Carly Harris and Paul Pisano walked into a hangar in Okinawa and everybody stopped.
It was November 2013 and the duo—who head USO operations in the Pacific—along with other USO staffers had come with boxes destined for American troops in the Philippines supporting disaster relief after Typhoon Haiyan.
Pisano, USO Pacific’s director of operations, received a call hours earlier from III Marine Expeditionary Force asking for something simple: coffee. Harris approved the purchase as USO employees quickly made a list and headed to the store to buy coffee makers, grounds and other supplies, along with a few board games and snacks. They then took four boxes of supplies the short distance to an airstrip on Marine Corps Air Station Futenma.
“I’ve got to tell you, when we walked into that terminal, people stood up,” Pisano said. “And the sergeant saw the USO hats and said ‘Everybody stop. We’ve got to get these guys to the plane.’”
“I looked at Paul and said, ‘This is why I joined the USO,’” said Harris, who is the USO’s regional vice president for the Pacific.
She said every inch of space in planes going to disaster zones is usually accounted for. The only reason the USO could get supplies on the plane was its reputation.
“Those people on the ground in the Philippines had had a USO experience somewhere else,” Harris said.
The Pacific is changing quickly, and several regional powers are looking to exert influence.
China is a steadily rising economic power that has become more confrontational with its regional neighbors, entering into a showdown with U.S.-allied Japan over disputed islands in 2014. Russia’s incursion into Ukraine brought international condemnation in the past year. And then there’s North Korea, with its nuclear ambitions, alleged human rights violations and combative rhetoric.
As a reaction, other countries in the region have ramped up efforts to train with and learn from the United States military. Of course, those nations aren’t always easy to get to.
Unlike the typhoon relief scenario, a lot of the problems the USO helps solve for troops in the Pacific happen in remote places—locations so isolated that the organization’s staff rarely witnesses the fruits of its labor. But with nearly 75 years of solving logistics issues, USO staffers feel they’re uniquely positioned to fulfill requests by pairing the old-fashioned ingenuity the organization was built on with modern technology.
Harris and Pisano say the biggest request they receive—and the most difficult thing to deliver—is connectivity.
It sounds presumptuous for service members in far-flung destinations to expect moderately reliable digital connectivity. But Harris says things have changed a lot since the turn of the century.
“If we look back 10 or 15 years, a strict commander would have said ‘They’re locked down. They don’t need [connectivity]. They can live without it,’” Harris said. “And that mentality I think on the command side has changed as well. And that has a lot to do with our young force.”
To put it another way, young service members don’t know what life is like without the Internet.
“Now, I think it’s fair to say, that [operational security] is grilled into everyone from boot camp going forward,” Harris said. “What was it in the old days: You need to feed them, you need to give them mail and you need to pay them. The mail has [been replaced by] the connectivity.”
In the past several years, the U.S. military has developed several lighter, more easily deployable teams. Harris has seen more troops cycle through the Pacific from West Coast bases and even as far East as North Carolina.
Training has changed, too. She estimates there are roughly 170 exercises in the Pacific each year, meaning a lot of uniformed personnel going in a lot of different directions.
Even the large, legacy exercises are getting more complicated.
“We have to be innovative. We have to be flexible,” Harris said. “What Balikatan looked like 10 years ago, is not what Balikatan looks like today. The basic premise is the same, but it’s being expanded to cover more touch points.”
Pisano, a retired Marine colonel, said when he was in the military, troops at exercises could roam off base during their down time. Using Balikatan—an annual training exercise between the United States and the Philippines—as an example, Pisano said today’s troops are tethered to their far-from-modern bases for nearly two weeks.
In December, Pisano received word that members of the Army’s 25th Infantry Division would be deploying in mid-January and needed support. Short on time, but not ideas, he offered them a modified version of the USO2GO program, an initiative that packs everything from furniture to gaming systems, TVs and snacks into boxes and delivers them to troops who can’t get to a traditional USO center. He also told the Army he could get Internet connectivity and satellite television for the troops, too. Basically, Pisano was promising to deliver the core components of traditional USO centers to the soldiers’ doorsteps in Thailand, South Korea and the Philippines.
Once the offer was made, the USO team got to work figuring out how to do it.
“With Thailand, we were at least able to get a lead from the Marine Corps, which was supporting their own [Marines in the same area],” Harris said. “And Korea, there’s a USO presence there, and they’re supporting connectivity. But the wild, wild west was the Philippines. … As we move forward, to support the next group that will be moving through three exercises, Paul’s going to work through the embassy [for recommendations].”
A little ingenuity and several phone calls later, it all worked out. Even the Philippines situation. Pisano said the Internet contractor the USO hired worked well there, and that troops even got to watch the Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao boxing match May 2.
It’s just the beginning, too. The USO figures to support at least two more three-country swings like this in 2015, including trips to countries where the organization has never supported troops before.
Pisano said no matter which branch they’re supporting in the field, the No. 1 request to the USO is almost always the same.
“I said, ‘What is the one thing, if I can only narrow it to one, what do you need?’ And they said ‘connectivity,’” Pisano said of his recent conversations with the Army. “’‘It’s very important to us that we’re able to speak to our families, our friends our loved ones at least once a day if we can do it.’”
That sentiment isn’t restricted to exercises and multinational training exercises, either.
The USO has been connecting troops back home from Darwin, Australia, a remote training setup on that country’s northern coast, for more than for three years.
Setups like this—the USO has a permanent-yet-unstaffed day room with snacks, TVs and Internet access—also help young troops avoid financial pitfalls. Some junior service members who value connectivity over anything else may be tempted to shell out hundreds of dollars a month for pricey phone and data contracts they may still be paying on long after they leave the country. The USO presence there provides an alternative.
“These young guys don’t realize that when they’re in a foreign country, and they’re just going to go on roaming, the phone charges are astronomical,” Pisano said.
In late 2012, Marine Lance Corporal Cody Thomas had a problem. His wife’s C-section back in the States had been scheduled for right about the time he was supposed to get a break from guard duty on Camp Hansen, Okinawa. He’d planned to talk her through the birth via a Skype connection from the USO center on the base, one of the few places young troops can connect back home. However, emergency issues with other patients pushed her delivery back several hours.
Tired and distraught, Thomas thought he was going to miss the arrival of his third child, just as he hadn’t been able to witness the birth of their first born.
While a lot of troops stationed around the globe have access to private Internet connections, unit-deployed personnel at Camp Hansen don’t usually have it that easy. Thomas was on a six-month tour to fill a security need. Most people in his position don’t pay the hundreds of dollars to connect to local Internet service providers.
Fortunately, USO Camp Hansen had 10 iPads at the center set up for troops to use to talk with their families over Skype.
A fellow Marine who happened to be a USO volunteer kept the center open overnight for Thomas, who started a Skype call with his wife, Samantha, around 2 a.m. Okinawa time and stayed online with her until she delivered their daughter, Summer Faith.
“Being on Skype with her here, it was such an emotional [moment] for both of us,” Cody said. “[My wife] didn’t think I’d be able to do it because, one, I had duty that night and, two, because the nurse told her she couldn’t take the computer back there, but the doctor [allowed it].”
There’s also a lot more to the USO’s Pacific operations than satellites and wires. A lot of old-fashioned innovation intersects with quality-of-life needs at the center level.
On Camp Schwab, Okinawa, USO center manager Will Stanley, a former Marine, started a bike-share program to make sure troops without easy access to transportation could get around the island.
Last summer, USO Guam’s center quickly turned into a hotel for two days when a group of 41 Marines in transit were stranded on the island because of another typhoon. Volunteers and center staffers worked in shifts to serve food and deliver donations from local businesses.
Pacific staffers have also seen success on the micro level. On March 31, the USO received a request for guidance from an Okinawa-based Marine who was returning stateside for his grandfather’s funeral. The Marine was concerned he wouldn’t be able to get from Travis Air Force Base in Northern California to a major airport in time to make a connecting flight.
Within 48 hours, USO Pacific had coordinated with USO operations in both Arlington and Norfolk, Virginia, and USO Bay Area operations in Northern California to secure overnight transportation. On April 2, two USO Bay Area volunteers picked the Marine up at 10:30 p.m. and drove him to San Francisco International Airport. The Marine made his connecting flight in Texas later that day, and even got a USO-provided meal, toiletry kit and a bag of snacks before boarding.
“When there is one thing we can change to make things better for one person, there [are a lot] of man hours that go into that to make it happen only because of the passion and the concern we have because of the nature of this right here,” Pisano said, while pointing to the USO patch on his shirt. “[We do it because of] what this means and what it stands for and how it impacts people and how people remember it. That is the difference.”
Eric Brandner is the USO's director of story development.