By Paul Steven GhiringhelliFebruary 10, 2011
FORT DRUM, N.Y. -- Members and friends of the Fort Drum community stopped by the USO at lunchtime Feb. 4 to celebrate the organization's 70th birthday and to honor an 87-year-old volunteer who has offered her time at New York-based USOs ever since President Franklin D. Roosevelt organized the group in 1941.
"The USO still provides that home-away-from-home atmosphere, and a commitment to support our men and women in uniform and their Families," said Karen Clark, USO Fort Drum director. "This (party) is really to celebrate the American public that has kept us (going). We are celebrating (as) a nation, really."
"It's important to also recognize that it takes volunteers and donations to keep us going," Clark added.
During the celebration, the director took a moment to promote the role of volunteerism in the 70-year-old organization by presenting a bouquet of flowers to Mary Parry of Watertown for her many years of selfless service.
"Mary has told the story of the USO's support for troops and their Families better and longer than anybody I know," Clark said. "She has the power to inspire individuals to volunteer, corporations to donate and Soldiers to thank her for her service.
"Loyalty and patriotism run deep in Mary Parry," Clark added, "and the USO Fort Drum is proud and honored to call her one of our volunteers."
Afterwards, Parry was asked to cut one of two large USO birthday cakes alongside Garrison Command Sgt. Maj. John McNeirney.
Serving hundreds of thousands of service members worldwide, the USO is a nonprofit organization dedicated to building morale in military environments through top-rate entertainment, recreation and "home-away-from-home" experiences - like sipping coffee in a comfortable setting while checking e-mail.
Clark said she believes one reason that thousands of Fort Drum Soldiers came through the USO's doors last month alone is also why the USO is still going strong after 70 years of serving U.S. troops - atmosphere.
Fort Drum's facility features hardwood floors, recessed lighting, comfortable furniture, flat-screen TVs, computer terminals, gaming stations (with Xbox, Wii and PlayStation), a movie projection screen, snack bar, pool table and freshly brewed coffee.
"One of my favorite things to point out is I will have Soldiers asleep in the recliners here," Clark said. "They actually live in barracks right across the street; they can go to their home. But they prefer ours."
Sgt. Jacob Raymond, an infantryman formerly with 4th Battalion, 31st Infantry Regiment, and now assigned to the Warrior Transition Unit, said he was amazed to learn how much was available to service members at the Fort Drum USO.
"Soldiers come here for snacks, video games, to use the computers - it's just a really enjoyable time," he said. "The staff over here is awesome. If you are having a bad day at work, this is a great place to come. It just makes your day that much better."
During Friday's event, USO staff and volunteers wore beautifully designed dresses traditional of 1940s America. In addition, local singer Dawn Azotea performed on a small stage while disc jockey Johnny Spezzano of the Border 106.7 WBDR-FM worked the crowd, using a Smartphone to air live interviews with Soldiers for his North Country audience.
"We have made it our initiative at the Border 106.7 to help out the USO this year," Spezzano said. "I hear that with funding cuts and everything like that, times might be a little bit tougher.
"A great way to support (our Soldiers) both here and abroad is through the USO Fort Drum," he added.
Fort Drum's garrison command sergeant major said it was an honor to participate in the USO's birthday celebration for the support they have provided Soldiers over the years, whether in garrison or deployed.
"What a great opportunity to recognize an organization that has contributed so much to the welfare, health and safety of our Soldiers, not only here at Fort Drum, or across our Army installations, but also to the deployed," McNeirney said. "It's that little piece of home that a Soldier gets to go to."
Bringing homesick troops a "little piece of home" has been a part of the USO's vision from the start, Parry said.
"Their mission was to be sure that anyone in the service had a place they could go to sit, read a book, have some coffee, eat, maybe dance, play pool (and) write letters."
Another part of the vision was keeping servicemen out of trouble, she said.
"With World War II ... there weren't a lot of places for servicemen to go to except a bar," Parry said. "There was so much talk about the servicemen getting drunk. The USO became a place for them to come."
She said when her son, Phillip, returned from Vietnam, under her orders he reported immediately to a USO in San Diego, where he was fed and cared for on his journey home.
"He said: 'My mother has worked at the USO since 1941,'" Parry recalled. "He told them, 'I was warned not to go anywhere else but the USO.'"
Parry is a beloved figure among Fort Drum community members. Because of her dependable, motherly and energetic spirit, she was recognized several years ago as a 10th Mountain Division (LI) "Lady of the Mountain."
She is known for unquestioningly making the 140-mile trek to shuttle Soldiers in the middle of the night from Syracuse's Hancock International Airport to Fort Drum. She also makes it a personal priority to never miss a redeployment, being sometimes the first kind face a lonely, war-weary Soldier sees upon entering the Rapid Deployment Facility at Wheeler-Sack Army Airfield.
"There's always one (Soldier), wandering up and down (looking for somebody). So that one, you go up to and talk to," she said.
She recalled one such incident a few months ago, when a Soldier was obviously distraught as he searched for somebody.
"'Hey, I'm glad you're home, glad everything's fine,'" Parry told the young man. After he said it was his wife who was supposed to be waiting, Parry softly replied: "'Well, you know, she might have gotten lost coming in. Don't worry too much.'"
Parry's storied history with the USO began as a teenager in Geneva, where the organization used an abandoned car agency by Seneca Lake to meet. She admits that at the beginning, her motivations for supporting the troops may have been more recreational than altruistic.
"We were seniors in high school," she said with a laugh. "We wanted to go down to the USO and dance with the servicemen."
Parry said in order to dance on the weekends with uniformed men from the nearby Samson Naval Training Station and the Army's Seneca Ordnance Depot, she and her friends had to first serve at the lunch counter.
"Then you went to the mail room, where (servicemen) were supposed to write letters to their mother and father, but most of them wrote to their girlfriends," she said. "Then, you got to dance."
Parry eventually went to work at the Seneca Ordnance Depot, where she had top secret clearance to inventory blockbuster bombs stored inside igloos.
In the late 1950s, she moved to Watertown with her husband, Walter, fearing her days with the USO were effectively over. But the day after arriving in the North Country, she saw a USO sign at a building in Public Square.
"I screamed to my husband, 'Stop the car,'" she recalled. "What's a USO sign doing up here'"
In time, she would run the small center, servicing reserve Soldiers at what was then called Camp Drum.
As the years have passed, Parry said the USO's purpose of lifting the spirits of troops has not changed, but that some of the amenities have.
"It's the same mission, but they have all gotten more sophisticated," she said. "(Troops) wouldn't come in if there weren't computers. Who in their right mind doesn't have a computer'"
The Fort Drum USO director said the organization is an indispensable resource in the lives of Soldiers and their Family Members.
"The USO matters - it makes a difference," Clark said. "(We are) communicating to our Soldiers that their nation supports them.
"(We) want to encourage people who are not in our military community to think about volunteering (or) donating," Clark added. "Once they see what we do and the impact that we have, I think they will want to be a part of the USO team."
Meanwhile, Parry reflected on the future of the organization she has diligently supported since its inception.
"I don't think you'll ever see the USO go away," Parry said. "I think it will always be here, because there are too many great people in this country who want to take care of their military.
"How can you not volunteer, when (it involves) helping a service member'" she asked.