As a soldier with more than 20 years in the Army, Lt. Col. Ed Megia has seen his share of USO centers. But he only needed about 10 seconds inside the new facility at McCarran International Airport to give his unsolicited opinion about the place.
“This is the nicest USO I’ve ever seen,” he says. “And I’ve seen them all.”
Megia, a member of the 561st Joint Tactics Squadron at Nellis Air Force Base, seeks out the centers while traveling. And as he waited to fly to the Bay Area to see his family for Thanksgiving, the field artillery officer was happy to have the 2,830-square-foot facility to grab a cold beverage and relax.
“I go to the USO because it’s the same tribe,” he says. “You feel at home, and they provide a good service.”
The USO’s presence at McCarran was a welcome sight for the dozens of military personnel and their family members who visited the facility the day before Thanksgiving. Even though the center just opened on Nov. 11, visiting troops found it via the extensive signage in the airport and through McCarran employees, some of whom personally escorted the men and women to the facility, located near the A and B gates inside the former U.S. Airways executive suite.
McCarran’s USO lounge, one of 60 centers nationally and 145 internationally, is outfitted with two desktop computers, 20 laptops, three video-game stations, books (which troops are encouraged to take when they leave), board games and storage lockers. There is complimentary hot food, such as White Castle cheeseburgers, macaroni and cheese and chicken sandwiches; and also items such as yogurt, pudding, oatmeal, cookies and crackers, all at no cost to active-duty service members.
In the adjacent entertainment room, Army Capt. Mark Morrison and his wife, Jennifer, ate lunch and watched the 60-inch TV while lounging in two of the 12 recliners that filled the area. The couple flipped back and forth between The Conquerors and Top Gun as they waited to fly back to Fort Carson, Colo., after a short vacation at the Bellagio.
It was the Morrisons’ first time in Las Vegas, and with Mark being transferred to Fort Benning, Ga., in January, they figured they would take a trip here while they were still on this side of the country.
“Being in the military you’re required to live probably a great distance from home, so you have to travel regularly,” Jennifer says. “So it’s nice to have little perks that make it more comfortable.”
They found out about the McCarran USO from an airline employee after showing their military ID. Mark says he always enjoys the hospitality and camaraderie found in USO centers, never more so than when he returned to the U.S. in June after a year in Afghanistan.
“It was nice stepping off on U.S. soil and there were people there to greet you, and were genuine about it,” he says. “And it’s the same thing here, that people actually care. I think a huge percentage of the population is either indifferent or they have the wrong perceptions, and it’s nice to see people who care about the military.”
Jim and Janice Duggins are two of the 150 volunteers who staff the USO center, which is open from 8 a.m. to midnight daily. There are four volunteers in the center at a time, working four-hour shifts. As the number of volunteers grows, the center will eventually remain open around the clock. To accommodate troops stuck in the airport overnight, the nearby Homewood Suites provides free rooms and transportation for them.
Jim Duggins, a retired Army Major who served two tours of duty in Vietnam, gets choked up as he explains why he volunteers at the USO.
“It gives them a home away from home in the sense that you’re associating and talking to people that you can relate to,” he says. “You’re just more comfortable and you don’t feel like you’re offending anybody if you say that you’re a Marine or that you’re in the infantry. You’re talking to somebody who understands.”
Las Vegan Justin Michael Hernandez and his father, Javier, an Army veteran, were looking for a snack as they waited for Justin’s baggage to arrive following Basic Combat training and Advanced Individual Training at Fort Sill, Okla. For Hernandez, a 2009 Del Sol High School graduate, it was his first time in a USO facility, and while his father pointed out the amenities, the young private had just one thing on his mind.
“Free chow,” he says. “It’s better than the chow at Fort Sill.”