A pointed question hung in the air last spring as the violent spread of the novel
coronavirus forced USO locations to cease many in-person programs.
Chief among these was Serving Heroes. The marquee, monthly event sponsored by the Gary Sinise Foundation, provides free meals to service members and military families. Envisioned as “an opportunity to form connections and strengthen communities,” COVID-19 turned Serving Heroes on its head.
At Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio, USO staff and volunteers asked themselves: What are we going to do now to serve these families?
The rapid change in circumstances — and varied rollout of local, state, and federal health directives brought on by the pandemic — led organizers to think outside the box for a solution. Where once Wright-Patterson USO served meals to nearly 100 military families inside its auditorium with each event, the staff, like their peers elsewhere, cleverly found an answer: a drive-thru.
“We routinely, every large-scale Serving Heroes drive-thru we did, we fed over 100 families. That’s a huge, huge impact,” said Erik Oberg, manager at Wright-Patterson USO, about Serving Heroes.
“We did seven drive-thrus in 2020. That’s 700 families.”
In mid-March, with a stay-at-home order in effect, drive-thru Serving Heroes became an anticipated occasion for the estimated 7,000 active-duty airmen at Wright-Patterson and the hundreds of military families who call the sprawling base and its surrounding community home.
Drive-thrus were anything but ordinary.
Along Birch Street leading to the USO facility, U.S. flags line the sidewalk with colorful posters featuring encouraging messages: “Even though we can’t share a table WE CAN SHARE A MEAL / Dinner is Better TOGETHER.”
Holidays like Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas were celebrated with elaborate decorations and festive, boxed meals.
“Every time we go, we go through the drive-thru line — we’ve done a few now — they are the nicest people. They make my kids feel like a million bucks every time,” said Emily Keiser about USO volunteers at Serving Heroes.
She and her husband, Andy, a master sergeant, and their two children, Nora, and Jett, moved to Wright-Patterson in 2019. The family’s fourth move in 12 years, Keiser said, was exhaustive.
“It’s a lot on the kids, but it’s just more to juggle,” she explained. “Now we have to move four people instead of two. We have to figure out schools. They have to leave their friends. They have to do all this stuff that they really shouldn’t be asked to do or shouldn’t have to do.”
During Month of the Military Child in April this year, Keiser said her children received sidewalk chalk and other fun surprises, like Girl Scout cookies, with their meal. “My kids do sacrifice a lot, and they deserve that little bit of extra kindness.”
That kindness wasn’t lost on Liane Sehrt and her two daughters, Payton and Adaline. The April event came right before her husband, Dan, an anesthesiologist, deployed to Honduras for several weeks in May for a joint Army-Air Force training operation.
“It was wonderful to just pause and not have to think about getting any food together for everyone,” said Sehrt, a veterinarian at a local animal hospital. “We could just eat and relax and then refocus on getting everything together that we need to do for the next month to make sure that we could keep continuing on in life.”
With pickups organized into blocks of time, she said the drive-thru was a seamless experience. “There was no detail left unturned. Just a thoroughly run, well put together event to make me feel appreciated.”
“It makes a big difference in feeling valued and feeling like the sacrifices that you make, no matter how small they are, or insignificant they may seem, that someone is still valuing those.”
“We’re in this position because we very much believe in service over self,” Sehrt said, “and it’s nice to realize that there's others out there that recognize that commitment and want to thank you for it.”
The Gary Sinise Foundation began supporting Wright-Patterson Air Force Base USO in 2016. Since then, an estimated 7,397 military families have received a Serving Heroes meal, including Ohio Air National Guard and Reserve units.
In 2020 alone, the USO held 18 events sponsored by the foundation. Oberg, an Air Force veteran, and military spouse, estimates 3,600 service members and military families received a meal.
He said with each event, meals purchased from local restaurants benefit the region’s economy.
“It’s a huge impact for a business like ours,” explained Teresa Howard Geraci. She and her husband, J.R., own Beavercreek Pizza Dive, a New York-style pizzeria with 22 employees at its sole location in Beavercreek.
The spike in sales from a USO order doesn’t just impact the bottom line, Geraci said. For all the short-term gain, there is exponential value in a long-term customer. “The bigger impact is to be introduced to some USO participating families that would not have found us otherwise.”
At a Serving Heroes drive-thru earlier this year, Beavercreek Pizza Dive provided families with a “Take ‘N’ Bake” pizza box. Inside were pizza dough and toppings organized into neatly packed baggies.
“It got my kids involved and helped us have an activity to do during Covid when we can’t do much,” said Keiser. “They loved it. It was super fun.”
The USO celebrated its eightieth anniversary in February. Founded months before the United States entered the Second World War after the attack at Pearl Harbor, the organization is honoring the milestone by encouraging Americans to actively show their gratitude to service members through a campaign called Give More Than Thanks.
Using grant funding from the Gary Sinise Foundation, USO locations worldwide are doing exactly that: delivering a hot meal to service members and their families; a small gesture of gratitude and appreciation.
Giving more than thanks.