At BWI, an oasis for soldiers nearly home for the holidays

December 17, 2007|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Sun reporter

For some young soldiers, it's mom's turkey and ham and greens that lures them home. For others, two weeks' holiday leave means a chance to hang out with high-school buddies again after months of training, to just chill and play video games.

For Pvt. Misty Floyd, 20, going home for Christmas means a chance for a morning catch-up with her mother back in Tupelo, Miss., whom she hasn't seen since Sept. 3.

"Oh, man! Me and my mom drink coffee every morning," Floyd said with a smile as she sat with dozens of other young servicemen and -women in the USO Metro lounge at BWI Marshall Airport before dawn yesterday. She was waiting for her noon flight to Memphis, Tenn., and thinking of home.

"We sit around the table and talk. That's what I miss most," said Floyd, who is stationed at Aberdeen Proving Ground, learning to repair tank cannons.

She was just one of about 2,000 military personnel who moved through BWI early yesterday en route to their homes. Seven hundred more will ship out later this week. Half a million flow through in a year.

They stopped by the United Service Organizations lounge to grab some coffee and snacks, check their e-mail, hit the cash machine, watch a movie or catch a nap in a quiet room before their plane leaves for home.

The USO - best known to many Americans for the musical shows it has dispatched around the globe to entertain generations of troops - also provides travel services to active-duty and retired service members and their families in airports around the country.

At BWI, the USO of Metropolitan Washington operates a 5,000-square-foot lounge on the lower level of the International Pier. It's a kind of executive lounge geared to soldiers, open from 6 a.m. until 10 p.m. daily, and round-the-clock when needed.

In yesterday's early-morning mist and darkness, bus after bus pulled up to the terminal and disgorged hundreds of young troops dressed in combat fatigues and lugging heavy duffels and other gear.

Floyd said she was rousted from bed at midnight for the ride to BWI, arriving about 3:30 a.m. At 6 a.m. she still had six hours to kill before her flight home on Northwest Airlines. That's where the USO Lounge came in.

"I love it," she said. "It gives us somewhere to go to relax and watch TV until it's time for our flight. I'm too excited about going home to sleep."

Spc. Rick Knight, 38, a National Guardsman, was seated nearby, waiting for a flight to Indianapolis while a Johnny Depp movie played on a 72-inch TV screen. Knight is stationed at Aberdeen to get reclassified to repair light vehicles such as Humvees. Then he hopes to rejoin his unit in the 38th Infantry Division and deploy to Iraq.

Knight has seen many USO lounges over the years. "It's great, in every airport I've ever been to. ... You can come in and relax, no stress, and catch a nap. [The USO staff and volunteers] are very upbeat. Young people need that. It's good to see. ... Some of these guys haven't been home in five months."

Pvt. David Silveria, 18, a light-vehicle mechanic in training, had some reason to be stressed. He was trying to get home to his grandmother, his mother, brother and little sisters in Casa Grande, Ariz. He hadn't been home since August, and still didn't have a ticket. The USO folks were working on that for him.

What did he miss most? "Probably the food, sir," he said. "And Arizona is going to be warm. I'm looking forward to that."

As he spoke, Silveria munched on free chocolates provided by the USO. Although the lounge lacks full food service, it does provide coffee, prepackaged juice, chips, pretzels, candy and Girl Scout cookies.

Troops pay for their own air transportation, but the USO lounge provides free, unlimited phone calls, both domestic and international service donated by Verizon; Internet access; a library; washer and dryer; free ATM service from the Pentagon Federal Credit Union; copy services (Canon); video games (Sony); a family room with cribs and toys; and nap rooms with wake-up service.

Allan S. Grossberg, a 35-year Army veteran and the USO administrative assistant at BWI, said the lounge was built in 2000 with funds provided by the Maryland Department of Transportation and the Maryland Aviation Administration. The MAA, which also provides housekeeping, will soon be replacing the lounge's threadbare furnishings, now seven years old.

"It's the best," said Staff Sgt. Eric Hollis, 37, of the USO lounge. "They've got friendly service personnel here who really appreciate what we do on a daily basis. It's like a home away from home."

After three tours in Iraq, Hollis is now stationed at Aberdeen to teach young soldiers to repair generators, air conditioners, washers and dryers.

He accompanied his troops to BWI yesterday "to make sure the younger soldiers get out," he said. His own flight home to his mother and siblings, in rural Frostproof, Fla., isn't until Thursday.

"They're definitely anxious to see me," he said. His mind was on "my mother's cooking - the turkey, the ham, the greens, the macaroni and cheese."

The USO is not supported by the federal government. It depends on corporate and individual donations to fund its work at travel centers around the country. In addition to BWI, the organization operates area airport lounges at Reagan National and Dulles International airports, and at Andrews Air Force Base.

frank.roylance@baltsun.com

For more information, visit www.usometrodc.org.

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