First Person Singular: Sloan Gibson
When I got the first call about this job last year, I was out in Seattle. My dad had passed away, and I was out there with my mom helping her get some stuff straightened out. I wanted to do everything I could to be ready. I'd done enough homework to realize that Atlanta is one of the two transit centers in the country that soldiers come through between their tours. So I called this woman, Mary Lou, who heads up the center there.
Two days later, I'm coming up this big escalator in the Atlanta airport: At the top of it you can see this big red podium with the USO logo on it where the volunteers greet the soldiers. And there's little Mary Lou Austin up there, right next to the logo. I start waving and smiling. As soon as she sees me, she says, "Thank goodness you're here. My volunteers are late. Here's an apron. Come on, we've got troops to greet."
Later that afternoon, I'm standing out in the middle of a zoo. We've got 300 troops headed back to Iraq; their luggage is piled up everywhere. This brand-spanking-new Marine walks up and in this very soft voice says, "I'm supposed to meet my drill sergeant at Parris Island, and somehow or other I got put on the wrong airplane and wound up in the wrong place." Turns out, he was on emergency leave to attend his father's funeral. I told him I'd just lost my dad. We're kind of comparing notes, when he explains to me his emergency leave had ended at noon that day. I've got a brand-new Marine who is AWOL.
Mary Lou grabs his papers and makes everything okay. But the Marine is still worried about his drill sergeant. He wants to call his mom and make sure the drill sergeant hasn't called her to say he's missing and got her worried. Sure enough, the drill sergeant had called her. I get on the phone with the drill sergeant, explain what's going on, say he's on the next thing flying. He's on his way. I guarantee that is one Marine who will never, ever forget the USO.
People often ask why we need a USO. Shouldn't the government be doing all this for our troops? Well, it does. But this is different. This is the American people doing something for its soldiers not because anyone pays them to do it or because they have to. They're there because they want to be.
Interview by Amanda Long