For a few hours that night, they relaxed. Their guard temporarily down, they dined on freshly made tacos. Music played in the background.
The San Diego skyline formed a familiar, if ever present, backdrop. Sailboats bobbed in the harbor as they came together through conversation. New relationships formed; bonds strengthened.
“We don’t often have time to step back, and get together and hang out,” explained Lt. j.g. Liesl Olson, public affairs officer at Coast Guard Sector San Diego. “For all of us to hang out together, it’s kinda rare.”
In the first six months of 2021, Coast Guardsmen from Sector San Diego conducted 236 search and rescue missions and seized 3,816 pounds of narcotics (valued at $2.5 million). Already, they have apprehended over 1,108 undocumented immigrants, including narcotics and human smugglers.
From the Pacific Ocean and coast off San Diego to Arizona, and portions of southern Nevada and Utah, Sector San Diego provides law and maritime safety enforcement, marine and environmental protection, and military naval support across 165,912 square miles.
“This is a stressful job,” Olson said, “so any chance to unwind is always welcome.”
Earlier this year on March 9, 90 Coast Guardsmen, including Olson, came together for dinner inside an air hangar on base. The evening event was hosted by USO San Diego using funding from the Gary Sinise Foundation.
Two of the Coast Guard’s top brass, master chief petty officer Jason Vanderhaden, who holds the highest senior enlisted rank, and the commandant, Admiral Karl Schultz, were also in attendance. Two days after the event, Adm. Schultz delivered the 2021 State of the Coast Guard from Sector San Diego.
Each month, at military installations around the country and overseas (including Veterans Affairs medical centers), the Gary Sinise Foundation sponsors a free meal for service members and their families called Serving Heroes. Since 2015, 44 military installations have delivered a whopping 391,862 meals.
“It was just good company, we had some good music playing in the background, and good food,” said Lt. j.g. Tara Strauss. Earlier in the day, Strauss and her flight crew performed a training mission over the Navy’s Outlying Landing Field at Imperial Beach. Strauss, who serves as the morale, wellness, and recreation officer when she isn’t flying, said the Serving Heroes event “was a good experience.”
USO San Diego operates five locations in the county. Its presence extends from Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton to San Diego International Airport. For military families stationed in San Diego, or who are briefly visiting, the USO provides myriad resources from helping military spouses obtain employment and build professional skills to helping teenagers acclimate to their community and prepare for adulthood.
Entertainment, including free meals to service members and their families, is but one of its hallmarks in a region synonymous with the armed forces. According to the latest military economic impact study, the San Diego Military Advisory Council found that over 143,000 active duty personnel – the largest population of service members in the world – reside in the region. The county is home to an estimated 240,000 veterans.
Funding from the Gary Sinise Foundation “really does go right back to the troops that we’re serving,” said Ashley Camac, USO San Diego’s executive director. “The military lifestyle, these are things that are being addressed through serving our heroes.”
The Coast Guard, Camac said, “They’re running into danger. From their families to the service member, they’re running out to the emergency. They are a part of the first response team, and the ability to support them when they’re going through something that is that intense, it might seem like a meal, but it’s so much more.”
“It’s a needed break. It’s a reprieve from the mental mindset that is constantly looking at something from a very rigorous perspective.”
And through strategic partnerships the USO has with the Gary Sinise Foundation and other organizations, Camac concluded, “We’re able to support our military in a really unique way, literally at their command level, working with their leadership to boost morale, meet their needs, and really just say thank you.”
“We have a really tight-knit team here,” Olson, the public affairs officer, said about the 313 active duty personnel, including 134 in reserve, at Sector San Diego. “Anytime to spend time together is always a blessing. The chance to sit down and have a meal and talk with people who you might not get to talk with on a normal basis...it’s kinda cool to sit down and have a chance to get together.”