Support From USO Makes Military Service Easier

HOWLAND, Ohio — Sometimes it’s cornhole bags or deflated footballs. Other times, it’s candy and snacks or toothbrushes and hand sanitizer. But whatever is going into the boxes at the USO of Northern Ohio care package distribution center in Howland, Judie Shortreed and the 20 other volunteers there know they’re eagerly anticipated by soldiers, airmen and seamen around the world.

“They’re excited to know that even though they’re so far away, there’s someone thinking about them,” says Shortreed, the daughter of a World War II veteran and a volunteer at the center for four years. “We encourage everybody to let us know if they know somebody who’s serving because we want to get them all their individual packages.”

Among the frequent requests, she notes, are hot sauce and socks, although “not white ones, because they get so dirty.”

In a typical month, says lead volunteer Becky Andres, the center sends out about 80 care packages, each packed to the brim with supplies. Beyond the usual cadre of volunteers, community groups such as the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, churches, student organizations at Youngstown State University and the Warren chapter of the Harley Owners Group also spend time filling boxes.

“We all have different reasons we want to support them, but it’s all to keep our soldiers away from home connected,” Andres says. “We send these out; we put letters and cards in. It keeps them in touch with their home base. It’s a personal thing when you get a letter back thanking us for the boxes.”

The distribution center serves soldiers based at military installations in the region, including the Youngstown Air Reserve Station, and those with ties to northeastern Ohio. The USO chapter serves 31 counties in the state and operates the USO Lounge – complete with high-speed Wi-Fi, recreational activities and free snacks – at the base in Vienna Township, the only one at an Air Reserve installation in the world, says Bruce Bille, executive director of the USO of Northern Ohio.

“It’s a place for them to get away from the rigors of training,” he says. “It’s been great to work with the 910th Airlift Wing in getting this established for these airmen.”

Whenever possible, he continues, the USO provides other types of assistance to military personnel and their families. In one instance last year, it facilitated the repair of a leaky roof for a soldier while she was deployed.

“Who else could she have gone to? You can’t ask anyone on base,” Bille says. “There’s a support system to keep them in the right frame of mind to do their military activities overseas, knowing that we have their back. It keeps them strong.”

For 35 years, the Youngstown Air Reserve Base Community Council has advocated for the men and women who serve there. This year, leadership has placed a higher emphasis on fundraising and advocating for the bases, say President Rick Jugenheimer and board member David Christner. At the group’s next quarterly meeting, to be held in September, they expect to update its bylaws to allow for the group to lobby on behalf of YARS.

“The community council is going out of its way to let people know more, more than we did in the past. In all the years I’ve been involved, we never got out that much,” Jugenheimer says. “So we’ve teamed up with YARS to get out to more events. It’s important that people know who we are so that if another [Base Realignment and Closing process] comes up, we don’t get closed down.”

On July 5, the council is hosting the 5K on the Runway fundraiser, proceeds from which will be donated to the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber’s Eastern Ohio Military Affairs Commission. Other events throughout the year will raise money for the council to provide support to airmen.

“In the past, we’ve largely relied on membership dues. Now, we’re stepping into fundraising. With the 5K, we’re hoping to raise $7,000 or $8,000,” Christner says, noting that last year, the Base Community Council gave $7,000 to the discretionary fund of the base.

The fund provides reservists assistance in meeting basic needs, such as gasoline or food while on base.

“If an airman drives in and doesn’t have much money – some get in and don’t have the money for gas to get back home or aren’t thinking about [the fact] that they have to buy food – they can get some money for those expenses,” Jugenheimer explains.

The efforts of the USO and Base Community Council don’t go unnoticed. Retired Col. Joe Zeis notes that community support is a major factor the Pentagon considers when it decides to assign or remove missions. Zeis is Gov. Mike DeWine’s adviser on aerospace and defense.

“They’ll tell you there’s three things: workforce, resources and community. Community is huge. The ability of a community to come around an installation, advocate for it and develop those relationships, those are invaluable,” he says. ”It’s important when you advocate for a base to have the knowledge of what goes on and what’s critical about that base. At YARS, it’s the only aerial-spray mission in the Department of Defense. They are unique and irreplaceable.”

And for those at the base, the support – either at home, on base or overseas – is much needed, adds Col. Joe Janik, commander of the 910th Airlift Wing. The less they have to worry about, he says, the better they can perform their duties. Things such as the USO Lounge provide yet another amenity that keeps YARS functioning at its peak.

“There’s a time for work and a time for play. You need that downtime, that time to recharge your batteries before you come back to work,” he says.

Pictured: USO volunteers Debbie Shimp, Judie Shortreed, Doug Lawrentz, Becky Andres and Bonnie Hammond fill and send about 80 care packages every month at the USO of Northern Ohio distribution center in Howland.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.