USO. The name conjures up images of men on their way to World War II dancing with pretty girls under a big USO banner. We’ve seen that scene dozens of times in movies and documentaries. The USO—United Service Organization—was established by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt shortly before America entered the Second World War, to coordinate the activities of organizations that provided services to military personnel. Those old black-and-white movie images, or clips of Bob Hope performing at USO shows in Vietnam, give a nostalgic feel, but the USO is not a relic of the past. Now in its 70th year, the organization is still doing what it was chartered to do: provide for the morale, spiritual and recreational needs of service personnel and their families.
Elaine Rogers (wearing white in the center of the photo above) has been with the organization for 35 years, half of its existence. She is the president and chief executive officer (CEO) of the USO of Metropolitan Washington. Covering all of Maryland, Washington, D.C., and Northern Virginia, it is the largest chapter in the world. Recently, she spoke with HistoryNet about the USO’s changing roles in a rapidly changing world.
HistoryNet: How did you get involved?
Elaine Rogers: Oh, it was such a long time ago. I was in college when Vietnam fell and they brought so many refugees to the United States. I was volunteering at one of the refugee camps, and someone from the USO met me and said, "We’re hiring. Would you come down and interview?" I did; they hired me on the spot, and I became the president of the Washington USO at the age of 24. They were willing to take a chance on a young girl, and it’s worked out well for both of us. I was so proud of my father and all the others who served, and this was a way to give back. I was thrilled, but it meant I would have to move to the big city. (She is a native of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.)
HN: So it was on-the-job training?
ER: It really was learning as I went along, but the one thing I did know was that I didn’t know anything. I turned to the senior military personnel, got them together from the major bases and asked them to tell me what their needs were at that time. They helped guide and direct me on how to take the USO into a totally different direction.
We’d just transitioned from a draft to an all-volunteer force. That changed what the USO would do. We had young people with families in the military now. Our organization was doing Saturday night dances, focusing on events for single men. Providing support for single military personnel is still a priority for us, but we realized we needed to do programs for these young families, especially in high-cost-of-living areas like Washington and Baltimore. So, including programs for family members became a priority for our USO, and has remained a priority for us, especially now as we are working with wounded warriors and their families.
I think about all the changes and realize you can’t be an organization that stands back, you have to be proactive.
HN: What are some of your fondest memories of your 35 years with the organization?
ER: Having worked with many of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for the last 35 years, and being around so many service members, I am in awe of our military and all they do. Everyone is a fond memory to me. But having the opportunity to work with Bob Hope is one of my fondest memories. I grew up watching his movies and USO shows. He was one of the first entertainers who signed up to do shows for the service members during World War II.
I got to know John Wayne’s family quite well while working on some USO programs we were doing here in Washington, though not John himself. As a kid growing up, you look at people you’ve seen (in popular media), then you get to meet their families and see how patriotic they are—that whole Wayne family is very, very patriotic.
Connie Stevens started doing USO shows when she was 15, and her first show was in Korea. Her father had to chaperone her on her first USO tour. And to this day, after 50 years of working with the USO, she’s still very involved. She visits our wounded warriors and brings her friends to stuff care packages at our USO stuffing parties for our troops.
And now today, we get the Gary Sinises and Tom Hanks of the world, and all the wonderful people who are giving back.
HN: We often hear that, today, people in Hollywood don’t get involved with the military or the troops the way actors and actresses did during World War II.
ER: There are many who get involved, and I can tell you that when a Tom Hanks or Angelina Jolie comes to visit wounded warriors in Washington, they get even more out of the visits than those they are visiting. It gives them a chance to give back. And many entertainers are performing for USOs around the world.
To me, the USO is so much about volunteerism. Most of our locations around the world are manned by volunteers. Without them, there would be no USO. We don’t have the staff or the resources; it’s only because of people across the world who care about our military and want to give back that we are able to do what we do. From its beginnings in the Forties up to the present day, that’s what the USO is all about—giving back.
One of our volunteers is now in his nineties, and he’s been volunteering with us since World War II. He was in the war. He and his wife met at the USO, and now he volunteers at our USO Lounge at BWI airport (Baltimore Washington International Airport) where all our chartered military flights depart from.
HN: If someone who reads this wants to volunteer, what should that person do?
ER: Go to our Website. Or look for your local USO and see what their needs are.
HN: What are some of duties you currently handle in your position?
ER: I spend a lot of time raising funds to keep the organization going, and making sure people are aware the USO is still here and doing the tremendous work we do.
The USO is currently embarking on the largest projects since its inception: Operation Enduring Care, to care for wounded warriors and families. We’re building two 25,000-square foot facilities in the D.C. area, at Fort Belvoir and at the new Walter Reed National Military Medical Center (where Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the National Naval Medical Center are combining). Most of the wounded are presently brought back to one of those two national medical centers.
The USO Wounded Warrior and Family Centers will be that home away from home for wounded warriors and their families. We’ve been preparing for this for—well, really, since the wars started and wounded warriors started coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq.
HN: This is the 70th anniversary of the organization’s founding. Are any special activities planned?
ER: The USO of Metropolitan Washington’s birthday was February 4. We had birthday parties at all our centers in the area. Each center will observe the anniversary in its own way.
HN: How does it feel to know you’ve been with the USO for half of its existence?
ER: I hadn’t thought about it until Admiral Mullen (Admiral Mike Mullen, 17th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) said that. I’m so honored I’ve been able to spend such a career serving our service members and their families, and I mean that from the bottom of my heart.
It’s like I’m holding a little piece of history. If someone had told me 35 years ago that I’d do some of the things I’ve done with this organization, I never, ever would have believed them.
HN: The USO was authorized under President Franklin Roosevelt even before America entered World War II, to coordinate the efforts of diverse service organizations, correct?
ER: He brought six founding organizations together to support the military and their families. USO has this incredible 70-year history. We don’t serve just wounded warriors and their families, we serve all military personnel.
HN: The USO’s activities have changed as the nature of America’s military commitments and our available technology have both evolved. What are some things the USO is doing today that have expanded or gone beyond its traditional services?
ER: The USO has changed its programs and services to keep in step with the changes that have taken place with our military, and the changes in technology. Before, if a soldier was wounded, a telegram was sent or someone came to the family’s door to inform them. Today, with cell phones and improved communications, the wounded warrior may be the one calling home, and the family may just get on a plane and come here to Washington. The USO meets them at the airport and takes them to the hospital. When families come in to bury loved ones at Arlington National Cemetery, our volunteers are there to meet them at the plane.
The Internet has changed all of our lives. Service members can come into our centers to use computers. We’ve connected so many families thru Skype, Xbox games, etc.
We also work with a program called United Through Reading. As a service member is leaving one of our USO centers to go overseas, that person can choose a book and be videotaped reading it to his or her children. We send the DVD to the family, along with a note from their loved one and the actual book, so a father or mother can read to the children even while in the war zone. We’ve had situations where loved ones did not return, and this was the last contact for them with their families.
We also have a beautiful USO lounge at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall for the honor guard who perform ceremonies at veterans’ burial services. At the lounge, we provide television, phone and Internet service, Skype, and so on for the honor guard members between ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery.
ER: The USO2GO kit, which is often called USO in a Box, provides comforts to base camps in the field in Afghanistan and Iraq. It contains everything from toothpaste to books to DVDs to electronics like consoles for gaming. All these things come in a box, and it’s pretty terrific.
HN: Playing console games in the desert? That’s pretty amazing.
ER: There is a lot of gaming at our centers, too. It’s huge. We have things like Xboxes that service members can use to connect and visit with troops in other places and play games with them.
In these new centers we’re building, we’re going to have a golf simulator that can simulate any golf course in world. If there’s a simulator at another base, we can actually do golf tournaments, with players in the U.S., Germany, Iraq. It’s amazing, and the troops will love it.
You know, the USO really is the only organization chartered by Congress solely to meet the morale, spiritual and recreational needs of our service personnel.
HN: Thank you for taking time to talk with us. Is there anything you’d like to add in closing?
ER: After September 11, we expanded our USO services. For example, after the Pentagon was hit, we expanded our emergency housing program and housed all the family members coming into Washington both looking for loved ones and arriving for memorial services. When the Department of Defense prohibited mailings addressed to "any service member" as a security measure, we developed the Operation USO Care Package program. It is the only such program sanctioned by Department of Defense, because we only use products received straight from manufacturer. We’ve sent out more than 2 million packages to Afghanistan and Iraq—and all of it was handled by volunteers.