Mention the United Service Organizations -- almost universally known as the USO -- to most Americans, and the first thing you'll likely hear is "Bob Hope." The USO is eager to alter that image. Not that organizing performances for the troops isn't an integral part of their mission, but the expansive services they provide does so much more than entertain.
Today concludes HuffPost Impact's "Breaking the Roles" series, highlighting the servicemen and women of our armed forces who don't typically see the media spotlight, and the remarkable work of the USO, who are tireless in their efforts to support all who defend our country.
We wrote earlier this week on the "dignified transfer" process -- when fallen soldiers are flown back to America, and eventually transferred to their final resting place. Believe it or not, Dover Air Force Base in Delaware is the only base in the country that receives these soldiers. Their families are notified promptly, and are often at the base within 24 hours of being contacted. They can be there to see the coffins come off the plane.
On Friday, we featured chaplain David Sparks, whose job is to counsel those who work at the mortuary, and the families of the fallen. Today we're profiling Joan Cote, the director of USO Delaware, and the woman responsible for the dignified transfer. But, when I asked her about the process, she was adamant that the troops and their families are who deserve the spotlight, not her.
"The heart of America is who's giving their life out there," she told me. "The story of their loss isn't what happens on Dover Air Force base; it's the impact of their loss on their families. It's the story of America out there."
As we reported in our profile of chaplain Sparks, the USO has helped improve Dover's services with the inception of the Families of the Fallen center. The USO is informed of inbound transfers and prepares to receive the families, who are often still in shock -- some are notified no more than 24 hours earlier.
"[They're asked] so many questions," Cote said of the newly bereaved families. "Do you want to travel to Dover? What type of media they want to allow? That's a lot for anybody to try to comprehend in a fluid mindset, let alone in that grieving process. That has changed since the Family of the Fallen Center got built."
The stories that stick in her mind are always the most emotional. She told me of an American Samoan who had been killed in battle and was transferred to Dover before being placed on a flight back to the Samoan islands. The USO was informed that the family was unable to be present, and so his body was promptly loaded onto a plane.
Then the family showed up.
Cote described to me the following events, which occurred over a matter of minutes: "I called the Transient Alert troops and a young man named Skip Phillips answered the phone. I explained the situation and he said, 'They're on the far side of the ramp. I think we can stop them. Let me call the tower.'"
The plane was stopped as it was on the runway about to take off. The family was driven out to the runway and were given time to leave flowers on their son's coffin.
"It was a pretty emotional day. Multiple people came together in [very quickly] to do the right thing for this family. They were very emotional -- instead of being upset with people they were extremely grateful that all that happened in just a few minutes time. They stood there with their arms around each other watching the plane take off."
Joan Cote is the second to youngest of her four siblings. She had early ties to the military -- both of her parents were in the Marine Corps and her father served in Vietnam. When she grew older, her fiance joined the air force just before they got married.
She worked at Dover's public affairs office during Operation Desert Storm and, in 1990, initiated Show Our Support, a program to help boost morale in the military. It was so successful, that the program eventually morphed (through much preparation) into its own USO branch, USO Delaware.
Cote has now been the President of USO Delaware for two decades. She stresses that each branch has its own projects and challenges, but that the need for continued funding from the public is what makes it all possible.
"We're opening new centers every day. Kentucky, Las Vegas, Texas. The organization isn't stagnant -- it's constantly evolving, constantly changing."
Despite the many programs, Cote says it's usually the little things that make the biggest difference.
"A female soldier had come home on emergency leave," Cote said. "I walked up into the shower area with her and I gave her some powders and towels. I went back up 30 minutes later to check on her and she was crying. She said, 'Thank you for making me smell like a woman again.'"
Over the course of the "Breaking the Roles" series, everyone we spoke to had nothing but nice things to say about those that they work with. As a journalist, that's pretty rare. One of Joan Cote's final quotes to me summed up the USO's relationship with the U.S. military simply and eloquently.
"I have the best job in the world taking care of the greatest people in the world," she said.
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