Despite limited accessibility, USO Alaska rises to the challenge of supporting military across nation's largest state
USO Alaska operates four USO centers and will soon be adding a fifth center, in order to continue providing support to nearly 27,000 service members and their families stationed across the last frontier.
After opening the first USO Wellness Center and USO Alaska Center at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson (JBER) near Anchorage in 2016, the USO was able to expand services to over 663,300 square miles of Alaska, including isolated locations only accessible by snow machine or boat. With the help of 257 volunteers on the ground, the USO Alaska team is able to provide prepared meals, hard to get prepackaged snacks, games and activities, as well as entertainment to stationed troops. In 2020, USO Alaska volunteers dedicated 3,934 hours to helping service members and their families.
“Our USO Alaska staff and volunteers have been an integral part of successfully reaching troops stationed in Alaska. Since the beginning, we have made it our mission to reach every single service member in the state and provide them comfort during their service here,” said Brett Banks, Executive Director of USO Alaska. “With only 20 percent of the state being accessible by roadways, reaching the 14 military bases across Alaska can be a challenge, but it’s our duty to continue to support the men and women who fight for our country.”
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, USO Alaska was presented with additional challenges of safely providing essential services to stationed troops, while adjusting to a new normal of how operations are executed. Throughout the past year, USO Alaska diverted to support emerging needs, from distributing care packages and hygiene kits to drive-thru meal pick-ups and launching online programming to keep families engaged and connected. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, USO Alaska experienced a decrease in total visits and activations, but USO Alaska staff and volunteers were still able to successfully execute 136,136 total service connections.
“Like many others in the country, we were significantly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and forced to adjust our plans to continue providing stationed troops with essential items and programming in order to keep them connected to their family, home and country,” said Banks. “The lockdowns and restrictions throughout the past year have made it especially evident that USO expeditionary support is a crucial resource of the military community in Alaska.”
USO Alaska made its first visit to Juneau in February 2021 to meet with 250 Coast Guard members about their needs and how the USO can provide support to the base. With the state capital being inaccessible by roads, the trip required careful planning and execution. Later this year, USO Alaska will hit another milestone and make the journey to visit troops at Eareckson Air Station on Shemya Island, a small island located west of Hawaii at the tip of the Aleutian Islands and approximately 1,500 miles southwest of Anchorage.
“Making the trip out to Shemya Island will be an exciting step for the USO Alaska team,” said Banks. “When you look at the map, the island is actually closer to Japan than it is to Anchorage. Our expeditionary team has their work cut out for them this year and they are taking steps in the right direction in helping service members isolated in these remote locations.”
Continuing to support service members stationed in Alaska, the USO will host a virtual Wellness Week, April 26-30. Each day, USO Alaska will provide healthy activities, challenges, videos, zoom tutorials and more for troops to actively participate in throughout the week, promoting service member wellness. Daily activities will include a zoom tutorial with a certified nutritionist, mental health resource and videos, self-care tips and an at-home spa kit drive-thru. For 80 years, the USO has supported the men and women who fight for our country. The USO goes where our service members go, no matter the location. USO Alaska invites the local community to join the campaign to Give More Than Thanks to help our service members stationed and in training by providing essential resources and keeping them connected to family, home and country.
For more information about USO Alaska and how to get involved, visit alaska.uso.org.
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