Inaugural event will fund services for soldiers
Widely known for its hospitality lounge at Indianapolis International Airport, the USO of Indiana will host its inaugural Five Star Gala May 9 at the Marriott East to raise funds for the services it offers to military members, particularly those who are traveling and relish warm environments at airports.
The gala, rightfully billed as a five-star event because the USO of Indiana earned the highest possible rating for its work from USO Inc., will feature a cocktail reception, an exquisite dinner, auctions, a special guest and the USO Show Group. The ensemble is part of an entertainment tradition that goes back more than 70 years to its beginnings in muddy camp shows in the South Pacific. In addition, outstanding service members and the agency’s corporate partners will be honored.
Ashley Campbell, a volunteer on the organizing committee, said things are starting to come together, but it’s been a little stressful. “I’m working on the logistical side of it. We’re hoping for 250 guests.” Tickets ($175) and sponsorship packages are available by calling 771-2788.
Founded in 1941 in response to a request from President Franklin D. Roosevelt to provide morale and recreational activities to military personnel, the USO was disbanded after World War II due partly to a lack of funds. However, in 1950, when the United States entered the Korean War, the organization was reactivated to provide support for the armed forces.
The first national fundraising campaign was chaired by Thomas Dewey, who helped raise $16 million in the first year, according to the USO’s website. The second chairman was Prescott Bush, a forthcoming senator and father to a future president and the grandfather to another.
The USO, which is not affiliated with the U.S. government but serves as a bridge between the public and the military, has attracted such performers as Bob Hope (who devoted 48 Christmases overseas with troops), Jane Russell, Paul Douglas, Marilyn Monroe, Mickey Rooney, John Wayne, Jay Leno, Ann-Margaret, Steve Martin, Wayne Newton, Debbie Reynolds, The Pointer Sisters and many others.
In 1991, 20th Century Fox produced the film “For the Boys,” which told the story of two USO performers and starred Bette Midler and James Caan. It covered a 50-year time span, from the USO’s inception through Operation Desert Storm in 1991.
The USO has more than 160 locations around the world in 14 countries and 27 states. In 2009, its centers served 7.7 million visitors.
The Indiana ISO’s nearly 500 volunteers – more are always needed – served more than 176,000 military members and their families in 2012 and 98,000 last year. Operating solely on donations, the agency reports that 93 cents of every dollar it receives will fund the free services that it provides.
Besides operating the airport lounge (open from 7 a.m.-11 p.m. daily) which features free Internet access, television sets – several equipped with video games – complimentary snacks and beverages, reading materials and comfortable chairs for sleeping, the Indiana USO also mans facilities at Camp Atterbury and Muscatatuck training centers and the Fort Wayne Air National Guard while coordinating hundreds of other troop-centered activities throughout the state.
Sgt. Matthew Sparks is among those who have high praise for the USO. “The USO has been a wonderful place for me to visit when I have been on a deployment or have had long layover at an airport. The staff is always friendly and cares about the comfort of the soldiers and their families. I have never had a bad experience in any USO.
“When I was in the Air Force and deployed, I remember playing cards with fellow airmen. We all were waiting to catch our flight home on the ‘freedom bird,’ and the USO was right there making sure we were having an enjoyable time. We watched television, played cards, and there was always plenty to eat. I shared many of laughs in the USO in Kuwait. It was always such a nice place to visit when missing home,” he said.
“I also came through the USO while in the Army and nothing had changed. The USO has a great way of making you feel as if you were sitting at the local hang out with your friends. It does a great job at keeping the morale of the soldiers positive, and for that I am so grateful. I would like to give a huge thank you to all the staff and volunteers of the USO. Their support and hard work is unbelievable.”
One of those volunteers is Merrill “Doc” Simmerman, a retired military reservist who greets soldiers and guests as they enter the facility at Camp Atterbury. He checks their identifications to verify that they are eligible to enter.
Simmerman also ensures that coffee, soft drinks and snacks are plentiful. And when special treats have been donated to the center, he sets them out. In addition to the refreshments, soldiers can play pool or pingpong or watch a movie. “We also have a library, and soldiers can take a book with them. They don’t have to check them out,” he said.
Soldiers can also record themselves reading books to their children and have the recordings sent to them. “It’s really a neat program,” said the Perry Township resident who would volunteer more often if he wasn’t so busy and if Atterbury was closer. “I’m a good standby guy. I’ll be there if they really need me. I enjoy talking to the soldiers and sharing my experiences.”
Simmerman and other volunteers said their work is rewarding and a fun way to show their support for the men and women in the armed forces. Their mission is to lift the spirits of the servicemen and women (and their families) who are serving, training for deployments and demobilizing in Indiana.