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More Than Shows: Today’s USO Is Working To Bridge The Divide Between Service Members And Civilians

 January 2, 2020 at 10:35 AM PST

Speaker 1: 00:00 The U S so the United service organizations as entertained and boosted the morale of American troops for nearly 80 years in every major conflict since world war II. But for an organization that's still strongly associated with entertainers of the past, like Bob hope, it's a constant challenge to stay relevant to today. Service members, Austin Cross reports for the American Homefront project Speaker 2: 00:29 at the Anthem auditorium in Washington, D C 1100 members from all branches of the military settle in for an evening with the trappings of home hot dogs, comedy and country music Speaker 3: 00:44 [inaudible]. Speaker 2: 00:45 It's a modern version of the shows the USO started putting on nearly eight decades ago at a very different time in American history. I do fell it. This is Bob command performance hope telling H Nazi that's in Russia today, that Crimea doesn't pay the USO. Got it. Start before the U S formally entered world war two when war came, Bob hope was one of the most famous comedians at the time. He entertained the troops from the Southwest specific to the European theater. He continued through Korea, Vietnam, and the first Gulf war when he went with Bob. There were 85 of us actors and Margaret performed alongside Bob hope in 1968 there were hairdressers and makeup people and thousands of men and women just sitting in the sun waiting for us to perform. Speaker 2: 01:34 Margaret was honored at the Washington event for her service to the USO, but the event wasn't just about the past. It's about spotlighting what the USO is doing now. Yes, there are still shows, but USO, president and CEO JD crouch says it's about more than that. He says the USO improves the wellbeing of service members by reminding them that somebody back home hasn't forgotten about them. The big challenge of military life for these people, men and women's and I sort of fear of battle or those sorts of things with us, ordinary civilians might think it's separation in America. A lot's changed since the days of Bob hope around 12% of the country served during world war II. Today less than 1% of the countries on active duty, Mary Beth Olrick at the U S army war college says that's affected the troops. Speaker 1: 02:21 That leads to a perception that they are carrying the burden for the country and increasingly the perception that this is something that other people do. The people in the service being, those other people Speaker 2: 02:32 battling those perceptions is now part of the U S O's latest mission. To that end, 400 civilians were welcome to the show for some like DC resident Daniel Klein balm. It was their first exposure to the USO. I mean, I've heard the name, but I was walking by earlier and saw that there was an event going on. So I looked it up and then decided to come back a few hours later once inside civilians were given a rare glimpse of military life. USO, senior operations manager, Emily Flint, so is a USO Speaker 4: 02:59 center mimicking what it would look like if you were in a center in Iraq. So we have the comforts of home, you know the couches, the pillows, the blankets. We have a TV system over here with the PS four and actually two service members are playing right now Speaker 2: 03:13 in the back. There's a refrigerator full of sodas and a corner where service members can record books for their kids. Marine corporal Justin Countryman. You may not have talked to your family for three weeks, four weeks, you maybe haven't had a good meal and you know, two months and you walk into a USO and the bare minimum you have at least a phone call. They're just as welcoming. You know what I mean? It's warm. The civilians here at the ad them were also treated to a staple in the U S so experience the show for one of the headliners, comedian Paula Poundstone. It was a different experience to perform for a largely military crowd. Speaker 4: 03:46 It is a little bit daunting to be honest with you. You know, this is a person who've been through something that I couldn't possibly understand and how now do I relate to them? And I think the answer is just a, be a human being. Speaker 3: 03:59 Keep it going, keep it going. Can we go? Speaker 2: 04:03 A lot has changed in the last 80 years, but two service members, a soda, a laugh, and a hot meal still go a long way and they're far from home. Speaker 3: 04:12 So thank you. Thank you. Thank you for your service. Speaker 2: 04:16 I'm Washington. I'm Austin Cross. This story was produced by the American Homefront project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans funding comes from the corporation for public broadcasting.

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For an organization that's still strongly associated with entertainers of the past, like Bob Hope, it's a constant challenge to stay relevant to today's service members.
KPBS Midday Edition Segments