New USO complex offers temporary `home' at BWI

Center is place to relax for military passengers on way to new bases

January 21, 2000|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

When the USO opened a new "home away from home" facility for military families at Baltimore-Washington International Airport yesterday morning -- to a standing-room-only crowd despite the snow -- it made sense to honor Bette and Carlo DePorto at the same time.

The Gambrills couple had met at a USO dance at Fort Lewis, Wash., in 1942 and married eight years later after a second, chance meeting at a Seattle dry cleaners. They will celebrate 50 years of marriage tomorrow -- living testimony to the power of the United Service Organizations to change lives.

"The USO means a great deal to us," said Bette DePorto, who has volunteered for the USO off and on for nearly 30 years.

The DePortos joined actor James Brolin and Maryland and military dignitaries to unveil the USO's International Gateway Center, a sparkling complex in the airport's international pier that will serve thousands of military families that pass through BWI each year on their way to posts around the world.

BWI handles more military passengers than any other airport. Last year, 146,000 Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps service members and their families, as well as many midshipmen from the Naval Academy, took flights in or out of BWI. That number had grown over the past two years, creating a need for a place where those families -- often burdened with piles of luggage on their way to another three-year tour -- could rest between flights and receive travel assistance.

BWI paid $1.1 million to design and build the center and agreed to lease the 5,000 square feet of space to the USO for $1 a year and to provide cleaning services.

"We see this as a public service," said Betsy Sanpere, BWI's spokeswoman. "This is the citizens of Maryland serving the young men and women who serve us."

The center contains a lounge, with rows of comfy seats in front of a big-screen television; a snack bar; an office services area, with copiers, fax machines, computers and Internet access; stacks of magazines and paperbacks; a room called "Kid's Place" full of toys, books and baby cribs; showers; and a few beds for those in need of sleep. In addition to active-duty military members and their families, reservists and retirees also may use the facilities.

Army Staff Sgt. Michael Mason -- one of the USO's first patrons -- had arrived at BWI on Wednesday night and missed his flight to Germany but was relieved to find the USO center, which helped him find a nearby hotel room for the night. He was back at the center Thursday, eating a bag of chips, sipping a Pepsi and watching "Judge Joe Brown" on the big screen while waiting for his 11: 30 p.m. flight. "It's nice. I can just hang out and relax," Mason said.

Most people know the USO as the sponsoring organization for Bob Hope's many performances for World War II and Vietnam soldiers or Marilyn Monroe's visits to troops headed to the front lines in Korea. The USO still sponsors entertainment for the troops. Actress Salma Hayek spent Thanksgiving with troops in Kosovo; Hootie and the Blowfish performed last year in Hungary; and Dallas Cowboys' cheerleaders visited soldiers in Bosnia.

But the lesser-known role of the 59-year-old organization is providing free services to military families.

USO is a civilian, nonprofit agency created at President Franklin D. Roosevelt's request in February 1941 to provide recreational services to soldiers and to boost their morale. It grew out of a small office in Times Square. Six private agencies contributed dollars and volunteers. From 1941 to 1947, the USO sponsored a half-million shows by musicians and Hollywood actors and hundreds of thousands of dances.

It was at one of those dances, at Fort Lewis in 1942, that a soldier named Carlo asked a pretty volunteer named Bette to dance.

"He came up to me and said, `I don't know if it's proper or not, but I'd like to ask you to dance,' " Bette DePorto said.

The two became friends and entered dance contests during the next few weeks, until Carlo left for the Philippines and they lost touch. One day in 1949, Bette was working at her family's Seattle dry cleaning shop when Carlo walked through the door.

"I was just astonished," she said.

The DePortos have volunteered for the USO ever since, and one of their two sons manages the USO center at an Air Force base in Hawaii. Yesterday, the USO surprised the couple with a lifetime service award bestowed on them by Brolin. The DePortos -- with Carlo splendid in his uniform -- said they were just paying the USO back for the help it gave their family during Carlo's many years in the military.

"They really helped us spiritually, financially and gave us a home away from home when we were traveling," Bette DePorto said. "It really helps the morale of the military."

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