USO celebrates 63rd anniversary

By Billy Corriher

The organization that gives so much to America's soldiers was honored for all its hard work on Wednesday. Dozens of troops were on hand to thank the Georgia chapter of the United Service Organizations as the national USO celebrated its 63rd year of helping deployed American troops at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

Mike Watson, chairman of the Georgia chapter's board of directors, has been involved with the USO for six years. A veteran himself, Watson said his leadership is a way for him to give back to the USO.

"When I was a young Navy officer farther away from home than I had ever been, in Naples, Italy, the first place I went was the USO," he said. The volunteers there told him places to go, helped him stay in touch with stateside relatives, and tried to make him as comfortable as possible.

"I felt like I was home, even with people I didn't know," Watson said.

In 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt requested a private organization, the USO, to handle the on-leave recreation for the armed forces. The Georgia chapter is one of the most active locations, with nearly 140,000 military personnel and families served in 2003.

The chapter was presented with a plaque from soldiers at Fort McPherson thanking the non-profit organization for its service.

One soldier stationed at Fort McPherson, Sgt. Glen Morales, said the USO helped him through tough times while he was recently stationed in Afghanistan for seven months.

"Once you get there, you get that homesick feeling," he said. But the USO kept the soldiers entertained and provided them with phone cards so they could call home.

Morales, who is originally from New York, said soldiers in his unit also received cards from children that the USO would send over. Sometimes the soldiers would write back and gain a pen pal, he said.

"Sometimes you wouldn't get a letter from your family for a few weeks?but you'd get a card from an elementary school kid telling you you're their hero," Morales said. "It's a good feeling."

USO volunteer Peggy Osse of Fayetteville said it was gratifying to have the soldiers there to celebrate the anniversary.

"The best part of volunteering is the gratitude from the soldiers," she said.

Osse said she's been volunteering with the USO for 10 years, working whenever the organization needs her.

Mike Starnes, from the Stockbridge chapter of the American Legion, said his organization, which works with the USO, started a program called the Family Support Network to help troops' families while they're overseas.

Through the network, the American Legion has arranged for babysitters, cut families' grass, and helped families with car maintenance.

Starnes said families can get help by calling 1-800-504-4098.

Starnes said the network can be particularly helpful for families of mobilized National Guard and Army Reserve soldiers.

"Those families aren't nearly as prepared for the deployment as the active duty families," he said.

Mary Lou Austin, president of USO's Georgia chapter, said the crowd at the USO anniversary is indicative of how much the community cares for American troops despite their political affiliations.

"It's all about the soldiers," she said. "In times of peace and in times of war, we're there for our troops."