Thursday, December 24, 2009

USO Offers Respite From Traveling Frenzy

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

Dec. 24, 2009 - As the rest of Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport bustled with holiday travelers yesterday, its USO Lounge offered military travelers -- many returning home from overseas deployments -- a welcome sanctuary of solace. The lounge is conveniently positioned near the international departure gates on the airport's lower level. Yet, to the dozens of servicemembers who took refuge here yesterday afternoon, it felt a world away from the frenzied holiday travelers, beeping airport carts and blaring overhead speaker announcements.

Marine Corps Gunnery Sgts. Nao Lewis and Rachel Gause, both transiting home from Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan, were relieved to arrive at the festively decorated lounge shortly after their Air Mobility Command charter flight landed at 1 a.m.

They'd already been traveling for days; their flight from Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan was delayed after a record-breaking snowfall brought East Coast airports to a standstill. Now, all that stood between them and their families at Camp Lejeune, N.C., was a 15-hour layover before a short connecting flight.

Lewis couldn't think of any place better to wile away than hours than at the USO.

"This is a nice, quite place, where they let you take a load off your feet," he said, looking up from his laptop computer as he took advantage of the USO's free Wi-Fi service. "It's quiet here. It's a place you can feel comfortable and know your stuff is safe."

Three paid staffers, reinforced by an army of 230 volunteers, keep the lounge bustling from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., and through the night whenever an Air Mobility Command flight arrives in the late or early-morning hours.

When a severe snowstorm hit during the past weekend, the lounge went into 24/7 operations, using every bit of floor space to accommodate stranded military travelers. The airport management offered up additional space, and volunteers poured into the facility to pitch in any way they could.

Airman Ronald Carr, who just finished Air Force basic training, grew up in a military family that taught him to appreciate the USO.

"It's good to know that this is basically an all-volunteer operation, with a volunteer staff and donations that keep it running," he said. "It makes me feel good about my service, knowing that people care about what I do."

Army Pfc. Taylor Walther, a California National Guardsman returning home for a holiday break from training at Fort Eustis, Va., said he's already had the chance to check out several USO facilities, and never walks away disappointed.

"They're all good. When you go there, they're all friendly, they all tell you to help yourself and make yourself at home," he said.

"Home" is exactly how Mississippi Army National Guardsman Jamie Peters, returning home via BWI airport from a deployment in Afghanistan, said he feels when he steps foot into a USO facility.

"They treat you just like family when you come in," he said. "They give you a place to watch TV, use the wireless or just relax. They're really a blessing to us."

"When you go into a USO, you get a welcoming sense," said Army Spc. Gerald Reed, an Army reservist from Upper Marlboro, Md., traveling with his 2-year-old daughter, Chris, to spend the holidays in Raleigh-Durham, N.C.

"It's a friendly environment, staffed by overall, good people."

Among them is Geraldine Verrier, who started volunteering at the Baltimore USO when her Army Reserve husband deployed to Yemen shortly after 9/11. Eight years later, she still spends one morning each week at the lounge, greeting military travelers and showing them amenities that include a baggage storage room, reclining lounge chairs, an X-box video game system and a children's room.

"We're here to provide them some peace and tranquility, and to make sure they know someone cares about them and wants to help make them comfortable," Verrier said. "It can be a small thing – even just making a cup of coffee for them. But you never really know how much that cup of coffee might mean to them."

Twyla Hirrilinger has spent a lifetime of volunteer service, but said she'd be pressed to find a more fulfilling way to give of her time, or to a more appreciative group to serve.

"When [the troops] come in here, they thank me just for being there. It gives you chills," she said. "I just love doing this. Being here makes me feel happy."

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