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Uniform Excellence

San Diego's USO offers care and comfort to our military and their families


WHEN MEMBERS of the Rancho Santa Fe Republican Women’s Club and the local Daughters of the American Revolution make a dinner date, it’s not likely to be for ham and scalloped potatoes in a downtown San Diego storefront. But that’s where they gathered in spring, and that’s what they served up as they rubbed elbows with military wives from neighborhoods like Murphy Canyon, Southeastern San Diego and Mira Mesa. The common denominator: San Diego’s USO.

For Shelly McCollum, a mother of three whose husband had just left San Diego aboard the aircraft carrier Nimitz for the Persian Gulf, the Tuesday-night events are a godsend. “I really appreciate this,” she says. “These dinners give me a chance to meet and talk to other military families, especially when my husband is on deployment.”

The other 100-plus active military and their dependents who attended agreed with McCollum. United Service Organizations San Diego has been an increasingly popular venue for familial camaraderie, especially since the war in Iraq began four years ago. This particular gathering, just before Easter, doubled as a holiday event —an Easter egg hunt for toddlers and elementary school–age children, conducted on the ground floor of the two-story USO building at Third Avenue and A Street.

The war has brought USO San Diego renewed prominence and purpose. The organization’s 18,000-square-foot downtown space and nearly 7,000-square-foot Lindbergh Field facility are homes away from home. Both are spacious, and both are furnished with sofas, big-screen televisions, work tables, magazine racks, pool tables, snack bars and—a true sign the USO of today is not the USO of our fathers and grandfathers—computer terminals. Gadget-savvy sailors and Marines bring their own laptops to play video games. Some listen to music on iPods while they play.

But the USO is more than good food, comfortable couches and video games. While waiting for a flight to Warrior Leadership School in Nebraska, 25-year-old Army Reserve specialist and Iraq War veteran Michael Kenway, of Costa Mesa, hunkers down in the Lindbergh Field USO lounge. “When I arrived,” he says, “[the USO volunteer staff ] provided me with information about transportation and where I could stay the night after my flight had been canceled.”

USO San Diego has undergone myriad changes over its 66-year history. Shortly after it was established, the United States entered World War II, and USO clubs popped up all over San Diego County. By war’s end, there were 29 here, from San Ysidro to Oceanside, including four clubs in downtown San Diego. By 1947, USOs across the country were closed by President Harry Truman. Three years later, the war in Korea brought them back for good.

Historically, unmarried San Diego–based sailors and Marines went to a USO for personal reasons, usually for a dance hosted by young ladies. Commercial locker clubs along Broadway that rented enlisted military space to store their civilian clothes competed with the USOs. But the locker clubs also expected their members to buy their “civvies” at the club, pay to have their laundry done and keep the club soda fountain/restaurant in business.

“The USO didn’t expect anything in return, other than good behavior when you came through the door,” says USO San Diego airport director and retired Master Chief R. Paul Kelly, whose Navy career began in 1950 and ended 30 years later.

LIKE THE 129 OTHER USOs around the world, USO San Diego is autonomous and independent from the “mother ship.” The national USO gets the most attention because it organizes the Camp Shows that entertain U.S. military personnel abroad. The late comedian Bob Hope made such shows legendary, particularly in war zones. But local shows draw celebrities, too.

Earlier this year, country singer Craig Morgan (a former Army paratrooper who served in Korea) gave a free concert for more than 100 sailors and Marines mustered by USO San Diego at North Island Naval Air Station. The performance and barbecue dinner, looking out on San Diego Bay and the downtown skyline, were the group’s reward for assembling and packing 10,000 USO Care Packages within four hours for their comrades in Iraq, Afghanistan and aboard Navy ships in the Gulf region. Jack Daniels Distillery, in a stroke of goodwill and good marketing, paid for the toiletries, playing cards, chewing gum and other comfort items in each package. And before his performance, Morgan joined the assembly line, as did San Diego Marine Corps Recruit Depot commander Brigadier General Angela Salinas. Both said they pitched in because they wanted to give something back to those sacrificing so much.

All local USOs have at least one thing in common:

“Our biggest challenge,” says USO San Diego president and CEO Susan Farrell, “is getting the message across that USO San Diego is not supported by the government. We don’t get any money from the government or from the national USO office. We have to raise all of our money here. As a private, nonprofit organization, we rely on the generosity of individuals and corporations.”

Farrell, known to longtime San Diegans for her three decades of local TV news reporting, is the daughter of Ted Farrell, a retired Naval aviator captain and resident of Coronado. After retiring from broadcasting in 2001, she was recruited by the San Diego Opera as its public relations director, a job she filled for three years. While on television and at the opera, Farrell emceed the USO’s annual public holiday concerts. She was also a volunteer planner of USO San Diego’s annual black-tie fund-raiser. Farrell joined USO San Diego in 2005, replacing former director Regan Wright, a retired Marine colonel.

Donations from the United Way/Combined Federal Campaign augment the USO San Diego budget of about $700,000 a year. While just a handful of individuals are employees, scores of county residents volunteer at the organization that’s expected to serve some 145,000 active-duty military personnel and their dependents this year. (For more information: usosandiego.org.)

While fund-raising is vital to the organization’s existence, in-kind support is also important. Farrell’s former boss, KUSI owner Dan McKinnon, donated a big-screen high-definition television and computers. Costco donates bread and pastries, and what isn’t consumed at events is given to military families. Two key supporters are the city of San Diego and the Regional Airport Authority. They lease USO San Diego its downtown space at Third and A and the airport facilities at Lindbergh Field, where longtime supporter Neil Ash persuaded officials to donate the old baggage building rather than raze it for more parking. Now, Ash’s name is on the building.

On average, the USO airport lounge serves about 10,000 military men and women every month. And like a majordomo, director Kelly dotes on his guests. He once persuaded an airline to give a penniless sailor a free ticket home for a wedding. On another occasion, Kelly spent an afternoon driving from one military command to another to get a Marine a new identification card after his wallet was stolen during airport security screening.

“The bottom line,” says Kelly as he scurries about the lounge, “is that we’re here to help these men and women, all of whom have demonstrated a patriotic willingness to leave the comfort of their homes to serve their country.”

Preston Turegano is a former San Diego Union-Tribune arts and entertainment writer.
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