United Service Organizations (USO) officially opened the doors of the newest USO Warrior and Family Center during an April 1 ribbon cutting ceremony at Naval Support Activity Bethesda (NSAB).
The 16,217 square-foot USO Warrior and Family Center at Bethesda provides a comfortable and relaxing environment that supports the key components of the USO’s continuum of care: physical health and recreation, family strengthening, positive behavioral health, education, employment and community reintegration.
“This facility will allow us to enhance that 360 degree care and support of our service members and their families. It will serve as a place of respite and allow them to recharge their batteries, both mentally and physically and be energized for the next day, whether that next day brings a series of appointments or therapy, service as a health care provider or non-medical attendant, or working as support staff assisting in the mission of the installation,” NSAB Commanding Officer Capt. David A. Bitonti said. “This is part of the resiliency effort in order to maintain the mission, whether that mission is to heal, to provide care and support or assist in transition.”
Several high ranking military and government officials attended the ceremony, which highlighted the contributions made for the new NSAB facility by USO donors and volunteers. When fully staffed, the USO Warrior and Family Center at Bethesda will have approximately 200 volunteers assisting with the center’s day-to-day functions, said USO Metropolitan Washington-Baltimore President and CEO Elaine Rogers.
“This center would not be able to be manned every day if it were not for our USO volunteers. They are the life blood of this organization and we have … the most caring and committed volunteers in this region that will be manning this facility 365 days a year and they take this so seriously,” Rogers said. “It’s a gift that we could never, ever replace.”
On-site facility director Pam Horton said while there will be special programs geared toward wounded, ill and injured service members and their families, the USO Warrior and Family Center at Bethesda is for everyone.
“This facility is open to all active duty service members and their families. It’s important to get the message out there that it’s an inclusive center overall,” Horton said. “This is your home. This is the way the American public is thanking you for your service.”
The open concept center includes a community room that can be used for large group meetings or exercise classes, a business center with eight desktop computers and a fully-stocked indoor kitchen. A sports lounge sponsored by The National Football League includes four X-Box consoles, a full suite of video games and several televisions to watch sporting events. A studio sponsored by actor Charlie Sheen will offer art and music therapy, the use of musical instruments and an iMac for music recording and editing. There is also wireless internet access throughout the building.
Outdoor features include cooking grills, a fire pit, a children’s garden with playground equipment, and a healing garden with a water feature and different walking pathways designed to aid warriors on their road to recovery.
“It’s hard to capture in words what a center like this means to recovering warriors and their families who are on such a roller coaster of almost every emotion in the human inventory. To be able to get away in the midst of it all to such a beautiful, peaceful and comfortable place, right here on campus…this is more than just nice to have; it is an essential part of recovery,” Admiral James A. Winnefeld, Jr., Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said.
For retired Army Sgt. Nathan Toews, the USO was a life saver after severe injuries from a rocket propelled grenade brought him to then-Walter Reed Army Medical Center in 2006.
“While recovering at Walter Reed, there were three things that made up my day: learning to deal with my injuries, going to rehab and crippling boredom,” Toews said. “Honestly, sometimes the boredom was the hardest thing to deal with. So that’s where the USO stepped in.”
Toews said USO volunteers always provided opportunities for him and other Wounded Warriors to focus on other things. They were able to unwind, relax and find enjoyment in activities like barbecues, celebrity visits or poker nights.
“(The USO was) there every step of the way to make sure my recovery was successful. It brings me comfort to know that the men and women who come to Bethesda to rebuild their lives will have a place to go that will not only fill in the gaps of boredom but help them immensely with their recovery,” Toews said.
Toews’ fiancée, Phoebe Kilgour, couldn’t be more grateful for the USO. Through tears, Kilgour described her admiration for an organization she called “remarkable.”
“For me, I have a very sad and trepidatious feeling knowing he went through all of these things when I wasn’t there, and to know that the USO was there for him when I wasn’t … it means everything,” she said.
The USO Warrior and Family Center at Bethesda should see roughly 50,000 customers annually, Horton said. The facility is open every day, including all holidays, from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. It is located at 4565 Taylor Road, across from Sanctuary Hall.