For the past 65 years, the United Service Organizations has provided familiar signs of home to American soldiers stationed abroad. Although it has camps set up in Afghanistan and Kuwait, the USO has none in Iraq.
“When we show up _ whether it be our centers or entertainers _ whatever it is, our soldiers know that that is a gift from the American people,” said USO President Edward Powell in a recent interview.
Powell said entertainers tour Iraq, but uncertain security and logistics make it unsafe for the independent organization to move in.
“We have entertainment tours there,” he said. “We would like to have a center _ a physical place in Iraq. As you can imagine, security is a major issue.”
Although 38 USO tours have taken place this year, only three have performed on Iraqi soil. Others have gone to South Korea, Europe and domestic bases. Country singer Toby Keith and country duo Montgomery Gentry performed in Iraq. Football coaches Les Miles of Louisiana State University and Lou Holtz, of Notre Dame fame, visited.
The USO also ran a basketball tournament in Kuwait with teams of soldiers coached by eight college coaches.
At its permanent camps, the USO provides recreation, e-mail and phone service for soldiers to get in touch with their families, libraries and other help. It also works with soldiers’ families at home.
Powell said he’d like to see the USO expand its presence in Iraq, but it’s not his decision.
“I wouldn’t go so far to say it’s not safe, because the call is ultimately the military’s,” he said. “Because there is no commercial flight into Baghdad at the moment, we can’t just ship product in there _ it’s got to go on military transport _ and it’s unreasonable to think the military would give up space for their needs.”
Navy Cmdr. Greg Hicks, a Pentagon spokesman, said in an e-mail: “We highly value the services and comforts that the USO provides.” He declined to comment about the USO lacking a camp in Iraq.
“We’ll let the USO speak for themselves as to the reasons why they cannot set one up,” he said in an e-mail message. “After all, it’s their organization to run.”
Powell said it’s not that officials from the Pentagon don’t want a USO camp inside Iraq.
“They want us there,” he said. “Some days, it’s a little more of a priority than other days.”
Richard Steinberg, a member of the USO World Board of Governors, said the organization remains strong, though it lacks the hype it once drew.
“What you don’t have is Bob Hope and the publicity that he personally used to bring to those shows,” he said. “When Bob Hope went over, the entire country knew about it.”
The USO camp at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan faces greater challenges than those in other places.
“It has proven to still be a challenge, but Afghanistan is much quieter than Iraq is, and there’s a much more sort of a normal process,” Powell said.
With USO camps at enduring bases in Japan and Germany, there is greater support among local residents for the American presence.
“They understand the role we play in their security,” Powell said. “We are there to protect whatever it is they’re doing, and they are very appreciative of that.”
Although there is no USO camp in Iraq, Steinberg said the organization would do all it could to support the troops stationed there.
“We’ve got facilities all around that area, and we do whatever we can to provide entertainment and support to the kids in Iraq,” Steinberg said. “God knows they need it.”