Bumble Dee/shutterstock
Bumble Dee/shutterstock

Serving in the military is never easy, but it’s even harder in the midst of a global pandemic.

Since its founding in 1941, the United Service Organizations (USO) has tried to ease some of the hardships of military service. The organization is best known for providing entertainment, including pageants featuring strutting celebrities and stirring music. But the USO’s mission extends beyond the diversionary. In normal times, it provides tech solutions to keep service members connected to loved ones back home, and offers support to families, including couples workshops and job counseling for military spouses.

These aren’t normal times, of course, and COVID-19 has added to the isolation and economic pressure on those serving in the military. With backing from the Lilly Endowment, the USO is stepping up its programs for service members and their families at home and overseas.

Combatting COVID-19

Many people assume that the USO is a government entity supported by taxpayer dollars. In fact, it is a congressionally chartered nonprofit that gets its funding from a wide range of corporations, as well as community foundations, large philanthropies, and individual donations. Philanthropies that support the USO funders include Boeing Foundation, the A. James and Alice B. Clark Foundation, and the Schultz Family Foundation.

The Lilly Endowment has long supported military families, but its recent $3 million grant is the largest it has ever provided to the USO. The endowment is known for supporting community development programs in its home state of Indiana; it also supports education and religion-related causes. Since the beginning of the pandemic, it has donated close to $208 million to support COVID relief efforts, supporting organizations in Indiana and around the country, including the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army and the United Way. Its gift to the USO will support the organization’s Combat COVID-19 Initiative, which is working on a variety of fronts.

“When we got into this last March, we tried to figure out what was happening across military communities,” said Chad Hartman, the USO’s vice president of development and corporate alliances. “We knew there were going to be longer deployments and families separated for longer periods of time. With the COVID initiative, we’re doing what we can to serve the people who are serving us all.”

Care packages and movie night to go

Longer mobilizations, quarantines and social distancing restrictions under COVID have increased isolation for service members around the world. “We were keeping troops in Afghanistan longer to limit COVID spread, for example, and sailors couldn’t get off the ships in the Persian Gulf,” Hartman said.

In response, the USO has ramped up its virtual entertainment and online programs for both service members and their families. The Lilly gift will enable the USO to expand these programs and to organize video game and e-sports tournaments in which deployed parents can participate virtually with their children back home.

Since gatherings at USO centers on many bases are restricted, the organization provides snacks, movies and youth activities to go. It also provides care packages, hygiene kits and other services to quarantined service members, including the sailors on the USS Theodore Roosevelt and on the military base in Guam. At Camp Walker in South Korea, when military families were confined to the base to prevent COVID spread, the USO provided free lunches and organized small, socially distanced barbecues.

Meeting basic needs

The USO will also use the Lilly funds to provide food for service members and their families. It seems impossible, appalling even, that some military families are hungry when the military budget has ballooned to a mind-blowing $900 billion a year. In fact, food insecurity in military communities was widespread before the pandemic, and COVID-19 shutdowns have made the situation even worse. In the best of times, military salaries for low-ranking soldiers don’t stretch far in expensive areas of the country. Now, the pandemic has cut off school meals for children, limited food offerings on some bases, and put many military spouses out of work.

The USO will also use Lilly funds to expand employment services for military spouses. Hartman points out that unemployment among military spouses is seven times the national average because of factors like frequent relocations and remote base locations. COVID-19 closures and hiring freezes have only made the problem worse. The USO is expanding its virtual education and mentorship programs for spouses and service people transitioning back to civilian life.

The USO has also stepped up mental health support for service members. “Mental health has been a real challenge during COVID,” Hartman said. His observation is confirmed by a Blue Star Family report, which found that “on average, 23% of military family respondents without pre-existing depressive disorder or anxiety diagnosis now have symptoms.” There are even indications that the pandemic has led to an increase in military suicides by as much as 20%, according to some early reports.

Boosting impact

Partnering with the USO has allowed the Lilly Endowment to expand its reach. “The Lilly Endowment recognizes our footprint, and realized that by working with us, they could have a larger impact around the globe,” Hartman said.

And it’s not just hygiene kits and care packages. The Lilly gift has helped the USO mark joyous family milestones—global pandemic or not. After COVID-19 hit, the USO organized its first-ever virtual baby shower for the 181st Intelligence Wing of the Indiana Air National Guard. Since then, the USO has organized 30 more.