Gabriel Time hails from Wyoming. The 23-year-old senior airman had been in Afghanistan for only a day or two this past January when he went looking for support. Time found his way to the USO center in Kandahar. He didn’t need entertainment or a telephone to call home. He wanted to know if the USO could help him set up Skype so he could witness the upcoming birth of his first child.
Two months later, Time virtually coached his wife through delivery thousands of miles away. “It was pretty amazing—and it made labor a lot easier on my wife knowing I was there,” he says.
It’s fair to say this is not your grandfather’s USO.
Seventy years after its feel-good launch to entertain World War II troops—which will be celebrated with a star-studded gala in Washington this month—the USO has evolved into a global juggernaut with a $100 million budget, 160 centers, and state-of-the-art services. A USO “in a box” can be airlifted to the most dangerous war zones. “The mission has not changed. What have changed are the needs that the troops have, and the ways we have to go about meeting the need,” says Sloan Gibson, the USO’s president.
There was a moment in 1947 when it looked as though the USO was done for. Boys were coming home by the boatload, and the wartime patriotism that spurred volunteers and fueled donations for the organization was waning. The “Good War” was over, as were the memorable live performances of the Andrews Sisters belting out “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.” Bob Hope’s comic routines egged on the biggest names in Hollywood to join his global trek—everyone from the Marx Brothers to Betty Grable. Letter-writing stations ensured that soldiers could connect with home. Dances gave them something to look forward to. Then President Harry Truman declared the USO’s mission accomplished.
Little did anyone know that the United States would be in conflict for seven more decades: the Cold War left 1.5 million soldiers mobilized after WWII, followed by Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. While other charities have suffered with the recession, the USO has thrived; its online giving is up 30 percent in the past few years, as Michelle Obama and others made it popular to support the armed services.
The new challenge for the USO, says Gibson, is meeting the demands of those returning home—soldiers facing paralysis and posttraumatic stress. “These days the wounded warriors and the families of the fallen need us,” he says. “We’re seeing a different enemy—despair.” Two 25,000-square-foot centers are being built to give families a place to transition from war to life at home.
Through all its changes, the USO has produced indelible memories, helping warriors on the front lines absorb and survive the horrors of war.
—With Laura Colarusso