Written by: Holly Coffer and Margaret Clevenger | Photography provided by the USO of NC
In 1942 with the outset of World War II, a group of Jacksonville community members — the original “Force behind the Forces” — with a passion for supporting our nation’s military, opened the doors to the USO of North Carolina’s Jacksonville Center. Now, 75 years later, the USO of North Carolina is proud to say that those doors have never closed and are still open to service members serving along our state’s coast.
Since its inception, the USO of North Carolina has expanded its services across the state. With 10 locations and more than 800 volunteers, the USO of NC is connecting nearly 600,000 service members and their families to home and country. It’s a big job; North Carolina has the fourth largest military population in the United States.
Locally, the USO of NC is supporting military from Jacksonville at Camp Lejeune, to MCAS Cherry Point, Wilmington, New Bern and as far north as Elizabeth City. Our team of 150 active volunteers staff our centers in Jacksonville, the Albert J. Ellis Airport and New Bern’s Coastal Carolina Regional Airport. They serve food at No Dough Dinners and work special events, deliver birthday cakes to single warriors, and much more. They’re at the heart of our organization — volunteering because they believe in our mission. They are today’s Force Behind the Forces.
A rich history
Historically, USO centers are known as a place that service members can escape stresses of military life, a lively place to dance and meet others, a place to see movies, and of course a place for free coffee and doughnuts. The USO of North Carolina Jacksonville center still serves that role today. With the original USO cafe, gaming tables, televisions, and coffee provided by our Patriot Circle Partner Community Coffee; our center is a place that military families can take a break and connect with others.
As the oldest continuously serving USO facility in the world, the Jacksonville center is full of rich history that connects us to our community. A walk through our Memorial Beirut Room serves as a reminder of the service and sacrifice of our nation’s past and present military. On October 23, 1983, while serving on a peacekeeping mission, 299 service members and 6 civilians were killed by a suicide bomber in Beirut, Lebanon. Of those 299 peacekeepers, 241 were U.S. service members and 58 were French.
The tragic bombing brought our community together in support of our local service members and remains a part of our efforts today. Beirut Veterans and Gold Star families have entrusted our center with photos and memorabilia of those lost in the barracks bombing — allowing us to open the room in 2011 with displays honoring those who were killed.
Connecting service members to family, home and country
As an extension of the traditional amenities offered at our centers, the USO of North Carolina provides critical and life changing programs to service members. The Birthday Cake Brigade, No Dough Dinners, Smiles Over Miles, Story Time, and Reset are just a few of the programs offered — connecting service members to the coastal community.
Supporting single service members
The volunteer-driven USO of NC Birthday Cake Brigade delivers birthday cakes to single warriors. This high impact program, helps single military members know that they are remembered on their special day, but it has an even deeper meaning. When a service member receives a birthday cake, they are reminded that they are not alone and that their family and community are thinking of them.
Creating family connections
Military families stand beside their service members and are impacted by the challenges that come with the military lifestyle. The USO of NC offers programs to help those families establish friendships and networks within their communities.
Once a month, the USO of NC offers No Dough Dinners to enlisted service members, not only to alleviate financial stress, but also promoting community among the families. Our volunteers will tell you that they see families smiling, making new friends, and sharing similar experiences.
Military families also have the chance to attend Story Time events at the USO of NC Jacksonville center. Children participate in a learning activity incorporating the story, enjoy a special lunch, and take a book home for their libraries. Story time events provide a unique opportunity for parents, too. Just like at our No Dough Dinners, they are able to build connections with other military families, establishing networks and a sense of community.
We’re also there for our families throughout the holidays, with Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts at our center and Camp Devil Dog, Breakfast with Gunny Claus, and Operation Cookie Drop.
Strengthening the force
The USO of North Carolina is always evolving to meet the changing needs of our service members and their families. Especially today, after more than a decade of war, by providing new programs. The USO of NC offers health and wellness programs for service members, spouses and families, helping them adjust to a “new normal” and face the challenges associated with military life, such as frequent moves, deployments and more.
Be a Force Behind the Forces
It takes a community to come together to support the less than one percent of the nation that ensures our freedom. The USO of NC is a 501c3 nonprofit organization, not funded by the national USO, relying on the generosity of neighbors and corporate partners.
Those interested in joining the USO of North Carolina in supporting our military have many options. Stop by our Jacksonville center for a Good Old Marine Breakfast, hosted every Saturday, as an opportunity to meet those currently serving, and hear from those who served in the past. Through volunteering, participating at our events hosted throughout the year, or even making a donation, you can be a Force Behind the Forces.