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The USO is making some changes to its hospitality centers


The USO, that iconic support organization for service members and their families, has quietly been closing dozens of its hospitality centers. But it's also opening others, including some in the military's most remote locations. Jay Price of member station WUNC reports.

JAY PRICE, BYLINE: The 81-year-old USO is known for traditions like care packages, airport lounges for transiting troops and celebrity entertainment tours. But it has modern challenges. Its budget is down, in part because the number of Americans and potential donors with ties to the military has been shrinking. And it's dealing with shifts in where troops are deployed and what they need in the digital age.

ALAN REYES: We're trying to provide an impact in the places and for those service members that need us the most.

PRICE: USO Chief Operating Officer Alan Reyes says the changes are part of a long-range strategic plan. This year, it will close about 40 of those centers where troops can rest, grab a cold soda, play games and watch TV, many of them at smaller domestic airports. But its opening 28 new centers, several in places where stress is especially high.

REYES: We do pride ourselves with the fact that we have, as a global organization, the opportunity to reach millions and millions of service members and families. But we want to make sure that we are reaching those that need us the most. And oftentimes, they are in more remote locations.

PRICE: Many of the new centers are in Eastern Europe, where troops are deployed in response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Other new sites include Fort Irwin in the Mojave Desert and the military's most isolated installation, Thule Air Base in northern Greenland.

REYES: So one that is fairly remote, away from a lot of creature comforts.

PRICE: And where temperatures can drop under 20 below. And there's total darkness for months each winter. The USO's mission is to boost morale by keeping service members connected with their families, home and country. In short, it's a mental health organization.

DARIEN WOLF: And I can attest to that because I was dealing with depression.

PRICE: Sergeant Darien Wolf visits the bustling Fort Bragg USO almost daily. He was hanging out in a lounge area one recent day, sipping a Sprite as other soldiers used computers, played video games or just sprawled on a couch watching TV.

WOLF: Just coming here gave me a chance to kind of get out of that mode, you know, kind of relax. It definitely feels like home, so that's why I kept coming back.

PRICE: He found the same comfort in Poland on a recent deployment. The 82nd Airborne Division soldiers had been ordered to leave their phones at home. But the USO provided secure call centers, as well as its usual array of couches, games and snacks.


BOB HOPE: Anyway, ladies and gentlemen, today we're at Long Binh, 17 miles northeast of Saigon. I don't care if Charlie is watching or I'm giving away military secrets. We're on live TV today and we need the rating.


PRICE: Bob Hope. You can't mention the USO without at least a nod to its most famous touring act. That was 1969. And Hope, who did USO shows for half a century, was performing for a crowd of thousands. The USO is still sending celebrities out on tour. But it's added another approach.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: And if you're a soccer fan - or football, as they say in Europe - you're going to enjoy our guest today.

PRICE: That recent guest was U.S. soccer star Christian Pulisic. Instead of putting him on tour, the USO set up a live video appearance.


CHRISTIAN PULISIC: We have two friendly matches coming up here in the next week. We got to prepare for the World Cup.

PRICE: Pulisic in Germany chatted with soldiers in Turkey, Kuwait and Qatar online, where, Reyes says, young troops are used to spending time.

REYES: That does not mean we're going to stop sending tours to bases and places as well. But we now have a way to serve in both capacities.

PRICE: The video meetups aren't the same as joining the crowd at a live USO show. But Reyes says they can be more intimate, allowing personal connections with the celebrities. And they still serve that USO mission, cheering up troops who are far from home.

For NPR News, I'm Jay Price at Fort Bragg, N.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jay Price is the military and veterans affairs reporter for North Carolina Public Radio - WUNC.