Volunteer Mary Parry, 85, recalls sitting at her USO desk at Fort Drum, a U.S. Army base near Watertown, N.Y. (pop. 26,705), in 2006 when a young soldier from Alabama approached with tears in his eyes.
“What’s the matter?” Parry asked the soldier, who was at the base recovering from injuries suffered in the Middle East. “Oh ma’am,” he stammered, “you remind me of my grandmother.”
“For a minute I had tears too,” Parry recalls. “I didn’t know what to say. So I just said, ‘Thank you.’”
It’s moments like this—seeing homesick soldiers who miss family and friends—that inspire Parry to give so freely of her time. She first volunteered for the USO in 1941, the same year President Franklin D. Roosevelt directed Congress to charter the United Service Organizations to provide moral support and recreation to American servicemen.
To carry out that mission, the USO created more than 3,000 “Home Away From Home” centers in churches, barns, storefronts and other sites nationwide. The centers allowed GIs, who often were far from home, to socialize with new civilian friends, watch movies, or just enjoy free coffee and doughnuts.
Parry was 18 when she and her girlfriends signed up to help at a USO center housed in a former automobile showroom in her hometown of Geneva, N.Y. (pop. 13,617). “The fellas were all joining the military,” she says. “So we thought, ‘Hey, we’ll go down there and dance. What else are we gonna do?’ Were we in for a rude awakening.”
Parry did more than dance; she worked the lunch counter, helped young soldiers write letters to their families, and listened as they told her how much they missed their parents and sweethearts. By the end of World War II, more than 1.5 million USO volunteers had made life a little easier for American troops.
Over the decades, the jovial Parry has volunteered at several USO centers while living in various towns in the Northeast with her husband, Walter. In fact, when she moved to Watertown in 1959, Parry spotted a USO sign in a downtown window and soon she was running the place. When the building closed, she operated the organization out of her home, hosting cookouts for servicemen and sometimes taking in weary soldiers for the night to give them a small taste of home.
Like a big hug
Thanks to more than 26,000 volunteers like Parry, the Washington, D.C.-based USO remains a haven for soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who are far from home. The nonprofit organization, funded solely by private donations, operates more than 130 centers, including 51 sites in Germany, Italy, the United Arab Emirates, Japan, Korea, Afghanistan, Qatar and Kuwait, during peacetime and war. Services ranging from crisis counseling and housing assistance to e-mail access and mobile units bring hope to troops in hard-to-reach, and often unstable, locations.
“The bulk of what we do is like a big hug,” USO CEO Ned Powell says. “That’s all it is, and that’s all it was during World War II—just a little bit of home to remind you that people were still behind you, still cared and knew where you were. Our mission is the same as it was in 1941: to make sure that our men and women in uniform know that America holds them in their heart.”
Powell recalls the day a young caddy approached him during a fund-raising golf tournament to thank him for the moral support the USO provided his father. “He literally picked me up, with tears streaming down his face and he said, ‘You guys saved my dad’s life in Vietnam.’ For almost all of the folks that went to Vietnam—and I’ve been told this time and again by the vets—the USO was the only friend they had.”
That friendship, Powell says, is courtesy of hard-working volunteers. “At the core these are people who are deeply patriotic, who understand the importance of saying thank you,” he says. “These are people with good hearts.”
Uniting families across the miles
It’s not just soldiers who benefit from USO services. Their families do, too. Chantelai Lyons, 10, and her four younger siblings in Norfolk, Va., may not understand all of the effort behind the USO’s United Through Reading program, but they have reaped its benefit. In 2006, while their father, Craig Lyons, was serving six months aboard a Navy ship in the Persian Gulf, they received a DVD of him reading a Berenstain Bears book aloud just for them. “It was pretty cool that I got to see him,” Chantelai says. “When we first got the DVD we were like, ‘Ooh! We’re going to read a book with Dad!’ We were happy and excited.”
The reading program is available at 41 USO sites, where the organization supplies recording equipment, books and packaging materials, and handles the mailings. “Children can turn the TV on 10 times a day and see Mommy or Daddy,” says Mary Moyer, director of the Fort Eustis (Va.) USO. “There’s no better program for people in the service to communicate with their kids.”
“It meant a lot because they could actually see me live and in person, so they didn’t have to miss me the entire six months,” says Lyons, a paralegal now stationed at Naval Station Norfolk. “I think it was more about seeing dad than about reading books.”
His wife, Kimberlee, 27, agrees. As soon as the first DVD arrived, she watched it with their children. “They sat and opened the books and followed along with him the first time,” she says. “But the second time they just wanted to look at him.”
Entertaining the troops
Despite dozens of lesser-known USO programs, most Americans still equate the organization with the late Bob Hope and his Christmas shows. The celebrity tours, which began in 1941 with seven traveling show buses, now reach hundreds of thousands of uniformed men and women worldwide each year. Entertainers such as comedian Robin Williams, country singer Toby Keith and actor Gary Sinise visit airplane hangars, flatbed trucks and bunkers, free of charge, to cheer on the troops with handshakes, conversation and morale-boosting musical and comedy routines.
Wayne Newton, chairman of the USO Celebrity Circle, which recruits other entertainers, was 7 years old when he performed in his first USO show—for President Harry Truman. “I wanted to be in the military but because of my asthma they wouldn’t take me,” Newton says. “So I thought if I couldn’t serve one way I would serve another.”
Newton still entertains the troops up to 10 times a year. “They are my heroes,” he says. “I would not be able to live the life I lead if it were not for them, and they are the best audience in the world. The USO, along with myself, will be there for the troops until everyone comes home.”
And when the troops do return home, volunteers like Mary Parry will be there to help, whether she’s offering a kind word to a homesick soldier or driving 70 miles to the Syracuse, N.Y., airport to pick up a returning soldier who needs a ride to Fort Drum. “They’ve called in the middle of the night, many times,” Parry says. “Many nights I’d get up during bad snowstorms and go.”
Occasionally, when Parry grows a bit weary of the “job,” she remembers why she’s stayed with it all these years. “It gives you a whole different perspective,” she says. “I’m a happier person because of it. If I do have a bad day, all I have to think about is the soldiers.”