As Fort Belvoir grows, its new base hospital and Warrior Transition Unit Complex are increasingly becoming the place where severely wounded soldiers are sent for treatment and rehabilitation. But where can the soldiers go to escape the hospital, the rehab, the boredom?
The USO has stepped in. The mostly volunteer support group for American troops has built its largest-ever facility, the Warrior and Family Center, a dazzling 20,000-square foot building just steps away from the Fort Belvoir Community Hospital. The USO center has space dedicated to social interaction and fun, space for quiet reflection, and space for education and business training. And a full-sized golf simulator, which sort of touches on all three.
The $12 million center was built entirely through financial donations, including $5 million from the Northrop Grumman Foundation, $2 million from the Kuwait America Foundation, and technical equipment and appliances donated by companies such as Cisco Systems, Verizon and Lowe’s. The USO broke ground on a smaller, sister center in Bethesda in November, again funded by donations such as $1 million from actor Charlie Sheen.
The grand opening and ribbon cutting is today, but on Sunday there was a tryout during a little event called the Super Bowl Party. “It was really gratifying,” said Sloan D. Gibson, president and chief executive officer of the Arlington-based USO, “to see the smiles on all the faces of the troops and their families. And this is a gift from the American people. This is not your tax dollars at work.”
The USO, short for United Service Organizations, celebrated its 72nd anniversary Monday, and now has 160 centers around the world to help soldiers when the fighting stops. But it relies largely on volunteers, everywhere, and 350 volunteers will make up the bulk of the staff at the Fort Belvoir center, which itself is part of a $2 billion complex for wounded soldiers that the Pentagon has built on the southern Fairfax County base.
“Healing is about more than what happens in the operating room or the therapy session,” Gibson said. “It involves the whole family.”
So the USO studied a family support center in San Antonio, as well as the facilities at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, to devise a place where families could come together outside of the hospital. Studios Architecture of Washington, and lead architect Brian Pilot, created the design.
Gibson said the average military amputee spends 18 months in the hospital. In addition to the soldier needing a break, the suddenly upended lives of their caregivers — the spouses, siblings or parents — need help too.
Kathleen Causey was already a USO volunteer in New York State, while her husband served in Afghanistan, when he was wounded and lost both of his legs. She lived in family barracks at Walter Reed for a year to be close to her husband, but had nothing like the new USO center at Fort Belvoir.
“This is incredible,” she said. “This is going to help a lot of people. There’s a place for everybody here.”
Causey noted that she spent nearly every waking moment with her husband, and the Belvoir center would enable them to safely spend some time apart, even alone. “It’s salvation from everybody,” she said, “and you desperately need that. Just getting fresh air is a huge thing for these guys, they don’t go outside for months. It’s invaluable to your emotional healing.”
Gibson said the USO surveyed thousands of soldiers and their families to ask them what they needed. First was recreation and normalcy, a place for families to come together. The new center has a sports cafe, a theater with plush recliners, a music room with instruments and a video game room with gaming chairs and online connectivity.
Next, the troops wanted quiet space. The new center has a respite room, quiet meeting areas, outdoor balconies and gardens for healing and meditation. There’s also an art therapy room.
Third was education and employment, Gibson said. So there are rooms stocked with computers for classes, both in person and online, and for business seminars, both in job hunting and for improving job skills. The USO has lined up not only career transition workshops but partnered with a group called “Hire Heroes USA” to hold job fairs with real jobs, Gibson said.
Veterans told the USO that continuing education was crucial. “They would reach a point in the recovery where they felt they were not getting ready for what’s next in line,” Gibson said. The American Management Association “has given us a blank check” to allow soldiers to take any of their courses online for free.
Of course, you can’t be successful in business without playing golf. Before he earned a Purple Heart in Iraq, Charles Eggleston preferred baseball, football and basketball. Now, reinforced with titanium, Eggleston has converted to golf. On Monday, he was smacking some serious drives on the full service golf simulator, with different courses and weather conditions, donated by Full Swing Golf.
“It’s a good rehabilitation tool,” Eggleston said of his new sport. “It’s good for post-traumatic stress and for other injuries.” I suggested that golf creates its own stress, and proceeded to line three straight shots into the water. But the wounded warrior fixed my stance and address, and soon I was crushing balls farther, if not straighter.
A huge full-service kitchen. A large community room. Lots of big-screen TVs and Skype capability. Many comfy chairs and sofas with arms, to help people get up. “We wanted a place where they felt like they could put their feet up,” Gibson said.
Returning soldiers often “find themselves fighting a different enemy: depression,” Gibson said. “We need to be doing things to lift their spirits, sustaining hope and instilling confidence in the future. Keeping families together and strong.” He said the volunteers, and the USO’s 250,000 individual donors, had no ulterior motives.
“At the end of the day,” Gibson said, “the USO is the way for America to say thanks.”