Serving the Home Front
Alexandria Festival Honors USO
By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 15, 2004; Page VA12
Rosemary Matteson still remembers the white chiffon dress -- strapless and beautifully designed, with gold sequins.
She bought it at Garfinckel's, a Washington institution from a bygone era, to dance with soldiers fighting a different kind of war, a war where the question wasn't whether you supported the troops, but how.
It was 1942, and Matteson did her part by attending USO dances at the gleaming new USO building on Cameron Street in Alexandria. They were elegant affairs -- soldiers from Fort Belvoir in their neat olive gray uniforms, girls bused in from all over Virginia, trying to show the guys a good time before they went off to fight.
"We went because we wanted to be patriotic and we wanted to cheer up these kids,'' recalled Matteson, 84, who now lives in Flat Rock, N.C. "Most of them just wanted to talk, talk about home, their girlfriends. They didn't know what they were going to face. Everyone was behind them.''
It's a role the USO has been playing from World War II through today's conflict in Iraq: supporting American troops and their families. But the recent deluge of commemorations, stemming from the opening of the National World War II Memorial in the District and the 60th anniversary of D-Day, focused mostly on the troops and the war itself.
So when Alexandria officials began planning the city's entry into the memorial sweepstakes, they decided to focus instead on the organization made famous by images of Bob Hope cracking jokes at military bases around the world and Marilyn Monroe drawing hoots and cheers as she entertained the troops.
The result is "Alexandria Salutes! A USO Weekend," a three-day festival starting tomorrow that celebrates not only the troops but also the organization chartered to serve them. It features everything from World War II-era music and dancing to free shuttles to the National World War II Memorial and a three-act play that incorporates letters sent home from the troops.
"We wanted to become a part of the regional celebration honoring 'the Greatest Generation,' and it just sort of clicked that the USO would be a nice angle,'' said Laura Overstreet, vice president of communications at the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association, which planned the event and is sponsoring it along with the city and the USO of Metropolitan Washington.
For the USO, formed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941 as the United Service Organizations, the weekend is a chance to remind people that the venerable organization is still around. The USO's own literature admits that the group's "high point" was back in 1944, when it had more than 3,000 clubs and sponsored 700 shows a day.
"When people think of the USO, of course they immediately think of Bob Hope and entertainment and the famous shows, the dances where the soldiers and sailors would come to the USO canteens and clubs,'' said Elaine Rogers, president of the USO of Metropolitan Washington. "We still have that wonderful legacy.''
But with 121 USO locations around the world, including 11 in the Washington area, the USO of today is plenty busy, Rogers said. The mission has changed somewhat. Though celebrities ranging from Jay Leno to Jessica Simpson still entertain the troops, today's USO is more focused on supporting the families, Rogers said.
With the rise of the all-volunteer military, she said, far more troops today have spouses and children than did the youthful soldiers of World War II. The USO sponsors family outreach centers, provides emergency housing to families in crisis or needing a place to stay while injured soldiers recover, and offers services such as after-school programs on military bases.
The organization also still sends its famous care packages to the troops, but with a modern-day twist made necessary by the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the anthrax threat: the USO buys the goodies straight from the manufacturer and ensures that packages are secure.
Rogers said the USO is "very excited" about its weekend in Alexandria, whose own history is deeply intertwined with World War II and the USO.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company