Publication Date: 2/11/2013
Author: Joseph Andrew Lee

“When I was growing up, all the kids in my neighborhood would meet at one house,” said Scott Wilhite, center director at USO Bagram, Afghanistan.

“Sometimes it was my house, sometimes one of my friends’ houses or my neighbor’s, but no matter whose house it was, we all had that feeling that we were home. You just came on in, sat down on the couch and had a ball.”

Creating that feeling of being home for troops is Wilhite’s top priority at the two USO centers he runs at Bagram Airfield.

Bagram Airfield primarily serves as a hub for flights in and out of Afghanistan. Despite being nestled in a northeastern valley of the Hindu Kush Mountains, more than 40,000 military personnel call Bagram home.

Troops pack the Pat Tillman Memorial USO Center near the base’s passenger terminal for the same reasons they drop into an airport USO in the states: it’s a comfortable place to hang out while waiting for their flight.

But at Bagram East, there’s a different feeling altogether.

“When troops get to the [Camp] Warrior side of post, that’s really when the reality sets in that they’re headed into combat,” Wilhite said. “They all come through here first to get trained up in the altitude before being forward deployed.”

It’s that last stop before the rounds start coming downrange, but it’s also the first stop on the way home once the mission is complete.

“Out here at Camp Warrior, troops are in one of two mindsets,” Wilhite said. “They are either headed to war and they realize they want to send one more letter home or call their wife one more time or the mission is complete and they are bouncing off the walls and can’t wait to call their family to tell them they are safe.”

Either way, they want to call home.

“A year ago there was nothing here,” Wilhite said. “No solution for calling home or getting some reprieve or getting in touch with loved ones at this stage. No MWR (Morale, Well-Being, Recreation), connectivity, no entertainment of any kind. Just a squad bay, a small gym and a [dining facility].”

A relatively new center, USO Bagram East was erected one year ago to address this need. In the 8,500-square-foot center, troops can find a place to rest their head, get a bite to eat, watch a movie or connect with a loved one via the phone, email and – on some occasions – Skype.

On Feb. 5, USO Bagram East celebrated its one-year anniversary. In its first year, Bagram East recorded 435,627 troop visits – a single-year foot-traffic record for a downrange USO center during the current wars.

“We were really crazy-busy throughout the whole year,” Wilhite said. “Troops were just so happy when they saw that USO logo. They literally came running. Their faces light up because they know when they see that logo it means a little warm slice of home and a friendly smile is waiting inside.”

For Wilhite, the greatest part of the past year has been realizing the effect the USO has on the troops and volunteers who pass through.

“At first I was confused, trying to recall where I’d met this [one particular] man,” Wilhite said. “He was a mountain – six-foot-five, 250 [pounds], all muscle. I was pretty sure I’d recall. But then he mentioned USO Korea and I realized he wasn’t thanking me at all – he was thanking the USO, and anybody who wears those colors or that patch.

“That just shows me what we’ve done as an organization and what I’m doing here every day. They see the USO and they know it’s home. Even more so here, because these soldiers are coming off the battlefield. They get back here to USO Bagram East and the feeling they get is like, ‘I’m safe – I’m home.’”

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Photo caption: Two troops celebrate the USO's birthday earlier this month at USO Bagram East. (Photo credit: USO Bagram East)

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