USO Okinawa celebrates 81st birthday

Phil VanEtten, the USO Okinawa area director, poses for a photo at the USO on Camp Foster, Okinawa, Japan, Feb. 4, 2022. The USO celebrated its 81st birthday across all of its offices around the world, continuing to be the bridge for U.S. service members and their families back to home. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Ryan H. Pulliam.)
Phil VanEtten, the USO Okinawa area director, poses for a photo at the USO on Camp Foster, Okinawa, Japan, Feb. 4, 2022. The USO celebrated its 81st birthday across all of its offices around the world, continuing to be the bridge for U.S. service members and their families back to home. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Ryan H. Pulliam.)

USO Okinawa celebrates 81st birthday

by Cpl. Ryan Pulliam
Marine Corps Installations Pacific

CAMP FOSTER, OKINAWA, Japan – USO Okinawa celebrated the USO’s 81st birthday on Feb. 4.

The celebration included free food and prize giveaways for the USO staff, volunteers, and service members alike while other patrons utilized the office’s plethora of amenities.

“We believe we strengthen America’s military by keeping them connected to family, home, and country,” said Phil VanEtten, the USO Okinawa area director. “We keep them connected to the things that they are willing to fight and die for.”

Since its inception, the USO has strived to maintain and strengthen its capabilities in supporting service members and their families. On the surface, patrons can easily see the furniture, gaming systems, and computer stations – yet behind the scenes, USO Okinawa comes up with innovative ideas to strengthen the well-being of service members.

One such idea led to the creation of “Operation Birthday Cake,” a program where families stateside can nominate their service member and schedule a surprise birthday cake to be delivered to his work section on his birthday.

“We have delivered over 8,000 cakes since the program’s inception,” said VanEtten, a retired Marine Corps colonel and native of Bethalto, Illinois. VanEtten says that around 1,400 cakes alone were delivered in 2021 amidst the pandemic.

With only 22 paid staff across USO Okinawa, VanEtten says that serving over 369,000 patrons in 2021 couldn’t have been possible without their volunteers.

“The USO gives me the opportunity to help out my fellow sailors and Marines,” said Navy Seaman William Martin, a hospital corpsman with the Emergency Department of the U.S. Naval Hospital Okinawa and USO volunteer. “It helps me in terms of learning new skills, making new friends, and just help out the community here in Okinawa.”

According to Martin, a native of Saginaw, Michigan, he spends much of his free time volunteering and has logged over 250 hours with the USO.

“I’m grateful for the opportunities that the USO gives me and the time they allow me to work here,” said Martin. “I would definitely encourage people to volunteer with them if they’re interested. I’m glad I chose it.”

Marines and sailors from across the camp flooded the USO office for diverse reasons – friends watching cop shows on streaming services, sailors talking to family thousands of miles away, Marines conducting official business at the computer stations – all of them have their needs fulfilled.

“Even if a person just sits down, does nothing, and doesn’t talk to anybody,” said VanEtten, “he will hear all of this happy banter in the background and feel like he’s at home.”

 

 

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