the USO Volunteer of the Year Medal by Brig. Gen. Peter Jones, 3rd Third Infantry Division deputy commanding general -- Support, and Mary Lou Austin, president, Georgia USO, for 433 hours of service as a USO volunteer during his off-duty time while deployed to Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, in 2013.
"It's a complete surprise," said the Kingsport, Tenn., native. "I didn't do it for any personal recognition and I never thought it would get this far. I had a lot of fun doing it and it [was] good to help out my fellow Soldiers [who] may have not had as much down time as I did."
There are more than 26,000 USO volunteers. Each year, the USO awards a USO Volunteer of the Year Medal to one outstanding volunteer among nominees from four regions: Southwest Asia, Europe, the continental U.S., and the Far East. Castle was the Southwest Asia Volunteer of the Quarter in the summer of 2013, and is now one of four finalists.
"Volunteers are the heartbeat of the USO, and a Soldier willing to give up free time in a combat zone is very unique," Austin said. "We are thrilled to be able to honor Specialist Castle."
"Here's a Soldier who stood up and volunteered to help. I am very proud of Specialist Raymond Castle," Jones said. "It is a profound honor for a Fort Stewart Soldier to be one of the four finalists for the USO Volunteer of the Year distinction."
Castle joined the Army in 2006, and has previously deployed to Iraq. As a wheeled vehicle mechanic with the 766th Ordnance Company (Explosive Ordnance Detachment), he dedicated his spare time to the USO Kandahar, lifting the spirits of his fellow troops through programs and activities like Texas Hold'em, volleyball, basketball and corn hole. Those efforts earned him the distinction of USO Volunteer of the Summer Quarter for the Southwest Asia Region.
"He is always eager to help center patrons, regardless of their need or situation. When he sees troops who appear to be upset, he is quick to take action to brighten their spirits and encourage them. He is the first to sing, dance and be silly to make troops feel at home in the center," said Rebecca Medeiros, volunteer coordinator of USO Kandahar, in a previous interview.
His chain of command agreed with Medeiros' assessment.
"Castle always worked hard and was always out there trying to make things a little better. He's a great guy, very inspirational. [He makes] me want to get out and do a little more," said 1st Lt. Jason Mullins, executive officer, 766th Ord. Co. (EOD).
Castle said his first personal encounter with USO was at Truscott Air Terminal at Hunter Army Airfield, Ga. He was returning to Afghanistan after emergency leave, when a USO representative invited him and his family into a waiting area. Castle said "it was awesome" how they were treated. Then, after passing through the security he looked back and saw his wife was very upset.
"I could not go back through the checkpoint, so we text until I boarded," Castle said. "Then she said the USO representative comforted her."
"Kindness begets kindness; compassion begets compassion," Jones said. "Here is a great Soldier and a great Army family."