USO Las Vegas helps traveling troops feel at home

It’s a typical midmorning at the USO Las Vegas inside McCarran International Airport.

A cross section of military servicemen and women already are ensconced inside, after a volunteer has welcomed them. At one table, two servicemen are chatting about their Army experiences. At another, a soldier plays video games. Nearby, a recruiter chats with a group of young enlistees who soon will be on their way to boot camp.

Other servicemen are busy calling loved ones on USO mobile phones or sending them messages via one of the many available computers. Some also venture into the snack bar in search of a sandwich or into the television room to watch a show or simply sack out in a comfortable lounge chair.

It’s a familiar scene, one that plays out 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year at the 19-month-old USO Las Vegas, and it also carries on the nonprofit, nonpolitical USO’s 71-year mission to lift the spirits of America’s troops and their families.

It’s a mission that hits home with USO Las Vegas Director Doug Bradford, who comes from a military family. Bradford, his father, two brothers and father-in-law all served in the Navy, while his oldest son is a Navy Seal who is soon to be deployed to Afghanistan. Bradford’s two oldest brothers are Army veterans.

"I think Americans recognize the sacrifices the troops and their families make on a daily basis," Bradford said. The USO exists solely to help the troops and their families.

"I’m too old to serve, but this is the next best thing for me. It’s one of the best jobs I’ve ever had," said Bradford, a longtime Las Vegas resident whose career path also has included director of communications for the city of Las Vegas and Clark County, as well as public information officer for the Regional Transportation Commission.

Those who come to the USO appreciate the services and the camaraderie they find when they get there.

"I like coming here because you don’t feel like a fish out of water," said Army Sgt. 1st Class Pernell Mabry, 47, who has been deployed to Iraq three times.

"Sometimes, if you have on your uniform, you’re always looking over your shoulder. You just worry you’re going to come across somebody that’s not really fond of the military," he added, even while noting most people are extremely nice and thank him for his service. "When you can come in here and just relax, to me it’s like a security checkpoint. I feel safe in here."

The USO has two paid staff members – Bradford and programs manager Marianne Wojciechowicz – and an army of 170 volunteers who each work a minimum of four four-hour shifts a month.

"The folks that we have here are incredible. Most are from the military, have a military background or have a family member in the service," Bradford said.

His passion for the USO Las Vegas comes through as he talks energetically about the programs now in place and the plans he has for the future.

"This is part of our water rescue program," he said, gesturing toward open boxes of bottled water and soda. With airport liquid limitations for travelers, many unopened drinks that may have been discarded are now donated to the USO’s A Drink for the Troops program.

Through its Sundries for Soldiers program, the USO also collects unused shampoos and other toiletries that don’t pass muster at the airport’s security checkpoint. The products are sanitized and then used for troops visiting the USO center and for activities at local military bases.

The USO is able to offer a varied menu of light snacks – from salads and sandwiches to cinnamon rolls, yogurt parfaits and hot pretzels – because of the generosity of McCarran’s food vendors.

"We have a great relationship with HMS Host over here. They provide us with food that was made that day, set to expire in a couple days, but they give that to us every day," Bradford said. "A lot of folks in the airport are very receptive to the USO being here."

One of the USO’s most heartfelt activities is to welcome home returning troops. "I think it surprises a lot of people when our homecoming committee is down at the gates with big signs saying ‘Welcome Home’ and cheering for the troops as they’re coming through," Bradford said. "The troops are very humble as they come through and are also very surprised and thankful."

The USO also is sponsoring a "Sesame Street" program at Nellis Air Force Base at the end of August. "Sesame Street" created a character specifically for the USO named Katie, whose father is deployed for military duty.

"Part of the story is how does she feel about her dad going and who does she turn to? It’s designed for the younger kids. And so she copes through various mechanisms and obviously is happy when her dad comes home," Bradford explained.

As part of another program called United Through Reading, the USO videotapes a soldier reading a children’s book aloud and gives the DVD and a copy of the book to the family. The USO also sponsors the program at Nellis and Creech Air Force bases.

Among other USO programs are an annual Breakfast with Santa event for military families, a phone home program and a holiday basket programs.

"As we get into the community and work with other military organizations we can probably do much more," Bradford said.

The USO also is looking to hold its first gala event in September, Bradford said. "It was interesting that on the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11, there were parades and there were events and activities. But it just seemed like that day just went by as just another day in history.

"We’re going to have our first gala around that time period simply because we need people to remember that’s a day when over 3,000 people were killed, and it put us into two conflicts where we’ve lost 4,000-plus military soldiers."

The gala will raise money to support the USO Las Vegas, which has a budget of $237,000, to continue its operating expenses and pay for outreach programs.

"Above and beyond that we also will send back to our national headquarters because you can’t raise money in Afghanistan, yet we have 10 USOs in Afghanistan supporting 100,000 troops," he said.

Bradford noted those troops are in a war zone. "So if there’s an opportunity to go over to a USO and get a little home-away-from-home experience, make a phone call, have a nice snack, get on the computer and Skype with their friends, that’s what we have to provide for them to give them that feeling that they’re not alone out in the world, that we’re here for them," he said.

One of the USO’s biggest supporters is Wayne Newton, who was instrumental in bringing the USO to Las Vegas and has suggested that the USO have celebrity workdays, Bradford said.

"We’re going to take it a step further," he said, and have a week of celebrities working at the USO.

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