- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Baghdad Airport/Sather Air Base USO Center held its grand opening earlier this summer. The facility is 2,000 square feet. It will entertain troops and help get their minds off the continuing operations in Iraq, even if just for the few hours they spend traveling through Sather to their duty stations in Iraq.

At the center, troops get a true touch of home with access to an outdoor deck and fireplace, big-screen TVs, DVDs, the latest video-gaming consoles, snack bars and a cybercafe. The cybercafe enables them to surf the Internet and communicate with loved ones back home via e-mail, Facebook and other means. In addition, free phone calls home are offered through the USO’s new private phone network.

A wide variety of programs are available for the troops. The Battle Buddy Birthdays program enables soldiers to send birthday greetings to their battle buddies. Partners are assigned while on duty to help one another. The Army starts this during basic training, deliberately partnering soldiers of different backgrounds so that they can develop a sense of camaraderie and team spirit. There is also the New Daddy program, which helps new dads keep in touch with their children and wives.

Terry Benson, the center’s director, is among those who helped build it.

“It is our greatest honor to represent the American people as we lift the spirits of our men and women in uniform,” Mr. Benson said. “The center perhaps can be said to be overdue here in Baghdad.” The Air Force and USO collaborated to build the new facility, which opened July 4.

The center is located at the military passenger terminal on the air base. Baghdad Airport/Sather Air Base is the busiest military passenger terminal in Iraq, according to Mr. Benson. It serves all services, other U.S. government officials and workers and also civilian contractors and third-country nationals.

The new USO facility was built from two used trailers supplied by the Air Force. The trailers were remodeled by removing all paneling, replacing it with wallboard and giving it a striking “Carolina blue” paint job, Mr. Benson said.

He found it challenging to transform the trailers’ drab “institutional” look into one more befitting of a home. Acquiring wallboard to replace the paneling was not easy, either, for wallboard is a rarely used commodity in Iraq, he explained. In addition, light oak laminated flooring was installed. These aesthetic features help the soldiers escape the war zone - at least temporarily, Mr. Benson said.

As construction progressed, the USO also offered logistical support for the United Through Reading program, which typically is housed at USOs. The program provides videotapes and delivers DVDs of service members reading favorite children’s books to families at home. The program often is touted as a favorite among many servicemen and -women. The United Through Reading program is offered through the base’s Morale Welfare and Recreation Department.

“A tremendously popular program here in Southwest Asia ,” Mr. Benson said. “In fact, the majority of UTRs around the world in USOs are done here in Southwest Asia.”

On opening day, the USO welcomed a few special guests. They included New York Giants head coach Tom Coughlin, Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh, and former head coaches Bill Cowher of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Jon Gruden of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Mr. Coughlin presented an autographed NFL ball for permanent display at the facility.

Four-star Army Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the commanding general of the Multi-National Force Iraq was the guest speaker. He said teamwork is vital to morale and mission.

The new USO center seeks to keep the troops’ morale high by providing vital connections to home, activities and the ongoing entertainment for which the USO is known.

Alex Baker lives in Severna Park, Md., and attends Severna Park High School. He is the son of a civilian employee on the faculty at the U.S. Naval Academy. He writes for the Severna Park High School paper, the Talon.

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