In October 1996, I retired from active duty having served as a Marine for nearly 28 years, and the last thing I was thinking about doing was going to another war-torn area of the world. I was safely ensconced in Happy Valley. The riskiest thing I had to avoid was being run over by a linebacker while photographing Penn State football.
But in 1998, I received a call from the communications director for the United Service Organization, or as people my age know it, the USO. I had worked for Pat Messer while we were both on active duty, so I wasn’t expecting anything other than a “hi, how are you” type conversation. Then she asked me if I was interested in traveling to Bosnia, which at that time was at war in the former Yugoslavia. My initial response was, no, but thanks for asking. And then she said, “You will be traveling with 15 Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders.”
That changed everything. How bad could it be?
As a young Marine, I took advantage of the USO facilities. When I traveled in airports, I visited USO centers there if I had time between flights. The USO really is a home away from home for military personnel and their families.
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The USO, a private, nonprofit and nonpartisan organization, was established in 1941, and now has more than 30,000 volunteers and fewer than 700 paid staff worldwide and in the United States running its centers. The USO has distributed more than 3.2 million prepaid international calling cards to deployed service members. That’s a far cry from my overseas days in 1970, when we used MARS, a shortwave radio chain operated by volunteer civilians stateside so service members could call home, cheaply.
I have been to Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan, Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, South Korea and others scores of times with athletes, comedians, singers, actors, MMA champs and, of course, the cheerleaders. I have had the privilege of traveling with the chairman and deputy chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Stephen Colbert, Dane Cook, Craig Morgan, the Charlie Daniels Band, Miss America 2016 and too many others to mention.
We have flown in every conceivable fixed wing and helicopter aircraft, sailed aboard ship, ridden in MRAPs and been shot at, rocketed and isolated in incredible sand storms, yet these celebrities give up their time to visit, entertain, shake hands, hug and have their photographs taken with our troops in very austere and dangerous places.
And if you’re thinking celebrity status gets you luxurious accommodations in Iraq and Afghanistan, think again. We slept, showered and ate where the troops do. Their lives became our lives for a few days. It should be required viewing by every American who thinks they have it bad. The trips last about seven days, and they’re brutal. Very little sleep, and we travel when it doesn’t interfere with ongoing military operations. The military does a magnificent job keeping us on schedule so troops from the very large bases to forward operating bases along the Iran border have an opportunity to enjoy a piece, albeit a small piece, of home.
OLLI at Penn State, a membership organization open to adults who love to learn, will offer more than 140 courses this semester. Steve Manuel will lead a course entitled “Serving U.S. Troops Worldwide through the USO.” To receive a free catalog for the spring semester, call OLLI at Penn State at 867-4278 or visit olli.psu.edu.
Steve Manuel is one of five national photographers used by the USO for troop visits worldwide.