Keeping soldiers close to home

SUN JOURNAL

USO: Still bringing a little bit of America to the troops.

April 20, 2000|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- It was in the midst of the Vietnam War that Capt. John H. Tilelli Jr. first came in contact with the USO, the private organization that brings a little bit of America to the lonely soldier. Seated among acres of U.S. troops at Cam Ranh Bay in 1966, he peered at some ant-sized figures on a far-off stage. There were Hollywood starlets and the ubiquitous Bob Hope.

"I was selected with 100,000 other of my closest friends to go see a USO show," he recalls with a smile. "That really was a wonderful experience. ... You could see the joy that it brought to the men and women who happened to be there."

As he rose through the ranks, Tilelli looked for the United Service Organizations' red-white-and-blue signs "more than dozens of times" when he arrived in a foreign city in the early-morning hours, searching for respite or a friendly face. Most recently, as commanding general of U.N. forces in Korea, Tilelli saw the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders, who came on behalf of the USO and greeted troops and their families from the demilitarized zone to the southern edge of the peninsula.

Last month Tilelli, 57, traded Army green for a gray business suit and became president and CEO of this 59-year-old nonprofit, charitable organization. The challenge for the retired general is to bring the USO into the Internet Age and make sure that there is continued financial support from an American public that is quietly and steadily losing a personal connection with its military.

To older Americans, the USO conjures memories of World War II canteens. Coffee and doughnuts. Young women dancing the jitterbug with homesick GIs. From the beginning there was Bob Hope, who followed U.S. troops fighting the Nazis in North Africa and the Japanese in the Pacific, and then followed their sons and grandsons fighting North Korean, North Vietnamese, Viet Cong and Iraqi troops.

The comedian proved to be the USO's best spokesman, host of public-service announcements or touting the organization on his glitzy, gag-filled TV variety shows. When the ill and aging Hope faded from the scene in the early 1990s there was no one to pick up his ever-present golf club.

"There is not great awareness," says Tilelli in his office at the Washington Navy Yard. "One of our goals for the 21st century is to let the people know that the USO is out there, alive and well."

The USO is still on the job, running 115 centers in the United States and around the world, from BWI Airport to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. And the USO still gets out in the field and joins the fleet, providing rock or country singers on aircraft carriers, setting up a tent or driving a van for a makeshift soldiers' welcome center in Somalia or Macedonia.

Operating solely with private funds, the USO struggles to come up with its $20 million annual budget, picking up about $6 million from 350,000 individual donations, about $2.5 million from corporate aid and the rest from sales of food and other items at its worldwide centers that are open to active-duty service members and families, as well as to reservists and military retirees.

About 5 million service members and their families visit the centers each year, and 85 cents of each dollar brought in goes to support USO programs, the organization's officials say. The 600 USO-paid employees are greatly outnumbered by the 12,000 volunteers around the world.

It was in 1941 that President Franklin D. Roosevelt suggested the creation of a private, civilian organization that would provide on-leave entertainment for the millions of young soldiers being drafted. Those who fight, FDR reasoned, should not be separated from those they fight for. Six civilian agencies, including the YMCA and the Salvation Army, came together to form the United Service Organizations.

The first national chairman was crime-busting prosecutor Thomas Dewey, who soon left his USO post to run for New York's governorship -- and later for president. He was followed by Prescott Bush, father of future President George Bush. The elder Bush raised and contributed heavily to the $33 million that the USO amassed during World War II.

Hollywood and the New York entertainment industry were a large part of the effort from the beginning, setting up shows that traveled to the frontlines, free of charge. Among the headliners were Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper, Bing Crosby and Marlene Dietrich. Some entertainers came under fire, and bandleader Glenn Miller was killed when his plane vanished over the English Channel on a USO trip.

The USO all but disbanded after World War II but regrouped during the Korean War, eventually opening up 24 centers worldwide, a fraction of the 173 centers it operated during its peak year of 1944.

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