CLEVELAND (WJW) — For nearly 50 of its almost 80 years, the United Service Organization was synonymous with Cleveland’s own Bob Hope.
The legendary comedian and entertainer made it his personal mission to lift the spirits of American troops at home and overseas beginning in 1941.
It was the beginning of the USO with a mission to provide morale and recreation services to U.S. service members.
Through World War II, through the Vietnam War and his final USO tour in 1990 to Bahrain and Saudi Arabia as part of Operation Desert Shield, Hope was committed to giving America’s finest a departure from their routine.
“They do remember back from the WWII days with Bob Hope doing some of his shows and actually that was how we got our start in some respects we are certainly more than just putting on shows in terms of an organization,” said Nate Cross, the Executive Director of the USO for Ohio and Michigan.
Today’s USO is involved every day helping 5 million service members and their families worldwide through even the most difficult of times.
“The USO has been around for more than 82 years and in that 82 years the one thing that I am super proud of, especially over the last few years, is that we have evolved to meet the needs of those who are currently serving,” said Tanya Karabanovs, who helps create and carry out much of the Cleveland area programming to assist troops and their families here and abroad.
“For instance, there may be a person who is deployed overseas, and they are expecting a child and so what we will do sometimes is have a program for the spouse who is expecting to make them feel as though they are not forgotten we are there for you, we are behind you 100 percent,” said Cross.
Through ‘Operation Birthday Cake,’ the USO can work with families of deployed service members to make sure they have a piece of home on their birthdays.
“The USO staff at one of those centers will get together with a few military members and they will go out to that military member, take them a cake and sing him happy birthday and let them know hey, that’s from your mom and dad they wanted to make sure you had a birthday cake today,” said Karabanovs.
USO centers at airports across the country are there to provide a place for service members to lounge whether they are in transit to boot camp for their very first time, returning home or heading out for an overseas deployment, or transitioning from military to civilian life.
Locally, the USO has a program to read to the children of service members who may be deployed overseas, programming for spouses of service members, and dinners for families.
They provide youth programs for military kids, programming for single service members which could include going to a Guardians baseball game.
The USO is also there with families through the darkest of times, to help provide a dignified homecoming and provide comfort and support for families of those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice.
“If you lose a member of your family during service to the military regardless of the circumstances we are going to bring them home with dignity and honor. We are going to support the family through the process,” said Karabanovs. “We are going to be that face of comfort and strength to help our community get through that.”
“That is obviously a sad somber day, and we have people that are specially trained that are actually equipped to deal with those special circumstances. We want to be there, that’s a perfect scenario where we definitely have to be there for the family in that really sad somber time,” said Cross.
Locally, the USO also helps support members of the U.S. Coast Guard and the National Guard and their families, recently holding a luncheon for the crews of ice cutters who will soon be spending long, cold winter days on the Great Lakes.
“They are getting ready to start up ice cutting season, so we like to do something in September/October because you never know when the cold is coming, just to have a nice lunch because you never know when you are going to be gone for months,” said Karabanovs.
Locally, they have also created a K9 program where they can take dogs to service members when they are training in the field, away from family and friends, which allows them to relax and switch gears mentally for a few moments.
Understanding that the young service members also like electronic gaming, the Cleveland area USO also has a mobile gaming unit that they can take to the field and entertain service members even where there is no internet availability.
“We are good at bringing that piece of home to them, we are really good at going where they go when they need us,” said Karabaovs.
It is not just the service members themselves but their families who the USO assists.
“I don’t think people realize the sacrifices that the military make and its not just those that are active duty its the families as well and so we are really proud of the fact that we don’t just serve the active duty but their families and their spouses,” said Cross.
To do all of this, the USO relies heavily on contributions and on more than 19,000 volunteers, who help at more than 250 USO centers at U.S. Military bases and around the globe.
Many of them are veterans who not only understand the responsibilities of serving our country but understand firsthand what the USO has done for them while they were actively serving.
Among them is U.S. Navy Veteran Russ James of Brecksville.
“When you have experienced the fact that somebody has actually brightened your spirits you just want to give some of that back. We just want to give them a smile give them a hand, let them know that we got their back, and that’s exactly what the USO is about,” said James.
James and his wife, Sandy, have cooked for and served troops during training at Camp Perry, volunteered at the Cleveland Military Entrance Processing Station, helping those just entering service, and much more.
“The difference behind being in the military and being in a normal job is after eight hours you get to go home, they are at work the whole time and it’s taking them away from ‘oh I’ve got to do this or this is on my platter,” said James. “The mission is actually service, and service members do that without thinking anyway.”