Just before Veterans Day, some six dozen Wounded Warriors and their caretakers will come to Las Vegas and be treated to a weekend on the town. By day, they’ll take in events such as an exhibition softball game between the Wounded Warrior Amputee Team and Mandalay Bay’s company squad; by night, they’ll be entertained by the likes of Terry Fator. Then, on the evening of November 11, they’ll get special seating at a free concert by Gary Sinise and the Lt. Dan Band under the canopy at the Fremont Street Experience.
To those who live here, it might not seem like much of a luxury. But it’s a true gift for the 60-plus people expected to attend, says Doug Bradford, director of USO Las Vegas, which puts on the Salute the Troops event with the help of American Airlines and MGM Resorts International. Not only will participating Wounded Warriors be honored as heroes at every turn, but, more importantly, they’ll be pampered—something far too few soldiers and their spouses take time, or have the resources, to do.
It’s a small thing by most estimations, pampering—and found in forms much smaller than a weekend in Las Vegas. It’s a packet of moistened towelettes, which can come in so very handy when you’re deployed in the desert, where water to wash up with is scarce; or a computer to check your email one last time before a monthlong training session at a facility so far-flung it doesn’t have Internet. Such amenities, small and large, are the specialty of USO Las Vegas.
“The military is relying more and more heavily on organizations such as ours for MWR (morale, welfare and recreation) functions, because there’s no government funding going to them anymore,” says Marianne Wojciechowicz, programs manager for USO Las Vegas.
The local branch of the national organization known for entertaining troops overseas opened in Las Vegas at McCarran International Airport’s main terminal three years ago this month. It has been surprisingly successful for a fledgling operation. In 2012, it received an award for being the top-rated USO of its size in the country. It has 208 volunteers who staff the 2,800-square-foot center 24 hours a day, seven days a week, year-round, making sure that every active-duty military serviceperson and their family members have a place to eat, sleep, rest, play and be entertained on their way through town. By Thanksgiving, it will open a second, smaller location at the new Terminal 3. It’s also mulling one at Nellis Air Force Base, and eventually hopes to add a fourth at Creech.
These on-base locations are needed, Wojciechowicz says, because of the community outreach that USO Las Vegas does beyond the airport. Besides serving Nellis and Creech in Nevada, it also takes care of the Barstow Marine Corps Logistics Base, the Army’s National Training Center at Fort Irwin, and the Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in California. Southern Nevada programs include monthly dinners for spouses of deployed personnel and holiday-themed events, such as the Haunted Armory and Breakfast With Santa.
Perhaps most remarkably, overseeing all this activity is a full-time staff of two, Bradford and Wojciechowicz. Lean times have honed the pair’s resourcefulness: They partnered with the Transportation Security Administration, for instance, to recoup unopened drinks confiscated at security checkpoints. USO volunteers sanitize the bottles or cans, which are then sent by the case to events on bases or stocked individually in coolers at the airport centers for the consumption of passers-through. Bradford says that alone saved him $4,000 a year on a soda-machine lease and $18,000 on water.
Soon, such resourcefulness will be put to the test. For its first three years, USO Las Vegas fell under the budgetary auspices of the national organization. Beginning in January, however, it becomes self-sustaining. Bradford believes he’ll be able to make his $237,000 budget, but it won’t be easy. He’s successfully nailed some big sponsorships—the Jewish War Veterans Post 65 gives an $18,000 grant yearly to make sure every soldier leaving the center takes a snack bag with him—but cash donations are what keep the lights on, and those are the hardest to come by.
“It’s a little difficult in this economic environment, but it can be done,” Bradford says, mustering the attitude that’s gotten the center where it is. “We can do better.”