USO still going strong at 40

Just in time for Veterans Day, San Francisco International Airport on Thursday honored its United Service Organization for 40 years of service to military servicemen and women.

While the organization’s 70 volunteers applauded the gaggle of uniformed military personnel from all branches for their service, the same sharply-dressed, uniformed men and women in turn crowded USO volunteers to thank them for everything from sandwiches to shelter to help with the bus system.

“You’re our customers,” George Proud, president of the USO of Northern California Board of Directors, told the service people in the audience. “You’re what we’re all about.”

U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Thomas Brown said the term “USO” reminds him of traveling, being away from home, Bob Hope, Marilyn Monroe and Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders and football players who visited his unit while stationed on a boat.

For airport spokesman Mike McCarron, also a U.S. Naval Reserve captain, the chocolate milkshakes that saved him from the heat in Okinawa come to mind. For San Francisco resident, U.S. Air Force veteran and USO volunteer Paul Vermeulen, it’s a stark reminder of lonely travels while stationed in the Netherlands.

“I like to help the military out,” Vermeulen said. “I remember it’s very lonesome traveling.”

The completely volunteer-staffed, donation-based organization at SFO is the oldest continually operating USO facility in the country, McCarron said. SFO provides surplus equipment like computers and a room free of charge to the group, which provides entertainment, transportation help, coffee and, when they can acquire it, food for soldiers and their families.

The airport USO sees approximately 2,000 enlisted men and women pass through per month, volunteer Susan Shapira said. Many of them are heading to training programs in Monterey or Petaluma, while out-of-towners arrive immediately to be deployed and others, on bereavement leave, return home for a death in the family, she said.

South San Francisco resident Lola Picchi began volunteering more than two years ago. She was looking for volunteer work and a neighbor pointed her toward the airport USO.

“Some of these kids come off the plane and don’t know the first thing about getting on the bus or getting something to eat,” Picchi said. “We have to let them know that we’re there to take care of them.”

tramroop@examiner.com

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