Airport USO a refuge for troops

Photo by Hugh Osteen

Photo by Hugh Osteen

Men and women passing through the world's busiest airport wearing the uniforms of the nation's military say they can often find a little of the comfort of home on the third floor of the airport's Atrium.

From its comfy lounge chairs, to its children's play area, to fresh coffee and Internet access, the Atlanta airport's Jean R. Amos United Service Organizations (USO) Center extends open arms to U.S. troops and their family members that may have to stay at the bustling airport for an extended period of time, according to Mary Louise Austin, president of the USO Council of Georgia, Inc.

The USO Center is located near the Atlanta Personnel Assistance Point, where U.S. troops report when they arrive at Hartsfield-Jackson.

"This USO is one of the busiest in the world, because of the number of military personnel coming through," said Austin.

Austin oversees the USO Center at Hartsfield-Jackson, which is operated by the USO Council of Georgia, Inc.

"This [USO Center] also serves as the headquarters for USO Georgia, which serves Robins Air Force Base, Savannah, Ga., and Columbus, Ga.," said Austin.

According to the USO Council of Georgia's most recent fiscal year annual report, the USO Center served 236,000 troops and family members between July 1, 2008, and June 30, 2009.

"We see anywhere from 500 to 900 [troops] a day," said Austin.

The USO at Hartsfield-Jackson offers meals, lounge areas, a TV, a computer room, a children's play area, free Wi-Fi, and other hospitality services.

The center can also help troops with family-related issues and travel problems, Austin said, and it coordinates entertainment events for soldiers.

Austin said phone cards are the USO Center's most frequently requested item.

U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Matthew McAndrew was enjoying a game with his young son near the children's play area at the airport's USO recently.

He said he appreciates the USO and the services it provides for him and his family.

"It gives us a comfortable place to stay, while waiting for my flight," he said.

Staff Sgt. Matthew Beatty was enjoying a cup of coffee while socializing.

He said the USO helps keep morale up. "It's almost the comfort of home," he said.

Maj. Brandi Peasley, the officer in charge of the Atlanta Personnel Assistance Point at Hartsfield-Jackson, said the USO is a valuable resource for soldiers and their families.

"We [the USO Center and Atlanta Personnel Assistance Point] work hand in hand, together," said Peasley. "I just think that the volunteers and workers of the USO are just fantastic, and make it a pleasant working environment for everybody involved."

Peasley said she is appreciative of the USO volunteers that stand by the escalators, as soldiers arrive to the third floor of the Atrium, because they assist in directing the troops to either the Personnel Assistance Point or the USO Center, depending on their situation.

According to Austin, the USO in Atlanta moved from downtown to the airport in 1977, "because of the number of military personnel needing assistance [there]."

She said the airport location serves as a major hub for military personnel, because several military installations are located in the metro-Atlanta area.

"There was always a strong military presence here [in Atlanta]," said Austin.