Everyone's USO

By David Millman

The answer, of course, is an emphatic yes. Today's USO is as vibrant and active as at any time in its history. But General Mundy knows how important it is to demonstrate and promote the continuing need for the organization in today's world. Awareness is crucial to maintaining, adapting, and expanding the level of service offered by the USO, and the General has put together a dynamic management team to help lead the charge.

"I think it's fair to say that the USO may have drifted off the mark a while back," he notes. "When I took office 18 months ago, I went back and read President Roosevelt's original mission statement, mandating the effort to boost morale among American service personnel around the world. Our directors and centers had turned toward the bottom line, slipping into a business focus rather than a service focus. My duty is to shoulder these obligations, allowing the field staff to return to their fundamental mission."

That mission-accomplished at more than 160 USO centers around the world, through scores of celebrity entertainment shows and the hard work of the more than 3,000 volunteers who make up 75% of the USO's field staff-is helping smooth some of the rougher edges of military life, particularly for newly enlisted personnel.

Part of the General's vision for the USO's future is rooted in its unparalleled history. "I'm a traditionalist," he says. "Today's USO meets essentially the same needs as yesterday's USO, because today's service men and women face many of the same challenges that their predecessors did." This is especially true with feelings such as loneliness, which often affect military personnel stationed far from home and family.

"The USO has dealt with these issues, like loneliness, since it was created," continues General Mundy. "We do the same now. If you're a youngster, no matter how exciting it is to travel or pull into a foreign port, you miss somebody. A girlfriend, wife, husband, mother, or kids. Or just home. The unique thing about the USO is that it is consistently THE place around the world where the atmosphere is American, and one is invited to feel at home. It's not just about recreation, or getting a bite to eat, though that's certainly available. It's about being able to talk to the person who's making your lunch or getting help to make a call home. It's the little moments that often mean the most. At the USO, it's not what we do, but how we do it."

In Step with the Times

Of course, the USO does embrace the changing times, and General Mundy acknowledges how important it is to provide services in a way that resonates with the military's youthful population. Recently, the USAA Insurance Corporation committed to a substantial donation of computer equipment to help turn the USO canteens into "cyber canteens," to give service folks access to the internet and e-mail. Communication, if only to write home, always has been a cornerstone of the USO, and many of the young people entering the military are sophisticated computer users who appreciate the opportunity to use state-of-the-art tools. The first cyber canteens are expected to be up and running by the end of the year.

In addition, the USO is working hard to bring more celebrity entertainment to troops, wherever they may be. In 1996, the USO sent out 38 celebrity entertainment tours, and 1997 is expected to be just as productive. Just five years ago, it averaged only ten tours per year. Part of the secret to the USO's success has been streamlining the tours, making them more efficient, more flexible, and better able to reach troops in remote regions.

Over the past 18 months, Jay Leno, BB King accompanied by the First Lady and Chelsea Clinton, Sheryl Crow, Hootie & the Blowfish, the San Francisco 49er Goldrush Cheerleaders, the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, the Stars of M*A*S*H, various legends of the NFL, and teams of bright young comics all have entertained on behalf of the USO.

Help from Friends

To accomplish these and other goals requires significant resources, and, contrary to popular belief, the USO receives no direct government funding. As chartered by Congress, the organization relies on charitable donations from corporations and private citizens. Currently, USAA, AT&T, and Northwest Airlines all provide significant funding for the USO and support its work. General Mundy also is working on finding a select few additional corporate partners, to help the USO do its job better. "We need the financial help that large corporations offer, but we want more than just money; we want them to feel connected to our mission."

The USO's field staff is largely volunteer, and is made up of a great number of civilians and former military personnel who want to give something back. One of the most gratifying trends has been the number of young men and women on active duty who donate extra hours and days to their local USO, in appreciation of the services available to them.

A Personal History

General Mundy's own involvement with the USO began when he was seven, growing up in Tennessee. During World War II, the local armory became the de facto USO every Saturday night. The young boy would help his mother make huge stacks of sandwiches, and when his father came home from work, they all would go over to the USO to serve food to the service men and women. It was a social activity that was supported enthusiastically by the entire town, and the benefit to morale was obvious. It made a lasting impression.

After enlisting in the Marine Corps, General Mundy was able to enjoy and understand the USO as an insider. One of his most vivid memories is of Christmas 1966, when Bob Hope and Jayne Mansfield came to DaNang, Vietnam. The rain was merciless, but that didn't stop the show, and anybody who wasn't on the lines or on watch was there. Sitting in his poncho with the water dripping off his helmet, watching these famous American entertainers, was "extremely meaningful," he remembers. "You walked away feeling better, reinspired. We'd anticipated the event for weeks ahead.... it lessened our loneliness for days."

In 1990, the General again had the honor of watching an exciting USO Christmas show, this time in the company of his two sons, both of whom are Marine officers. It was during the Gulf War, and, he says, "the effect on them was clear. It meant just as much to them now as my USO experiences had meant to me during my career."

So when the USO came calling in the fall of 1995, asking if he would consider taking the top spot, the decision was easy. As he says, "I have a lifelong appreciation for the USO and am honored to be leading it."

Since 1941, the USO has had 20 CEOs, but General Mundy is only the fourth former military officer. Though past CEOs have excelled, there seems to be an advantage to having a military background. To Mundy, "you walk the walk, talk the talk, hear the beat of the same drum. You can sense what's important to the uniformed personnel in the field. You also have an entree into the military world. The USO is an extension of a commander's ability to deliver troop welfare activities. That's why I always call it `your USO,' so commanding officers think of it as their asset.

"In a human sense, one of the unique aspects of military culture is that it's a youthful population. The most rewarding thing about my service was working with young people. Whatever your grade, you're in a leadership position, a mentoring position. In the USO, I still like to think of us as taking care of these young men and women. Many of our regional directors around the world hold this same view, and believe me, it filters directly down to the people who enjoy USO services."

What's Next

The USO is focusing on heightening its visibility. "The fact is," says General Mundy, "it isn't enough just to do the work. Without public support, financial and otherwise, an organization loses its edge and its ability to provide key services. Five million people made use of our programs last year, but there are a couple hundred million Americans who don't know that. We're going to change that."

Celebrity entertainment tours and the multicountry July 4th Extravaganzas have brought a lot of attention to the USO lately, and there are high hopes for this year's annual fundraising gala, scheduled for 5 December on board the Intrepid, in New York City. Country superstar Wynonna Judd will be the headlining entertainer, along with Alex Trebek of "Jeopardy" fame.

With so much remarkable history, it sometimes seems that the USO's biggest challenge is competing with its own legacy, but that doesn't bother General Mundy. "I don't mind being reminded of the USO's past triumphs, because it sets a very high standard for the future-a standard we will maintain. And if we are able to make the USO even more valuable to the men and women who depend on it for 'a touch of home,' then we will have succeeded gloriously. I am very proud to be part of this organization, and I invite everyone, from civilians to enlisted personnel to officers to major corporations, to share in the pride. After all, it's everyone's USO."

David Millman is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles.

 

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