Sandlapper Society

South Carolina Military

USO Supports South Carolina's Finest

By W. Thomas Smith Jr.

When we consider South Carolina’s rich military history and tradition, one of the key underpinnings of that heritage is the fact that our state’s citizens have always embraced the military. We love our historic military sites, and we have always fought to protect our bases. But it is the support of our men and women in uniform that has been the lifeblood of our military heritage, which is why organizations such as USO South Carolina have always thrived in the Palmetto State.

Nationally, the USO (United Service Organization) has been around— though deactivated, reinstated, downsized and expanded at various times— since World War II, and it has had a strong off-and-on presence in the Palmetto State at least for that long. USO, as portrayed in old movies, has always been a home-away-from-home for soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, who could stop by, have a Coke, play checkers and chat with a pretty girl. And we all remember the great Bob Hope USO tours which entertained our military forces worldwide.

Today, the USO— a congressionally chartered, private nonprofit organization— operates more than 160 locations in 27 U.S. states and 14 countries with a mission of “lifting the spirits of America’s troops and their families.” And nowhere on earth is this spirit-lifting more obvious than right here in South Carolina where the majority of the Army’s hopefuls pass through enroute to basic training at Ft. Jackson, and every Marine recruit east of the Mississippi River attends Parris Island.

USO South Carolina centers around a 900-sq-ft facility (which opened its doors in the summer of 2010) located in the atrium at the Columbia Metropolitan Airport in the heart of the Palmetto State. But USO volunteers support our troops regularly, reaching out— and often traveling to destinations— beyond Columbia.

At the national leve,  USO is involved in everything from providing lounge areas stateside and overseas, to providing clothing and toiletries for wounded and injured troops returning from the front, sponsoring trips to ballgames and concerts, and providing emergency funds for troops and their families.

Moreover, the organization offers foreign language programs for troops overseas as well as programs enabling deployed troops to spend video moments with their families in real-time. Frankly, the support programs are endless.

Here in South Carolina, we are a microcosm of the USO’s national efforts. At the Columbia facility, USO offers free access to computers with games and Internet, TVs with DVD players, books, magazines, snacks, soft drinks, bottled water, and the voices of encouragement and— more often than not—  experience, as the facility is usually staffed by volunteers who are retired, prior or active members of the Guard, Reserve and regular armed forces. USO volunteers also find themselves driving around the state picking up and delivering supplies, booking flights and generally availing themselves to young recruits away from home for the first time.

As of this writing, USO South Carolina is planning to open (Sept. 7, 2011) its second facility at Camp McCrady on Ft. Jackson.

The McCrady facility, known as a “USO in a Box,” is a 250-sq-ft mobile unit capable of comfortably accommodating 20 troops at a time. Service members returning from overseas deployments will quickly recognize “USO in a Box” as the same modular facility they experienced in the forward operating bases overseas. And South Carolina— a state with a lot of military “firsts”— is the first state to have a “Box” as a freestanding USO facility.

“In addition to the ‘Box’ we are renovating a day room [at Camp McCrady],” says Joanie Thresher, director of USO South Carolina. “Thanks to community partners such as Lowe’s of Columbia’s ‘HEROES’ program for providing materials and manpower to transform the space, Courtyard Hotel Downtown at USC for providing resources needed to gain connectivity, U.S. Lawn Services for their donations of plants and landscaping, La-Z-Boy Furniture in Lexington for providing furniture, Serve-a-Cup for providing a water cooler, Universal Vending for a pool table, and Moore Quality Builders for providing their leadership and friendship in putting this all together for the USO South Carolina.”

Thresher adds, “In addition to the Box and Day Room offering connectivity, entertainment and relaxation, it will also have a USO United-Through-Reading room. This will be sponsored by North American Rescue, LLC, but we will need additional partners to support this program.”

USO South Carolina has always been vital to the well-being of our troops, now more than ever. I personally benefited from USO support years ago as a young Marine. But perhaps the best endorsement of this incredible organization are the six words uttered by Marine Sgt. Dakota Meyer, the most recent recipient of the Medal of Honor, who says USO “helped me out many, many times.”

National Guard’s Youth ChalleNGe Academy Saves Lives

We’ve all heard of— and some have experienced— the disturbing new criminal-trend of wave-attacks against persons and property by teenagers known as “flash-mobs.” The crimes are unsettling in terms of the immediate threat, but, in a broader sense, bodes ill for the future of our society and culture.

The trend is fueled by aimless youth, searching for identity and a sense of belonging.

Society, they feel, has rejected them. But a second-chance school for these youth at Camp McCrady (on Ft. Jackson) is demonstrating to troubled youth (like the flash-mob teens) that someone does care; in this case, the S.C. National Guard.

It’s a tough-love program known as Youth ChalleNGe (the upper case “NG” reflecting the National Guard’s oversight) Academywherein at-risk kids age 16−19 can enter a five-month “quasi-military” school and, upon successful completion of the program return home with the values, skills, education, self-esteem and self-discipline to succeed as an adult. Therein lies an additional problem: far too often “returning home” means returning to the same destructive environment that led these teens to the Youth ChalleNGe Academy in the first place.

But Youth ChalleNGe Academy has a unique solution; a one-year “mentoring phase” in which the new graduate is paired with an adult mentor who works with the grad to keep him or her on the right track.

The curriculum is tough. And the Academy’s director, Col. Jackie Fogle— a serving S.C. State Guard officer and former member of U.S. Army Special Forces who retired from the Army National Guard— won’t pretend otherwise. “We’re not a boot camp,” says Fogle. “But this is not easy either. These kids have to want to be here. They have to commit to turning their lives around.”

The success rate is remarkable. Since 1998, more than 3,000 young South Carolinians have graduated from Youth ChalleNGe Academy. More than half of the Academy’s cadets have obtained a GED, “which is significant because 100 percent of the graduates were either high school dropouts or expellees,” says Fogle.

Many Academy graduates have entered military service or gone on to college. Recognizing this value, the S.C. legislature has appropriated— and Gov. Nikki Haley has approved— $1-million for the program, which will also receive federal match funding. Sounds like a lot, but recurring funds are needed if we want to keep this necessary program in South Carolina.  

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Look for more articles on South Carolina’s military heritage and tradition, as well as our state’s military impact on the nation and the world, in upcoming issues of Sandlapper. And read indepth W. Thomas Smith Jr. interviews with some of South Carolina’s military leaders on


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