The USO has many programs as part of its mission to strengthen U.S. service members by keeping them connected to their family. One of those that help troops feel special is Operation Birthday Cake. It’s a unique program that lets families back home send a birthday cake to their loved ones celebrating a birthday overseas.
It’s a rewarding feeling for the USO volunteers who can make the day special for the service members. And it’s one that Andrea Holt felt compelled to write about in the book, Chicken Soup for the Soul: Military Families. The book features 101 stories from different people associated with the U.S. Military, and a portion of the book sales go to help support the USO and its mission. Here is Holt’s Operation Birthday Cake story.
While the USO offers many programs to America’s troops and their families, Operation Birthday Cake is one that has always been very near and dear to my heart. It can take hours or weeks to coordinate the logistics, but the program has a big impact. Not only does the service member know that someone back home is thinking of him or her, but a loved one who is far away gets to feel connected on a special day.
A Marine mom contacted me in April 2015 to schedule a surprise for her son’s birthday on May 6th. We had surprised him with a last-minute-request cake the previous year since she had just found out about the program. This year, she contacted us with ample time to make sure we would be able to surprise him once more as he celebrated another birthday away from home. Then, the unforeseeable happened. She contacted me on Friday, May 1st, with the news that he would be deploying that weekend for a humanitarian relief effort in Nepal after a large earthquake. Immediately, I responded that I did not have time to order a cake from the bakery, but I would do my best to coordinate with his unit to surprise him before he left, or possibly send a belated cake upon his return.
On Monday morning, May 4th, I contacted his unit and was happy to find out he had not left yet, but was scheduled to leave in the next day or so. I went to the commissary bakery to get a cake to deliver that afternoon. I arrived at his workplace and was escorted in secretly. Holding the cake, I started singing “Happy Birthday.” His whole unit was already gathered around as they were prepping for their departure, but they knew the surprise was coming. Without missing a beat, they all joined in to wish their brother-in-arms a happy day. It was incredibly heartwarming to see a tightknit unit joining to celebrate as more than workmates… they were a family.
That service member left the next day with his unit. Unfortunately, he did not return. There was a helicopter crash, and he and a fellow Marine, who sang him “Happy Birthday” with the entire group just days before, were killed.
Sometimes, it may not seem like a big deal if an Operation Birthday Cake request is a day late. Sometimes, it is frustrating to get a request for a birthday that is only a day or so away as the requestor just found out about the program. Sometimes, it is frustrating to make last minute changes or rearrange dates and times to accommodate unforeseen changes in their schedules. While we suggest a two-week window for cake requests to ensure ample time for planning, there are always exceptions. Thus, I always tried to make a cake happen, and so did the rest of the USO Okinawa team. The USO’s slogan is “Every Moment Counts.” This was one of those true defining moments.
Cases like this show how something as small as a birthday cake can mean so much. When he died, I contacted his mom to offer my condolences and to see how she wanted us to move forward with his group photo on our Facebook page. She replied:
Thank you, Andrea. You can leave the pictures up. I am so thankful we were able to get that cake to him. Everything was up in the air surrounding his departure, but you all helped wish him a happy birthday, and I’m so thankful you did. His friends have said he was very happy to receive that cake. Thank you for all that you do.