As more than 25,000 National Guard troops have been called in to help law enforcement with security surrounding the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden, a familiar face has joined them: the USO.
In three different locations near the U.S. Capitol, USO workers are on the ground with their mobile units providing a variety of grab-and-go snacks, coffee, drinks, and hygiene items for the troops when they have a break. As of Friday afternoon, they had provided items to around 12,000 troops, but that increased Friday night when they saw such a surge that the team was on the ground until 2 a.m., Sweeney said.
While the military is providing lodging for the troops deployed to the Capitol, the not-for-profit USO is providing some extra comforts — and they are much appreciated by the troops.
“Everyone is stopping by the table and thanking the staff. They have expressed that they are grateful that every time they deploy we are alongside them,” said Angela Hodge, USO mobile operations and programs manager, in an email provided to Military Times.
“It is such a warm welcome when we see the USO pull up. You always bring something good and lift our spirits,” a service member told John Brunson, USO mobile maintenance coordinator, according to the email. Another service member, a lieutenant colonel, told him, “how much it meant to him and his troops that we were on site. He said us being there really make a positive difference on morale.”
Three different mobile units — two from USO headquarters, and one from USO of Metropolitan Washington-Baltimore — began arriving to the sites on Jan. 9, said Courtney Sweeney, USO’s director for the mobile centers. Among the team members on the ground are a Navy spouse, and two retired Army command sergeants major, she said.
“We’re lucky to have a great relationship with the National Guard… It’s really allowed us to get in very early to make sure we are where we need to be for our service members,” Sweeney said. The USO is working closely with the National Guard Bureau to ensure that they’re providing items the troops want. Everything is grab ‘n go, COVID-friendly snacks, leaning heavily on prepackaged multipacks of various items.
The coffee, energy drinks and electrolytes have been flying off the tables in particular, Sweeney said.
They’re looking at providing some more robust grab-and-go items such as breakfast options, and sandwiches.
The hygiene items include small deodorants, razors, toothbrush and toothpaste. Snack packs include items like applesauce, granola bars and other packaged items they get put in their pockets, Sweeney said. The items provided to the troops are a mix of products donated by USO’s corporate partners, as well as USO purchases at bulk supply stores to fill in the gaps.
Unlike other mobile USO operations for troops in areas hit by disasters such as hurricanes, there isn’t a great need for bottled water, as they’re being well supplied. “It’s more of those ‘nice-to-haves’ that they’re really appreciating,” Sweeney said.
USO has been working with their corporate partners to get a variety of items, and they’ve prepositioned stock in different locations in preparation for anticipated difficulty because of restricted movement in Washington. USO officials said there has been “an outpouring of interest from our current partners and we are thankful for their generosity and thoughtfulness.”
In the first days of the deployment, the general public saw pictures in the media of Guard troops sleeping on the floor of the Capitol, and being handed pizzas by members of Congress. People were concerned about the living arrangements, and at first were flooding Guard offices with offers of support.
“While we appreciate the many offers and people who care about our soldiers and airmen, we are not logistically able to accept donations of any kind,” National Guard Bureau officials said in a press release Jan. 13.
They also made the sleeping arrangements clear. “In addition, please know our National Guardsmen have appropriate lodging for when they are off-duty; the photos circulating are of them on-duty, in a designated rest area between shifts,” officials stated. “Being present is the first step in ensuring the safety of our citizens and our nation’s Capitol. Our security personnel work in shifts and rest when they can as others stand watch.”
Troops are provided lodging in nearby hotels for their off-duty hours.
But Politico has reported that in response to lawmakers’ concerns about troops sleeping on the marble floors of the Capitol during their rest breaks, the military will be supplying cots for those areas.
Sweeney said her mobile unit team considers themselves the lucky ones. “We’re the tip of the spear for the USO. We’re 100 percent mission delivery to the field,” she said. Her team gets energized, “not because of what’s happening, of course, but because they get to go in and support the service members where we’re needed most…. My team thrives on that.” She said she has had many USO staff members volunteer to help the team, so she already has backups.
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.