USO Spells Aloha For Our Troops
For U.S. military personnel far from home, there’s no friendlier place than the USO
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Actress Raquel Welch dances with troops during a
USO tour in the 1960s, including Master Sgt. Henry
Karshis, father of Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Terry
Karshis, who is pictured on the cover
Say “USO” to military personnel, and they think of “home away from home.” For deployed men and women of the armed forces, USO spells aloha.
USO (United Service Organizations) is an essential part of maintaining the morale of our troops during combat or peace times. It is emotional artillery.
Without it, the psychological edge it gives to fighting soldiers and their families would likely be compromised. The USO shows American soldiers that the public cares about them and the sacrifices they make to serve our country. This is the 65th year of USO serving that mission.
Yet USO is not a military agency and derives no public funding. It operates solely on the aloha and generosity of private citizens.
Of what value is the USO to our community?
Observers say it’s a no-brainer. The social and economic impact of the military presence in Hawaii is pervasive. At one time, military activity was the state’s main industry. Tourism has eclipsed it, but military business is still a key driver of economic activity in the Islands.
USO channels the goodwill of local residents to the military. It is a venue by which citizens welcome arriving troops and enhance the quality of life for military families who are stationed here.
USO Hawaii was established in the early 1970s and was incorporated in 1972. Four years ago, it merged with the parent organization, USO World Headquarters, from which it derives half of its budget.
Operating on $500,000 annually, USO Hawaii serves more than 300,000 uniformed military in the Pacific plus military traveling to other destinations. It operates two centers, one at Honolulu International Airport (between baggage claim sections E and F) and Hickam AMC Terminal. These centers serve more than 65,000 military members and their families each year, an average of more than 165 persons per day.
Centers provide a range of services, such Internet access, pre-paid phone cards, cultural orientation, libraries, showers, cyber cafes and travel assistance.
USO Hawaii director Cassandra Isidro helps Klaudio
Idelbong of the Coast Guard with activities available
On a typical day in the USO airport facility, you might find a young Marine recruit en route to boot camp in California; a mom saying goodbye to her daughter who is headed off to points unknown; a family visiting home from overseas because of the death of a loved one; a young sergeant, his wife and two children wearily waiting for 12 hours after their flight has been cancelled; young men and women brave but waiting to travel overseas to a combat zone.
The centers operate like an airline frequent flier lounge. All one needs to get in is a military ID. Centers are staffed by volunteers, and there’s always a need for more since operations run morning to nearly midnight daily.
Since January of this year, USO Hawaii’s deployment support program has served more than 15,000 soldiers, according to executive director Cassandra “Cassie” Isidro. By the end of the year, that number will be 20,000.
“We’re in a revitalization phase,” Isidro says and notes the transition from a peacetime mode to a period of active deployments. For this reason, terminal facilities are being renovated, and community outreach programs are being accelerated.
As a link between the community and the military, it serves an important role in facilitating communications, understanding, and positive relations. USO is a channel through which citizens can support military personnel.
“We need them. They need us,” Isidro says. But she emphasizes, “This is not a political move. We are not here for political reasons.”
As part of its community outreach, USO Hawaii annually stages a Salute to Our Troops, military appreciation day at Honolulu Zoo, and a 5K run.
USO was conceived in 1941 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The president challenged six organizations - YMCA, YWCA, National Catholic Community Service, National Jewish Welfare Board, Traveler’s Aid Association and Salvation Army - to handle on-leave morale needs for members of the armed forces.
USO today serves more than 5 million members and their families each year.
USO entertainment tours are well-known, due to the more than 50-year involvement of comedian Bob Hope. Hope chose Pearl Harbor as the place to perform his first USO show in 1944.
Hope and his sidekick, Jerry Colona, kept the crowd laughing with jokes about Hawaii, the war, defense workers and servicemen.
“You know the weather here has a lot of light sprinkles now and then,” Hope told the audience. “Light sprinkles - that’s Hawaiian for ‘Man the boats boys, the island disappeared again.’ “
Hope, who died in 2003 at age 100, returned to Hawaii for several more USO shows and other visits. The actor-comedian’s last visit was in 1995 for the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II.
Last year, the USO sent 45 tours to 28 countries to entertain troops. This contribution by show biz celebrities, today led by singer Wayne Newton, spans generations.
Air Force SMSgt.Terry Karshis, based at Hickam, has a photograph of his dad dancing with actress Raquel Welch in Southeast Asia during the 1960s.
“It means a lot to me to be able to link my present USO involvement with my father’s USO experience from the past,” Sgt. Karshis says, although “I think he got the better deal!”
He adds, “The USO serves as a constant reminder to deployed members that they are not forgotten. Knowing that their country believes and supports them is priceless. The impact these intangible benefits have on the overall well-being of the troops and even the outcome of a mission cannot be overstated.”
A day in the life of a USO center is varied and sometimes unpredictable, as long-time volunteer George Villa can attest. The 79-year-old retired Air Force man has been a USO Hawaii volunteer for 19 years, racking up 13,000 hours to date.
“My doctor says ‘don’t quit, it’s so good for you,’” Villa says. “It is mentally and physically stimulating. I enjoy helping people.”
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