In the Southeast U.S., USO Gives a Warm Welcome to Soldiers in Training Headed Home for the Holidays
A U.S. Army soldier in training who recently departed basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C. is served a snack by a USO volunteer at the USO center in the Charlotte Douglas International Airport. | Photo credit USO North Carolina
U.S. Army soldiers in training who recently departed basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C. receive snacks from a USO volunteer at the USO center in the Charlotte Douglas International Airport. | Photo credit USO North Carolina.
A U.S. Army soldier in training who recently departed basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C. is served a hot cup of coffee by a USO volunteer at the USO center in the Charlotte Douglas International Airport. | Photo credit USO North Carolina
More than 9,000 soldiers departed basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C. as part of Victory Block Leave – the time-honored holiday tradition that authorizes soldiers in basic training during the month of December to travel home to reconnect with family and loved ones over the holidays.
Although Victory Block Leave looked a little different for Fort Jackson soldiers this year due to COVID-19, this did not stop the USO from welcoming and sending these soldiers home with the warmth and joy that can always be found at any USO.
A Soldier’s First Stop on the Trip Home – the USO
USO South Carolina Senior Operations and Programs Manager Katie Kennedy explained that for more than a decade now, USO staff and volunteers have worked with Fort Jackson leadership to provide support to all soldiers and trainees traveling home for the holidays.
“By providing snacks to get soldiers through a long day or days of travel home; a friendly smile and directions to the Columbia Metropolitan Airport [USO] center; a cup of coffee to a weary traveler or a bottle of water to a mom who has driven hours to pick up her soldier for the holidays; the USO is always there to brighten the holidays for these young soldiers and their families,” Kennedy said
Soldiers began their journey on Dec. 17 in a staggered manner departing from Fort Jackson, the largest and most active Army Initial Entry Training Center in the U.S., located just outside of Columbia, S.C. The soldiers will make the reverse commute and return to training on Jan. 19, 2021.
Each year, the USO supports all 9,000 soldiers who depart Fort Jackson, whether they travel by plane, train, automobile or bus to make it home in time for the holidays. To support these young service members traveling home, USO staff and volunteers spend up to 15 hours a day the entire week these young soldiers are transitioning home, ensuring they experience a safe and pleasant voyage.
“We may be tired, but our hearts are full. It’s our most favorite time of year, and the stories we hear and the smiles we’re privileged to bring to the faces of these young service members make these longs hours all worth it,” Kennedy added.
Soldiers from Fort Jackson typically travel through Columbia Metropolitan Airport or are bussed to Charlotte Douglas International Airport.
Charlotte Douglas International Airport and the USO Charlotte Center serviced over 4,700 soldiers and trainees throughout the past week. USO staff and volunteers greeted these traveling soldiers with gift packs, coffee, snacks and more, providing a warm and safe area to relax, before sending them home to spend the holidays with their families.
USO North Carolina, Piedmont Area Operations and Programs Manager Julie Milani explained how her center prepared for the soldiers arrival.
“Celebrating Fort Jackson trainees [soldiers] going home over six days takes a lot of planning and coordination. The soldiers were so appreciative of the goodness we had waiting for them,“ Milani said.
“Today is making me feel like the happiest person in the world; like a kid on Christmas!” a young solider headed home for the holidays said.
In Virginia, Traveling Service Members Can Lean on USO, Too
At three USO airport locations in Virginia, USO staff have also to invent unique ways to serve our military traveling home while adhering to COVID-19 social distancing guidelines.
This included using old airplane carts to distribute snacks and goodies; utilizing more space in the airport to ensure proper social distancing; requiring volunteers and service members to wear protective masks unless eating or drinking; and limiting the amount of service members that can enter the USO centers at a time.
Because of these guidelines, USO Hampton Roads and Central Virginia airport centers safely served more than 6,300 military members coming home for the first time in months. The military service members are grateful for the opportunity to relax and unwind before flying home just in time for the holidays.
“It’s overwhelming but it’s cool,” Spc. Schmidt said. “It’s a nice break from the rigors of training.”
- Eric Venezuela and Sarah Kemp contributed to this report
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