Earlier in November, Holly Coffer, the manager for the USO center at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, visited a group of American soldiers deployed in East Africa.
She came bearing gifts. After some stress-relieving games — bingo, trivia — Coffer presented care packages to the soldiers. The official USO care packages, about the size of a shaving kit, come with toiletries and sundries that service members might need on short notice while in a remote location: razors, shower gel, deodorant, toothpaste, dental floss.
One of the tan care packages had inside of it a special surprise: A single golden ticket, which signified that package was the 3 millionth care package the USO has delivered to U.S. troops since the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
That 3 millionth care package was opened by U.S. Army Cpl. Kayla Lystad, 24, of the Minnesota National Guard’s 2nd Battalion, 135th Infantry Regiment. The McGregor native is among 900 service members from Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois currently deployed with Task Force Bayonet in the Horn of Africa.
The golden ticket meant Lystad got an extra package: A separate bag filled with USO swag, plus a pair of Apple AirPods and a gift certificate to Lowe’s.
“Part of military life is you’re separated from what the majority of Americans experience,” said Coffer, a North Carolina native whose family military history stretches back to the Revolutionary War. “The USO is a bridge between military life and the civilian world. It’s great for someone to remember that they’re out there and sacrificing.”
The USO, which will celebrate its 80th anniversary next year, has been especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic. Coffer said soldiers who are thrown into unexpected quarantine because of COVID-19 have been a USO focus in recent months. Of the nearly 200,000 care packages the USO has delivered this year, 60,000 were to support soldiers impacted by COVID.
Whether it’s these care packages or one of the 50-some USO airport lounges around the country where service members can take a nap or grab a snack, the USO connects with service members in multiple ways. In 2019, the USO provided services to military service members nearly 13 million times.
In one of the USO’s most meaningful programs, soldiers are recorded reading a bedtime book for their children. On Thanksgiving, the Camp Lemonnier USO will play Family Feud with soldiers.
“There’s a much bigger message in that package,” said Christopher Plamp, the USO’s senior vice president for operations, programs and entertainment. “We’re the vehicle for America to support serving service members, and the care package is the physical manifestation of that. Somebody remembers we’re in Afghanistan. Somebody remembers we’re in Somalia. That’s a powerful statement, that somebody cares.”