About 60 young Marines step into the bustle of RDU International Airport, lugging camouflage duffels and wiping sleep from their eyes. They’ve traveled overnight from Camp Pendleton, Calif., and are headed to duty stations at Camp Lejeune and elsewhere.
Many are new to the mobility of military life, but Cathy Sheppard of Cary is there to help them navigate. She points them toward food and rest at the USO of North Carolina center, located in space donated by the RDU Airport Authority.
“When my grandson Ryan (a 2011 graduate of Cary High) joined the Air Force, it was devastating to send him off. I saw the USO and thought, ‘I could go there,’” said Sheppard, now USO of North Carolina’s Triangle area volunteer of the year. “Now for every person I help here, I hope that someone is helping Ryan.”
One of 11 USO of North Carolina sites in our state, the RDU center is separate from the national USO organization. It’s an independent nonprofit operated by volunteers and reliant on individual and corporate donations and sponsorships.
Its number one goal is to serve all troops stationed in or traveling through North Carolina, from Marines to “Coasties,” and their families.
“Our center at RDU is open 365 days a year, 24 hours a day,” said director Patricia DeZetter, also of Cary. On average its staff of two, including DeZetter, and 350 volunteers assist 5,500 service members each month.
“Our tagline is ‘The Force Behind the Forces,’” DeZetter said. “We’re here for them, so they can focus on their mission.”
Marine field artillery cannoneers and Pvts. Christian Herrera, 18, of Florida, and Benjamin Hamilton, 20, of Georgia, met in boot camp at Parris Island, S.C. They were surprised by the pizza and hospitality offered by USO of NC volunteers.
“This is my first time in a USO,” Hamilton said, scoping out the buffet of snacks and oversized recliners inside the center. He misses home, where he helped care for his grandfather, a Vietnam veteran.
“It feels great to get something to eat, for free,” said Herrera, “and have a place to hang out.”
Amenities range from a well-stocked children’s play area for families to the media center donated by Lenovo, where troops can play video games and print military documents.
Sgt. 1st Class Danielle Vazquez of Morrisville is a human resources specialist and a full-time, active-duty member of the North Carolina National Guard.
She recently returned from a nine-month deployment to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and often takes part in community events with the USO of NC. Vazquez joined the Guard about 15 years ago, after graduating from Fuquay-Varina High School.
“My parents were both active duty, and I grew up knowing this was something I wanted to do,” she said. “The Guard gives me a great opportunity to serve not only our country, but our state.
“We get a lot of support from the USO of North Carolina,” Vazquez said. “Their hometown touch makes a significant difference. They’re always there, and they don’t just support soldiers — we know we’ve got somebody to trust with our families.”
Beyond serving up snacks, the USO of NC provides relevant, resiliency-boosting programs such as Warrior Reset, focused on stress management, suicide prevention, health and relationships; Money Matters, on financial literacy; and Service Transition Employment Preparation, including résumé writing and hiring events.
Similar programs are offered for the spouses and families of service members, and the USO of NC serves as a facilitator for NC Serves, referring service members to that nonprofit for additional assistance.
“Multiple deployments mean service members often need to reconnect with their spouses and children, and their jobs,” DeZetter said. “People think USO and they think Bob Hope and dancing girls, but critical needs are being met here.”
“The USO of North Carolina has been supporting America’s service members for the past 75 years,” added Margaret Clevenger, director of communications. “We are always working to keep our programs up to date with today’s changing military.”
The USO of NC at RDU founded the Honors Support Team in 2006. Volunteer teams across the state ensure fallen service members and veterans are transported with dignity, while a Family Support Team assists Gold Star families in receiving their fallen loved ones.
“It’s emotional, to be with people on the worst day of their lives and help them through,” Sheppard said. “It’s an honor, but we wish we didn’t have to do it.”
USO of NC volunteers come from varied backgrounds, not all military-related but all with a desire to support our service members. They include veterans, family members, and even employees of corporate sponsors, who receive training on the language of the military.
Volunteers serve food, work the welcome desk, and help service members navigate the terminal. Others recently volunteered in the community to build more than 100 bikes for military children.
Sheppard says being a volunteer brings her as much joy as she gives.
“(The troops) are eager and excited to be doing what they’re doing. Everyone should see this.
“The USO of North Carolina has made me a better person,” she said. “Every day something touches my heart here. When Ryan gets out, I’m staying in the USO.”
Learn more about the work of the USO of North Carolina at RDU, at northcarolina.uso.org/raleighdurhamintlairport.
- The first and longest-operating USO center is located in Jacksonville, N.C.
- The USO of NC is not a government agency; it relies on donations to operate. Save the date: Salute to Freedom Gala, Sept. 30
- 12% of all active duty forces, and half of all U.S. Special Operations forces, live and work in N.C.
- 4th largest North Carolina’s rank among U.S. states in size of military presence
- 578,000 Jobs in N.C. that are supported by the military
- $66 billion The amount that military spending adds to the N.C. economy