As early as World War II, American leaders recognized how crucial it was to keep up morale among GIs on the ground. In one of the first documented attempts at bridging the military and civilian communities, then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued a challenge for private organizations to find their own way to support the nation’s service members. A collaborative effort, known as the United Service Organizations (USO), was born in response.
Since its founding more than 76 years ago, the USO has been the familiar face in the often-unfamiliar places where military operations send service members and their families. That also means bringing along a few well-known friends from the states — a tradition first established through the USO Camp Shows in October 1941.
By the end of World War II, President Harry Truman issued an honorable discharge for the organization, which closed all USO clubs and facilities. However, as the U.S. military entered a new conflict in 1951 on the Korean peninsula, officials leaned on the organization to bring smiles to the faces of combat-ridden service members. The USO would not only become a symbol of home for forward-deployed personnel; it would shape the U.S. armed services for years to come.
Here are five times the nonprofit organization shaped the history of the U.S. military and its relationship with the troops:
1964: Bob Hope entertains service members in Vietnam.
The USO opened a center in Saigon in 1963. The following year, the great American tradition of USO Tours was continued as entertainer Bob Hope secretly traveled to the war-torn country and presented the USO Christmas show for more than 23,000 service members in theater.
"It's a thrill to be here in Sniper Valley. Hope I do as well as Henry Cabot Lodge — he got out. What a welcome I got — they thought I was a replacement. We got a 40 gun salute. Three of them were ours,” Hope quipped, according to Stars and Stripes. His arrival had been marked by the Viet Cong bombing of the Brinks Hotel in Saigon just a few hours earlier, which killed two Americans and injured dozens more. But the attack didn’t deter the comedian; he personally shook hands with bombing victims after the show, getting blood stains on the sleeves of his shirt, reporters noted.
The annual event lasted for nearly a decade and opened the door for other celebrities to perform for generations of veterans — including present-day artists like the Zac Brown Band, Gary Sinise and the Lt. Dan Band, and Steve Martin with Martin Short. The spirit of Bob Hope and his dedication for bringing military families together lives on through the Bob Hope Legacy Reading Program for kids that reaches more than 20,000 military families around the world each year.
1990: Recreation comes to the desert during the Gulf War.
Jay Leno performs for troops in Kuwait on USO tour, December 21, 2001.USO photo
By the 1990s, Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm revealed a void for military personnel stationed in the Middle East for months at a time. There was limited recreation to help with morale, so the USO answered the call by creating three centers in the region, starting with Bahrain. One of the most notable performances was by Jay Leno, who landed in Kuwait in 1991, unsure what to expect. Leno recounted that fateful trip during a 2010 tour:
"We got on these helicopters for two hours, it was like 115 degrees and we land in a big pile of sand,” Leno said.
"I said, 'Where's the audience?' and there's about 60 guys sitting in the sand," Leno described. "I go, 'Where's the stage?' The guy says, 'Just stand on the tank.' I said, 'Where's the mic?' They said, 'We don't have a mic, just shout.' I said, 'I can't shout.' I thought, 'This is going to be awful.'
"I got up there, I told one joke, these guys were like (gasping laughs). They hadn't heard a joke in two years. They were the best audience I ever had. I thought, 'I want to do more of these Kuwaiti tank shows.’"
Leno’s standup routine has become an iconic part of the USO’s history.
2005: Pat Tillman’s legacy is honored in Afghanistan.
Warrick Dunn of the Atlanta Falcons and Larry Izzo of the New England Patriots toss autographed footballs to members of the U.S. led Coalition in Afghanistan prior to the opening of the Pat Tillman USO Center April 3, 2005, in Bagram.U.S. Army photo
The NFL initially partnered with the USO in 1967, becoming the first sports league to send athletes to perform for service members in Vietnam. Decades later, in April 2005, a new memorial center in Afghanistan — the USO’s 123rd — was named to recognize a legend among athletes and military members alike. The Pat Tillman Memorial USO Center married the two passions of Pat Tillman, who left a career as a standout Arizona Cardinals safety to become an Army Ranger after the Sept. 11 attacks, and was subsequently killed in Afghanistan in 2004. Professional athletes attended the 2005 dedication, signing autographs and reflecting on Tillman as an athlete and a competitor. "When you played against Pat Tillman, you had to bring your 'A' game,” said the New England Patriots’ Larry Izzo. “He was a warrior."
2008: Overseas programs for wounded troops expands to Germany.
Gen. Carter F. Ham, commander of U.S. Army Europe and Seventh Army, and wounded warriors Pfc. Jesse Hamilton and Sgt. Sheena Whitney, cut the ribbon Oct. 21, 2008, at the dedication ceremony of the new USO Warrior Center at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center.U.S. Army photo
At the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, hundreds of wounded warriors found themselves in Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, where they could spend weeks far from home and friends, with little to do to stay occupied. The USO, seeing an opportunity to enhance quality of life for injured service members, unveiled the Warrior Center in 2008 as a space for USO shows, holiday celebrations, and creative therapies, such as painting. The state-of-the-art facility changed the lives of soldiers like Sgt. Sheena Whitney, who was a patient at Landstuhl recuperating from a back injury when the USO center first opened.
"This facility is absolutely phenomenal," said Whitney in 2008. "I think it's a big honor to be here for the ribbon-cutting ceremony and participate with the Medal of Honor recipients. They're the reason I wear the uniform."
During the opening ceremony, Gen. Carter Ham, then commander of U.S. Army Europe and Seventh Army, said of the USO, “I found I was home. … And that’s what the USO is, whether you’re a young Pfc. or an old general; the USO is home."
2017: USO launches innovative program to ease military transition.
As more than 200,000 service members transition out of the military each year, the USO continues to keep pace by offering new tools to help make transition a little smoother with its USO PathfinderSM program. This innovative service provides military members and their spouses with a wide variety of useful resources to plan for the future, whether they need help with resume-writing or reintegrating into a new community. USO PathfinderSM offers service members one-on-one assistance — both physical and virtual — and access to career coaches at 13 U.S. locations in order to build connections with top employers in both the private and public sectors. For more than 76 years, the USO has been there for service members from the moment they swear the oath, on the frontlines no matter where they are deployed and now the organization has troops’ backs as they transition out of the military and become thriving veterans.