About 300 people turned out to celebrate the grand opening and dedication of a new USO Center at Tampa International Airport. The airport’s USO Center is the country’s first chartered center in almost two decades. It is expected to welcome an estimated 300,000 service men and women transiting through the airport every year.
“As Americans we are lucky to have the honorable men and women of our military defending our freedom every day and as residents of the Tampa Bay region, we are lucky to have the MacDill AFB as one of the strongest threads in the fabric of our community,” said Robert Watkins, vice chair of the Aviation Authority Board of Directors during the ceremony Sept. 6. “They add so much both culturally and economically we can never say thanks enough to MacDill. The USO Center here at TPA allows us to give back to our military and to MacDill and to clearly demonstrate our appreciation for their military service.”
To mark the occasion, U.S. Representatives Bill Young, Kathy Castor and Gus Bilirakis presented USO Tampa Bay with a flag that was flown over the U.S. Capitol building.
“You hear a lot about Congress always having differences and spats, arguments and debates, but when it comes to supporting our military there is no difference,” said U.S. Rep. Young, “Republican or Democrat, we are all under one flag and we all understand and value the freedom of this country.”
The USO is an organization that has been around since 1941 to help service men and women, but the organization has expanded over the years with programs for families of service members and wounded warriors.
The new center is one of 160 USO centers located around the world, 60 of which are in U.S. airports.
The Tampa airport center is furnished with comfortable chairs, a television, computers and plenty of snacks for the traveling service member who needs a little quiet time.
Randy Bucy, a Chief Warrant Officer with the Coast Guard Reserve, stopped by Tampa International Airport’s USO about a week after it opened. He said he has visited many airport USO centers across the country while traveling as part of an inspection team. Bucy was recently at the Coast Guard station in Clearwater and waiting on a flight to his next assignment Washington D.C. He said he often travels to several cities before returning to his home in Ohio.
“It’s nice when you are traveling, especially when you have several hours to spend in the airport, to come inside and relax,” Bucy said.
Volunteers staff the center. Tish Sheesley, Executive Director for USO Tampa Bay said 350 people have already signed up to offer their services, but the program will continue to recruit for the hundreds of volunteers needed to keep the center staffed from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day.