Tuesday, November 27, 2001

Sixty years after its inception and especially as a result of September 11 the United Service Organization has changed notably. However, its purpose to extend a “Touch of Home” remains as steadfast as ever.

The USO’s mission is “to provide morale, welfare and recreation-type services to uniformed military personnel.” According to its congressional charter, it is a voluntary civilian agency through which the people of the nation may, in peace or war, serve the religious, spiritual, social, welfare, educational, and entertainment needs of the men and women in the armed forces and in general, to contribute to the maintenance of morale of such men and women.”

The USO was created in 1941, when President Roosevelt challenged the YMCA, YWCA, National Catholic Community Service, Traveler’s Aid Association, National Jewish Welfare Board and the Salvation Army to provide for the recreational needs of U.S. Armed Forces.

These six organizations each contributed resources to form the USO, which is completely separate from the federal government and from its founders.

The USO is a volunteer-staffed nonprofit chartered by Congress and endorsed by the Department of Defense, with every U.S. President since Roosevelt serving as its honorary chairman.

During its early years, the USO became known for its “Camp Shows” featuring famous entertainers such as Bob Hope, the Andrews sisters, and the “Soldiers in Greasepaint.”

Other trademarks of the USO included USO Canteens (wagons providing various comfort items such as pillows and blankets), phone calls home and much-appreciated showers.

Now, however, the USO’s techniques have shifted.

Elaine Rogers, president of the USO Center for the Metropolitan Washington, D.C. area, said, “We’ve seen the USO go through a lot of changes.”

The biggest change, she said, is due to the fact that the army is no longer filled by a draft, but is composed of volunteers, most of whom are married with families. The USO is now focused not only on providing for military personnel, but also for their families.

Adapting to suit the needs of the military, the USO implemented new programs and facilities.

For instance, the USO Mobile Canteens have been renamed “Cyber-Canteens,” since they contain free Internet access and other technological amenities that enable personnel to communicate with their families. These moving facilities also contain books, board games, stereos and TVs.

Military personnel can send video messages home and get online discounts on products such as flowers and rental cars.

On September 11, the USO was put to the test. According to Ms. Rogers, the organization “expanded already existing programs in huge ways” to meet the urgent needs of its patrons.

She cited emergency housing as a specific example. Not only did these facilities house military called into the District, she said, they also accommodated the families of victims of the Pentagon crash and those who were stranded at the closed airports.

The centers were kept open 24 hours a day, Ms. Rogers said, to allow the military personnel easy access to rooms, calling cards, pillows, blankets and other comfort items.

Worldwide, the USO responded to the tragedy by doubling the numbers of overseas celebrity tours and improving the mobile canteens.

It is prepared to answer any sudden deployments of troops, as in the case of the aircraft carrier USS Kennedy.

Navy Vice Admiral Douglas J. Katz praised the organization: “The USO is the foundation of our morale around the world. We’ll continue to thank them until [our] dying day.”

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