At Dulles, a Long-Awaited Welcome Center
Since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began, hundreds of thousands of U.S. service members have passed through Washington Dulles International Airport, many of them on their way to or from areas of conflict.
Unlike Reagan National and Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall airports, where the USO has operated lounges for many years, there was no place at Dulles for traveling troops to make free calls to their families, get a cup of coffee on the house or find help dealing with travel problems.
But on April 16, a small lounge operated by the USO of Metropolitan Washington officially opened at Dulles. It was overdue, officials said, for an airport where an estimated 300,000 service members pass through every year on commercial flights.
Donald Winter, then a senior executive with Northrop Grumman serving on the USO-Metro board, recalled coming into Dulles several years ago from an overseas flight and seeing 50 to 75 uniformed service members returning from service in the Middle East -- "none of them really having a suitable reception."
"It really bothered me to see so many of them using Dulles and not really receiving adequate support," Winter, now secretary of the Navy, said during the ceremony last month. "The idea of not having the USO at our nation's principal airport didn't seem to be the right thing."
Past efforts to open a USO lounge at Dulles did not get anywhere. "I'm not sure people really wanted to have one here," Winter said in an interview.
USO-Metro raised the issue around the time of the Persian Gulf War in 1991, but the conflict ended before the effort picked up much steam. "The airport didn't really know how much military was coming through," said Elaine Rogers, president of USO-Metro.
Rogers and Winter began a new push before Winter left the USO board and took the Pentagon job last year. They found a ready ally in Christopher U. Browne, who moved from National to take over as Dulles airport manager in 2005. "When I joined the staff, it seemed clear that this was a shortcoming that needed to be addressed," said Browne, a former Navy aviator.
Money had to be raised from private donors to construct the $500,000 lounge. "A project like this doesn't just happen," said John Marselle, chairman of the USO-Metro board. "It's not always an easy sale."
Major contributors include Northrop Grumman, Verizon, Cisco Systems, URS and Turner Construction.
BWI, which is a hub for Air Mobility Command military flights, has a 5,000-square-foot USO lounge in the international terminal that has served more than 50,000 military travelers in each of the past six years.
By comparison, the 770-square-foot Dulles facility is tiny. But it has a prime location across from baggage claim area No. 12, and USO-Metro leaders expect it will serve 40,000 military travelers a year.