- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 21, 2009

The United Service Organizations Inc. is finding myriad innovative ways to adapt to the needs of U.S. troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. In an interview at The Washington Times this week, USO President Sloan D. Gibson explained how the nonprofit organization is fulfilling its mission to “lift the spirits of the troops and their families.”

The USO, in operation since 1941, is flourishing despite the economic downturn because Americans continue to be generous in support of the troops, Mr. Gibson said. The USO has “strong” donation levels, mostly from a stellar direct-mail program, he said. He acknowledged that funding is greater when the United States is at war. Many soldiers are now being called upon for multiple deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan; Americans are rallying by providing both time and money.

These resources are being used in part to bridge the gap between deployed soldiers and their families. For example, in order to ease the pain of separation between children and soldiers, the USO enables parents serving abroad to record children’s books; hence, a child can hear his father’s or mother’s voice regularly at bedtime. Last year, the USO completed 20,000 such recordings; this year, it produced 40,000, according to Mr. Gibson. Also, the USO has partnered with Sesame Workshop to produce theatrical performances and DVDs that help children better understand deployments and cope with the return of parents with war-related injuries. The USO ensures that there is frequent communication between soldiers and their families. In one instance, a soldier was connected to a delivery room when his wife was giving birth so that he could “be present” in some way, Mr. Gibson said.

Among the missions dearest to Mr. Gibson is assisting wounded soldiers who return from combat zones. Traumatic brain injuries are more prevalent than in previous wars, he said, because modern medical care enables soldiers to survive wounds that previously would have been fatal. Though invisible, injuries and conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder are nonetheless very real and very painful. He said the USO is working to raise awareness about these conditions and persuade those who need help to ask for assistance rather than suffer in silence.

To increase public awareness about key issues affecting U.S. troops, the USO just launched a magazine, On Patrol, which is being distributed to 400,000 households, including those of donors, troops and members of Congress. The magazine features stories of interest to both the military community and the general reader. Its mission is to “highlight the service and sacrifice of our troops and their families as well as the organizations that support them,” Mr. Gibson wrote in the recent inaugural issue. “Simply put, ‘On Patrol’ is about those who serve, and those who serve them.”

In order to improve the daily lives of soldiers at the front, the USO is also disseminating entertainment through mobile units such as USO on the Go! and USO in a Box. DVDs, books and musical instruments are brought to troops in hard-to-reach areas such as forward operating bases in Afghanistan. Mr. Gibson said USO recruits celebrities to travel to remote areas, and entertainers soon discover how rewarding it is to perform in front of such appreciative audiences. There is a “genuine connection” between entertainers and the troops that, once established, becomes irresistible for the entertainers, he said. After one show, most celebrities want to do repeat performances for the troops.

The USO’s success can be credited to its unique nature, Mr. Gibson said. The organization provides a way for Americans to “express gratitude” for the sacrifices of the troops; conversely, soldiers recognize that all those involved with the organization are volunteers who “really want to be there.” Hence, USO services are warm, personal and feel “like home” for the troops.

Despite all the recent USO achievements, Mr. Gibson said soberly that troops and their families need more support. We are only “scratching the surface,” he said.

• Grace Vuoto is the editor of Base News, a citizen journalism project of The Washington Times devoted to America’s military community.

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