This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: The James S. McDonnell USO at Lambert airport could use a facelift, says Kathy O'Connor, executive director of USO of Missouri.
For starters, the maroon and navy-striped couches are showing wear. The walls could use a fresh color scheme. And there aren't enough electrical outlets for the personal laptops popular with today's "plugged-in" Armed Forces.
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, the 6,000 square-foot facility that serves 110,000 military members and their families every year was busy as usual -- but also neat, clean and orderly, thanks to the crew of volunteers donating their time to offer "a touch of home" to travel-weary U.S. military personnel. The USO's cyber cafe -- a small, cramped room with 10 computers arranged in a U -- was fully occupied. And in the darkened sleeping area, servicemen and women were trying to sleep on cushioned chaise lounges, their legs and feet dangling over the edges.
"We need new furniture and paint. There's a lot of wear and tear on that furniture,'' O'Connor said. "And we definitely need to increase space in our sleeping room. We need new beds, so they don't have to try and sleep with their feet hanging off."
Because the USO is funded solely by private donations -- it receives no government, military or United Way funds -- money for such renovations can be a challenge to find.
The good news, O'Connor said, is that Rams quarterback Marc Bulger has adopted the USO and is trying to raise more than $250,000 to turn it into a "first-class airline club" with flat-screen TVs, new seating and comfortable sleeping areas, an updated canteen and access to laptops.
O'Connor says she has the best job in the world: serving the nation's military. And, she adds, her guests are always appreciative.
Marine Pfc. Sergio Goodman, 20, who was waiting five hours for a flight back to Camp Pendleton, near San Diego, smiled when he was asked about the St. Louis USO. "I like it here. They have everything you need,'' Goodman said. "And if I want to get some sleep, they'll wake me up in time for my flight."
Goodman, who had just completed a training session at Fort Leonard Wood, said he appreciates the USO's wireless Internet service and the free food and beverages, baggage check and an ATM.
"In the airport, a bottle of water will cost $3, but here it's free,'' Goodman said. He had one suggestion for making the facility better. "It probably could be a little bit bigger," Goodman said.
Air Force Lt. Col. Allison Keck would add to the wish list more electrical outlets and a bathroom inside the USO. Keck was trying to get work done as she waited for a flight to San Francisco. She had found a cramped nook near an electrical outlet so she could plug in her laptop. She says she's a big fan of USOs and has visited many of them during her 19 years in the Air Force.
Keck had only praise for the volunteers. "They're always nice. The people are always friendly,'' Keck said.
Marla Duda, director of volunteer services, credits the USO's army of volunteers -- about 650 of them -- for keeping the organization running smoothly. The Missouri USO also operates a mobile unit and programs at Fort Leonard Wood and Scott Air Force Base. Duda estimates the value of work performed annually by volunteers at more than $1 million.
"We could not do this without the volunteers,'' Duda said. "We could not afford to pay people to do this work.''
Only the best for the brave
Bulger's interest in helping the USO grew out of his friendship with radio personality Dave Glover of 97.1 FM Talk and Rocky Sickmann, who was one of 52 Americans held hostage in Iran from Nov. 4, 1979, to Jan. 21, 1981. Sickmann, then 21, was a Marine guard when the U.S. embassy was overrun.
"We all got together one night over some Budweisers,'' explained Sickmann, now director of U.S. military sales for Anheuser-Busch. "I had been on the Dave Glover show and Dave knew Marc, and we all got together for some beers. Marc was interested in my past, and I was telling some stories. As we were walking out, he said, 'Rocky, I'd like to do something for the men and women in the Armed Forces here in St. Louis' - which kind of blew me away.''
Bulger's USO fundraiser is called "Only the Best for the Brave," and it is sold out, said Carla Woody of the Marc Bulger Foundation. The benefit auction and concert will be held May 3 at Lucas School House in Soulard, with local businesses and corporations sponsoring the ticket sales. All proceeds go to the USO.
Bulger, who was unavailable for an interview, established the foundation last fall to benefit men and women in uniform - police, firefighters and the military. "Marc is very passionate about helping the people who help us," Woody said.
Sickmann said he's honored to help but gives the credit to Bulger. "Here's this wonderful young guy who's got life just waiting for him, and he's wanting to give back to the community,'' Sickmann said. "Knowing how difficult these young military men and women and their children are having it, he just wants to help.''
USO of Missouri in 2007
By the numbers
275,000: Military personnel served
58,700: Hours clocked by volunteers
50,000: Doughnuts served
6,000: Hotdogs served
1981: Year the James S. McDonnell USO opened at Lambert
24/7/365: The airport USO is open around the clock; all services are free.
0: Tax dollars spent. (The USO depends entirely on private donations and receives no government, military or United Way funds.)
Source: USO of Missouri
How to help:
The USO is always in need of cash donations, phone cards, film and certain food and personal care items.
- To view the USO's "wish list" go to www.usomissouri.org and click on "Make a Donation."
- Phone: 314-429-7702.
- Mailing address: USO of Missouri Inc., Administrative Offices, P.O. Box 10367, 10701 Lambert International Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63145