USO volunteers give traveling troops respite at RDU

Posted December 25, 2012 6:49 p.m. EST
Updated December 26, 2012 5:17 p.m. EST

— Tucked away in a corner at Raleigh Durham International Airport, the United Service Organizations prepares day and night to welcome traveling troops into a calm, comfortable rest stop.

Food is always at the ready, as are inviting recliners and couches, a play area for children and a computer work space at the USO Travel Center. It's a place to take a load off, and for 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, volunteers, including some veterans, greet military men and women with a "thank you" for their service.

Tuesday was no exception.

"This is only the second time I've worked on Christmas," said Marine and Air Force vet Glenn Burns, a USO volunteer. "Ed over here has worked three or four times on Christmas."

Why does Navy vet Ed Klein spend his Christmas serving the troops?

"Why? It's a way of giving back. I was fortunate that, when I did serve, I got out with my skin," Klein said. "I was in combat in the Battle of the Bulge in World War II, so I was thankful that I got home alive in one piece."

In fact, there is nowhere he'd rather spend his holiday.

"My family is here," he said. "My family is here, as far as the USO is concerned."

Bradley Smith, an Army soldier who recently returned from a deployment to Afghanistan, was glad to spend part of his Christmas Day at the USO rest stop, too.

"I like to get away from the hustle and bustle of the airport," Smith said. "Plus they have free food, free drinks, a sweet recliner."

People donated food and toys to the USO Travel Center throughout the holiday season. One group of donors, who wanted to be anonymous, dropped off a box of goodies on Christmas Day.

"It was a couple of guys. They were older guys, not as old as I am but older guys, and one of them had an Air Force T-shirt on," Burns said. "I asked them to fill out a donation slip and he said, 'Nah.' And I said, 'Well, who are you? What group?' and he said, 'Oh, we're just the good guys,' and they jumped in their car and left."

Their donation will keep traveling military families happy as they navigate the crowds and commotion of the airport.

Burns and Klein said today's troops need all the help and support they can get.

"It's very hard to relate to them because you don't want to sit down and ask someone where they've been, what they do," Klein said. "That's none of my business."

The job brings certain difficult lessons. 

"One thing you learn early on is, if they're being deployed, you don't ask them their name," Burns said. "You never want to read the paper that one of them got injured or killed and know their name. It hurts."

The most important lesson Burns takes away from his work is that national defense is in capable hands.

"I was a Marine, and I look at them and think, I'd have never made it through boot camp compared to these kids," he said. "They're big, smart, strong kids."

The USO Travel Center seems to be in good hands, too.

"It's just doing what you can to help them get through," said Klein. "I try to help them while they're here. That's my job."