Travelers' aid for military

Lounge: The USO does what it can to help those being deployed to the Middle East as they pass through BWI.

February 05, 2003|By Bethany Broida | Bethany Broida,SUN STAFF

Two days after Nakisha Jones learned she was pregnant, she and her 4-year-old daughter were hundreds of miles from their Ohio home in the USO International Gateway Lounge at Baltimore-Washington International Airport waiting to board a military charter flight to Turkey.

Jones, a Regular Army enlisted woman, looked confident and assured in her civilian clothes. But she acknowledged being nervous about the prospect of going to a war zone when she found out she was pregnant. "I called my commander when I found out, but he said my assignment won't change," she said.

She and her daughter are part of a rising tide of military travelers passing through BWI on their way to deployment in the Middle East. With experts predicting war with Iraq within weeks, growing numbers of reservists and regular troops are expected to make the USO lounge their final stop on U.S. soil.

Even when the country is not at war, the BWI lounge is the largest and most trafficked airport USO lounge in the world, serving 10,000 to 13,000 troops, mostly Army and Air Force, that fly out each month on Air Force Air Mobility Command charters.

Virtually invisible to the hundreds of thousands of civilian air travelers who use BWI each month, the 5,000-square-foot USO lounge serves as a friendly refuge for military travelers like Jones and her daughter.

To many Americans, the USO is an institution out of another era - World War II or Vietnam - when Bob Hope or Marilyn Monroe entertained troops crowded in front of a portable stage on a dusty military base or volunteers handed out sandwiches in a crowded waiting room of a train station.

The modern USO is something else again.

At BWI, the amenities include a nursery, a 72-inch television with 250 movie choices, a complimentary snack bar, a quiet room for sleeping with a personal wake-up service, fax and Internet lines, even a washer and dryer.

And it still has entertainers and an army of volunteers to hand out food and gifts.

Yesterday, classical vocalist Sasha Lazard distributed about 250 care packages, autographed compact discs and posed for pictures with eager servicemen before performing a miniconcert in the lounge.

"We frequently solicit celebrities to meet with troops, and they love it," said Adrienne Trout, director of airport services for the USO of Metropolitan Washington. "Everyone wants to feel like they are doing something for the troops."

The contents of the care packages vary, depending on the flow of corporate freebies. The bags Lazard gave out included copies of her CD, lip balm, a toothbrush and toothpaste, a magazine, antibacterial towelettes, and cotton swabs.

One valued item in every package is a 100-minute international calling card from AT&T.

"The phone cards are the best part," said Air Force Staff Sgt. Bruce Bowling, who is from Arkansas. "It is really nice to have extra minutes to call home and talk to my family. It is quite expensive to call home when you are over there."

The USO began distributing the gifts in December 2001 when the organization solicited help from corporations to put together 1,000 packages to send to troops overseas. They received that and more. To date, the USO has given out 35,000 packages and hired three employees to handle the program.

Packages give service members something to read and the disposable cameras in some packages let them send pictures home right away, said volunteer Dieter Horstmann of Glen Burnie. He and his wife, Mia, have volunteered at the lounge since it opened, usually working together during two-person shifts.

About 125 volunteers and two employees staff the BWI lounge daily. Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the waiting list of people hoping to volunteer has tripled.

"We are both retired, and it is nice to do something for the GIs," Mia Horstmann said. "Dieter was in the service for 27 years, and our son is on active duty. I think that if I am nice to other people, they will be nice to him."

A military identification is needed to enter the lounge and after checking in with a volunteer, the service members have access to its most popular feature - the secure baggage area.

"It is the only place in the airport where you can leave your bags and know they are safe," Trout said.

Before this lounge opened three years ago, the BWI lounge was the size of a closet with a desk, two chairs and a television. Troops were left to fend for themselves as far as sleeping and what to do with their gear.

Space for the new lounge is a gift from the state. The USO pays $1 a year as rent for an area that would normally cost $300,000.

But a flood of money estimated at $50 million to $100 million a year comes back to the state's economy because BWI is one of four regional gateways that serve 99 percent of the U.S. armed forces traveling to and from duty stations around the world.

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