At more than 160 airports around the world, American troops and their families can find USO welcome centers, where they might take a nap, get a free bite to eat, let their kids play or have a private farewell or homecoming. But at Orlando International Airport, they’re out of luck. Or, at least, they have been for the past 15 years. That’s about to change.
“Just the sheer number of people who travel through here would justify having a USO center at OIA,” said Peter Giusti, executive director of the nonprofit USO Central Florida, which covers 14 counties from the Gulf to the East Coast. “It seems like the least we can do for the people who put it all on the line for our country.”
After nearly three years of groundwork, the organization plans to start construction on an Orlando International welcome center next month. At 3,100 square feet, it will be one of the nation’s larger facilities and, Giusti says, one of its finest. He expects it to open in June.
For about $750,000, the center will feature an etched glass and brick exterior, a commissary, big-screen TVs, quiet rooms with recliners and a children’s area with video games, books and kids’ furniture. It will be on the A side of the main terminal, near ground transportation. OIA is providing the space free of charge. Frank Kruppenbacher, chairman of the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority Board, called it “an honor for us to share our facilities with the USO.”
Officials project some 10,000 service members and family members will use the center each month, though the number could be larger. More than 700,000 active-duty troops, veterans and their families are expected to fly into or out of OIA this year. And while active duty troops — from the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, reservists and National Guardsmen — are the USO’s first priority, veterans and their families are welcome at the center if space is available.
The facility will be able to accommodate 75 to 80 visitors at once. The USO expects they’ll range from deploying service members — who often take commercial flights at least part of the way — to veterans visiting Central Florida theme parks with their kids. Most major U.S. airports — including Tampa, Jacksonville and Pensacola — already feature USO centers, and Miami International Airport has a “military hospitality lounge.”
“My first experience with the USO was flying out of OIA and landing in Texas for basic training,” said Kris Kimberly, programs and development manager for USO Central Florida’s Orlando region. “As soon as I got off the plane, a volunteer shook my hand, thanked me for my service, gave me a bottle of water and said, ‘Right this way; let me show you to the USO.’” That was 2009. Kimberly was 23, engaged to be married and had just enlisted in the Air National Guard — knowing he might well be sent to fight in the war on terror. “My first thought was: Wait, I haven’t done anything yet. But it also reaffirmed the decision I’d made to serve my county. It meant a lot.”
It’s why he decided to work for the USO, he said. Now, he fields calls almost daily from soldiers flying into OIA and assuming they’ll be greeted as he was. “'Hey, I just landed and it’s 2 a.m. Where’s your USO? I’d like to take a nap before my next flight,’” he said, recounting one caller. “Everybody assumes we already have a welcome center.”
Actually, Orlando International did have a USO lounge until 2001. But its use — and the donations for its upkeep — dropped sharply when the Orlando Naval Training Center closed in the mid-1990s, reducing the number of active-duty troops in the region. The space was turned into a game room. In 2013, a group of advocates united to resurrect the center, but the USO didn’t even open an office in the region until two months ago. It’s in Kissimmee and, like most USO programs, is populated largely by volunteers. “Having a USO at the Orlando Airport would be a great benefit and resource for traveling military members, veterans and their families,” said Heather Frebe, a public affairs officer for the Orlando VA Medical Center.
In Tampa, a 3-year-old USO welcome center at the airport there has drawn over 52,000 troops and family members since opening, and word is still getting out, said Amy Phillips, Kimberly’s counterpart for the Tampa region. “The troops know the USO. Once they hear our name, they want to stop in here.”
Giusti said corporate and community support has raised roughly 60 percent of the total needed for construction, and he expects to have the full amount by next month, though the USO will continue to raise money to cover the center’s maintenance. Northrop Grumman, Disney, SeaWorld Orlando, Universal Orlando Resort, Mears Transportation Group, Regions Bank and the American Legion are among the major contributors. Some of the companies also have promised to provide volunteers — and up to 400 a month could be needed. Though the center’s hours haven’t been determined yet, Giusti expects the facility to be open from roughly 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.
The USO — officially, the United Service Organizations — was created in 1941 as the country was about to enter World War II. It gets no military funding and for years it was best known for bringing big-name celebrities to overseas bases to entertain the troops. “I think we have name recognition, but a lot of people don’t know what we really do,” Giusti said. The charity organizes homecoming celebrations, holiday toy drives for the children of low-ranking service members, community events, discounts at local businesses and help with job connections. “We’re much more than Bob Hope and Marilyn Monroe,” he said.
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