They’ve been called a port in the storm, an eye in the hurricane or simply the place to visit for a hot cup of coffee and some friendly conversation.
For those traveling in and out of war-torn regions around the globe, no stopover at Rhein-Main’s Air Mobility Command terminal is complete without at least a cookie or a quick email check at the USO on the second floor of the terminal.
“I bless all their hearts — they’re doing a great job.” That’s how Sgt. James Slye, a member of the 10th Mountain Division’s 2nd Brigade Headquarters and Headquarters Company, described the around-the-clock services provided by the USO’s mostly volunteer staff at the busy terminal. Slye stopped into the USO for a cup of coffee during a Rest and Recuperation stopover on his way back to Iraq. “They have trips for every Soldier to take, an Internet Cafe that’s a must, books and reading material. The USO also gives us AT&T cards to call family and loved ones.”
“It’s a nice feeling to be able to do something for someone else,” said volunteer Patrick Brennan as he served coffee and refreshments to Soldiers waiting to board a flight back to Iraq. “It keeps you on your toes and meeting people.”
Brennan, a 67-year-old Irishman who first came to Germany in 1970 and worked for the U.S. Air Force and at the Frankfurt Airport for Pan American and Delta Airlines, said he began volunteering with the USO about two and a half years ago after a friend suggested it to him. “I knew about the USO through Bob Hope and other things. I had a lot of good experiences with the troops. When I first came over here I got a job with the Air Force and made a lot of friends.”
“We have an immense outpouring of gratefulness from the troops,” said Celeste Warner-Heyman, USO special operations manager and one of only two paid staff members who along with about 30 volunteers keep the USO running around the clock at Rhein-Main Air Base. “They come in here and say, ‘thank God for the USO.’ I’ve been with the USO since 1958 and it’s been very gratifying for me.”
“We’ve gone through 50 coffee machines within the last three years,” she said, explaining that in 2004 more than 680,000 passengers made their way through the terminal, an increase from 430,546 the year before.
In an effort to ease the wait for travelers at the Rhein-Main AMC Terminal the USO staff served 5,445 pounds of cake, 13,468 pounds of cookies, 20,180 gallons of coffee and 6,093 gallons of lemonade in 2004.
“The dedication of our volunteers is unbelievable,” she said, pointing out that of some 30 volunteers who were honored in April for outstanding service and contributing 100 or more hours in 2004, 19 of them were volunteers at the Rhein-Main USO. “Our record for 2004 was Jacob Lehrian who contributed 4,086 volunteer hours, the Vounteer of the Year for the Rhein-Main Area USOs. “He handles 90 percent of our night hours.”
“It’s all good,” said Master Sgt. Brad Berry, a member of the 5th Special Forces Group from Fort Campbell, Ky., who stopped in to use a computer between flights. “Every time we come through I visit the USO. I appreciate the whole shebang.”
“I felt like I had extra time and I wanted to help contribute,” said Air Force Master Sgt. Kent Smith, a reservist assigned to Rhein-Main for six months with his unit from Dobbins, Ga. Smith spends about five hours a week volunteering at the terminal with the USO.
“There are people in a lot worse situations, and it’s nice to feel like you can help. It gives you a good feeling to help somebody else,” said Smith. “A lot of people will comment that they appreciate what the USO does — just to have the coffee and snacks and a place to relax.”
Fred Jeter, director of the Rhein-Main Area USOs, said in addition to running the AMC Terminal USO, volunteers and staff also make sure travelers are provided amenities at another nearby terminal where service members disembark at the midpoint on flights between various locations. “Besides drinks and refreshments we provide postcards which the service members can fill out and we stamp and send off to their loved ones.”
“If it weren’t for our volunteers, we would be unable to offer the programs and services we currently offer,” said Jeter. “This is the most labor intensive of my operations (of the eight Rhein-Main Area USOs). We’ve got a lot of good, long-term volunteers here. I’m hoping to keep them when the base closes in September.”
While most of the flights coming through Rhein-Main Air Base will shift to Ramstein with the base’s closure this year, “a portion of the passengers will switch over to commercial and come through Frankfurt International Airport,” Jeter said. “Our USO operations at the international airport will grow.”
Warner-Heyman explained that while the USO went to round-the-clock operations at a tent city on Rhein-Main Air Base during Deserts Shield and Storm, operations really picked up after Sept. 11, 2001. “It’s a totally different atmosphere now. During Deserts Shield and Storm so much of our outside support came from the local community. This time the support has diminished from the German public which hasn’t been as supportive of the war in Iraq.
“There are days when I think, how will I feed the multitude. But I’ve learned not to worry,” said Warner-Heyman, describing how during Deserts Shield/Storm a call to AFN brought an outpouring of donations from all over Germany after the USO was nearly forced to close upon running out of refreshments. “They ran our telephone number during a football game on TV and within minutes we got calls. Before the first 747 landed we had enough to feed the passengers on one airline. By the time the second 747 landed we had enough to feed passengers on three aircraft. People drove from Würzburg, Worms and Ramstein with food. It was then that I became aware of ‘he provides.’
“We get letters, thank-yous, checks from all over the place,” she said, explaining that one of the perks of the job is seeing familiar faces pass through her facility including Soldiers she met during Deserts Shield and Storm.
“I used to be a tour guide for the USO, and I share my knowledge with the Soldiers,” said Helmut Esser, a 76-year-old German volunteer who has been helping out for 15 years. “I started a care package service for single Soldiers in the desert during Desert Storm.
“This is a nice team working here,” said Esser, who will take some time off for an operation this summer, but plans to continue helping out at the USO until it closes this fall.
“Some of the youngsters coming in here look totally lost and scared. They may be shy, shell-shocked. I go up to them and put my arm around them sometimes — I can do that, I’m their grandmother’s age,” Warner-Heyman said.
“I see this as a family,” she added, saying that new volunteers of all ages are always welcome, especially to help out in the early evening hours and on the weekends. “Once they are trained they can even do this by themselves. That way the strain and stress are not too hard on anyone, and the troops are immensely grateful for the USO support on the weekends.”
“When you work here you have to think that some of these folks won’t come back and it makes you think,” said Brennan summing up why the volunteers feel their contributions indeed make a difference in the lives of those on their way in and out of danger.
For more information about volunteering with the Rhein-Main AMC Terminal USO call mil 330-6424, civ (069) 699-6424 or stop by your local USO office in Wiesbaden, Hanau, the Frankfurt International Airport or at Rhein-Main Air Base.