Home, Sweet USO: Nonprofit dedicated to lifting troops' spirits
El Paso Times
EL PASO, Texas — Imagine you are 18 years old, and it's your first time away from home.
You are training to deploy overseas to one of the world's trouble spots, and your job is pretty darned stressful.
You can now understand how important the USO and its centers can be in the lives of service members, especially young single soldiers, sailors and Marines, said Robert Medrano, programs manager for USO El Paso.
The USO, which stands for United Service Organizations, is a global nonprofit dedicated to "lifting the spirits of American troops and their families," Medrano said.
Fort Bliss has two USO centers — 20727 Sergeant Major, which occupies part of a FirstLight Federal Credit Union branch on East Bliss, and at 2408 Chaffee on West Bliss.
"First thing you should know, everything we do is free" for service members and their families, Medrano said.
The East Bliss center was the first in the nation built from the ground up specifically for the USO in more than 60 years, Medrano said.
FirstLight made it possible by donating the building's shell, he said.
Usually, the USO finds underutilized space at an airport or a military installation and then revamps it to meet USO needs, Medrano said.
The East Bliss center opened in April 2010 and is more than twice the size of its counterpart on West Bliss at 14,000 square feet.
The center — described as a home away from home for soldiers — has Xbox gaming stations that are connected to the Internet, so soldiers can play online with their friends. Soldiers can also play pool.
It also features two large living-room-type areas, each with large oversized leather sofas, a fireplace, a large flat-screen TV and Blu-Ray player.
The East Bliss center also has a 34-station Internet cafe that is one of the largest in the USO system, Medrano said.
Soldiers can use the computers to make Skype calls anywhere in the world. The building has Wi-Fi, too.
Soldiers can check out laptops, movies and games that can be used in the center.
Service members can borrow cellphones donated by ATandT to make calls if they haven't reconnected their phone service after a deployment or move.
But the heart and soul of the center is its free snack bar, Medrano said. It serves comfort food such as cookies, potato chips, pretzels, burritos, Hot Pockets, corn dogs, ice cream and more healthful items such as applesauce, yogurt and string cheese. It also has soda and ice-tea fountains and serves hot coffee and tea.
The West Bliss center, which opened in 2005, has similar features but with a smaller 12-station Internet cafe.
Last year, the two centers served more than 160,000 people combined.
Systemwide, the USO averages about 2å paid employees per center, so volunteers are a key part of what makes the USO function, Medrano said. About 250 volunteers in El Paso help to run the two Fort Bliss centers and other USO programs.
Gordon Bulger is a former Army master sergeant and schoolteacher. He has volunteered with the USO for nearly three years. He's what is called a shift leader, meaning he can open up the center and make sure its services are provided correctly.
"I was a Vietnam veteran," Bulger said. "I saw the way troops were treated when they came back. I wanted to do something to tell the troops that they are not forgotten and are appreciated."
Spc. Jevar Hollingshed, originally from Macon, Ga., has been at Fort Bliss for two years.
He said the USO is especially important to single soldiers like him.
"It's convenient," he said. "You have pool tables, video games, Wi-Fi, which I'm about to use," he said. "You can Skype with family members and it brings you closer. They have cellphones you can use to call people. It's a relief."
The USO has about 160 centers worldwide. It does not get government funding. It is funded entirely with donations from corporations, local businesses and private citizens.