Giving Back to Their Communities Through the USO: Volunteer Stories of Service

It’s no secret that volunteers are the heartbeat of the USO. From helping run local virtual programs, to staffing airport locations in the early morning hours, to stepping in wherever else they are needed, this dedicated group of military supporters is an integral part the USO’s ability to deliver a touch of home to service members all around the world.

In every moment they dedicate to the USO, the organization’s roughly 30,000 volunteers embody the ideals of service, selflessness and community improvement.

While each and every USO volunteer is critical to helping the USO accomplish its mission, some volunteers go above and beyond the call of duty so often, and to such a degree, that their efforts merit them the honor of Regional Volunteer of the Year. This group of stand-out volunteers have all donated hundreds – if not thousands – of hours to the USO, making them an integral part of their USO volunteer teams. Often, theirs is the face you first see walking into a USO location, greeting you with a smile. They’re the person that “always seems to be at the USO,” or is “always willing to help.”

Simply stated, they embody the mission of the USO and inspire those around them with their dedication to community service and commitment to our nation’s military. Get to know this year’s group of honorees and join us in thanking them for their support of our service members:

Joseph Martin | Pacific | USO Camp Walker, South Korea

There are 730 hours in a month. For the average person, 240 of those hours are spent working and another 240 hours are spent sleeping, leaving just 310 hours of free time to devote to other activities, like spending time with friends and family, exercising, running errands or pursuing personal passions. On Camp Walker, South Korea, standout USO volunteer Joseph Martin has devoted, on average, an astonishing 93 hours of his precious free time every month to improving his local community through the USO. Since February 2020 alone, Martin, who is also a service member, has volunteered over 840 hours, a massive feat given all the ever-changing conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“He has been phenomenal to the success of USO Walker by his friendly and caring presence in the center, which creates a home-away-from-home feeling for all the patrons who enter,” said USO Camp Walker Center Director Luis Freyre.

Martin is no ordinary volunteer. In 2020, he donated his time to over 60 different USO outreach programs within the Camp Walker community and single-handedly prepared over 600 snack packs for the USO center’s Motor Pool Monday Snack Drop Off program. He also stepped up to serve as the dedicated weekend volunteer, ensuring the center could stay open as a place for service members and their families to relax on Saturdays and Sundays.

“He has a passion for volunteering and understands the importance of volunteering,” Freyre said.

“He’s always willing to help where he can, ensuring things get completed on time and the right way.”

In his time with USO Camp Walker, Martin has become a role model for other volunteers and staff. From stepping up to train over 20 new volunteers, to embracing simple tasks - like cleaning - with a positive attitude, to utilizing his leadership and communication skills to build relationships with center patrons and fellow volunteers, Martin is a joy to have as a USO Camp Walker volunteer.

“[Martin’s] personality, charisma and professionalism are on fully display as he is truly dedicated to provided the best welcome and friendly environment at USO Camp Walker,” Freyre said.

Sean Erdrich | Europe | USO Incirlik, Turkey

It would have been easy for Sean Erdrich to stop volunteering at USO Incirlik when the center temporarily closed its doors in spring 2020 due to COVID-19 restrictions. The in-person events he loved to support every week, like Brunch 4 Troops and Waffle Wednesdays, were either canceled or modified for social distancing, and the USO staff had pivoted to offering mostly virtual events. Volunteering for the USO suddenly looked very different than what he had originally signed up for.

But anyone who’s met Erdrich, who is also a service member, knows that he’s not the type of person to step back in face of a challenge or uncertainty; rather, he leans in and looks for any way he can be helpful, encouraging or spreading joy.

“Sean is a service member who selflessly sacrifices his time off duty to better those around him, mentor younger troops and always [makes] sure that he leaves environments better than when he arrived,” said Matt Millen, the former USO Incirlik center manager.

In the months since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Erdrich has found countless ways to continue volunteering for the USO. From helping the staff brainstorm virtual program ideas, to testing new livestreamed technology, to hosting the center’s virtual Trivia and Netflix Watch Party events, Erdrich has continued to serve and improve his local community through his USO volunteerism.

“Sean [Erdrich] has been an instrumental part of helping the staff during this time of transition,” Millen said.

“He has been a great example of how volunteers can remain involved while not specifically in the center.”

In addition to stepping up to virtually volunteer for USO Incirlik, Erdrich is also passionate about spreading the word about the USO and all its offering to his fellow service members via social media.

“He has made an outstanding impact on service members, the Incirlik community, the USO and their staff, and continues to bring great credit upon himself [and others],” Millen said.

Derek Shibles | Southwest Asia | USO Horn of Africa, Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti

When Derek Shibles first started volunteering at the USO at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, chances are he didn’t expect to become the unofficial “face of the USO” at an undisclosed location in the region. But of course, in a year where unexpected events surprised the world time and time again, that’s exactly what happened.

Thanks to the nature of his military job, Shibles, also a service member, traveled to remote locations within the Horn of Africa. During these travels, Shibles took it upon himself to go above and beyond his normal volunteer duties by bringing USO support along with him so he could host USO morale-boosting events for service members at these remote locations.

“These events were the only morale events to be hosted at these locations,” said Jennifer Weber, the former USO Horn of Africa duty manager at Camp Lemonnier.

When he wasn’t busy bringing the goodness of the USO downrange, Shibles brought his positive attitude to other parts of his volunteerism at the USO. From hosting bingo and Texas Hold ‘Em events, to training and mentoring new volunteers, to always exhibiting a willingness to step in and help, he became a crucial part of the USO Horn of Africa team. When the center temporarily closed its doors and switched to virtual programming due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Shibles even took it upon himself to research best way for the USO to continue offering the popular Texas Hold ‘Em event virtually.

“In addition to seeing a solution for our center, he collaborated with our [USO] Iraq team and helped them launch their own Texas Hold ‘Em event,” Weber said.

“[Shibles] has become a role model for other volunteers by exhibiting a willingness to help and a desire to go above and beyond what is expected.”

Tiwanda Griffin-Greer | East/Southeast U.S. | USO North Carolina

Tiwanda Griffin-Greer began volunteering at USO North Carolina at the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base location before the center even opened in November 2019. She’s been a tireless recruiter of other volunteers and a motivator to everyone ever since.

Since the center opening, Griffin-Greer has taken on a slew of important responsibilities, such as serving as the center volunteer coordinator, participating in a number of center operations, ensuring the USO center is kept clean for military members and their families and countless other behind-the-scenes jobs.

“Tiwanda [Griffin-Greer] is a servant leader,” said Torette Williams, a USO North Carolina center operations supervisor.

A veteran and survivor of the shooting at Lackland Air Force Base in 2016, Griffin-Greer’s resiliency inspires others. She actively mentors many other volunteers and service members. She offers career guidance and other resources for schools, cross-training, financial literacy and more.

“She is very organized and self-motivated and loves to mentor others, enabling them to be their best, in and out of uniform. We are honored and grateful to have her as a valuable member of our Seymour Johnson Air Force Base USO Center team,” Williams said.

As she lifts the spirits of our service members and their families, Griffin-Greer is also lifting her own. She said volunteering at the USO gives her great joy and purpose.

“It means the world to me. I volunteer as a way to give back of myself,” Griffin-Greer said.

“To also be recognized for my service is an added bonus and … I couldn’t be more ecstatic.”

Patty Marking | Central U.S. | USO Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas

Selfless, thoughtful and dedicate are just a few of the many positive words that come to mind when describing USO Dallas/Fort Worth Volunteer Patty Marking.

A military family member herself – her son is currently deployed overseas – Marking has volunteered over 7,000 hours with the USO over the past several years. Throughout her time with the USO, she has risen to the ranks of volunteer team leader and now helps guide and train her fellow volunteers on the best way to support center patrons.

“Patty [Marking] goes above and beyond for our guests and also our volunteers. There are times when the shift after hers is short-staffed, so she will stay to volunteer with them,” said Christin Dixon, a center operations specialist at USO Dallas/Fort Worth.

“She always puts everyone first.”

Marking’s dedication to serving her local military community with the USO also prompted her to join, and eventually lead, the USO location’s Honor/Fallen Hero Team. This team of volunteers greets more than 100 fallen and repatriated heroes every year. Once Marking became involved with the team, she helped boost team engagement and attendance to ensure the missions were properly supported.

“Thanks to her, every [Honor/Fallen Hero Team] mission has been attended by USO Dallas/Fort Worth volunteers for the past couple of years,” Dixon said.

When she’s not leading a volunteer team or stepping in to assist USO staff with a number of administrative tasks, Marking can be spotted spreading her positive energy, kindness and respect for the military community to all those who enter the USO.

Tom Rowan | Midwest U.S. | USO Illinois

There’s a good chance that if you head to the USO center in Terminal 2 at Chicago O’Hare Int’l Airport in the middle of the night, Tom Rowan will be there to greet you.

Rowan, a veteran, has been volunteering for the “zero dark thirty” overnight shift at the USO in Terminal 2 since 2010. Thanks to Rowan, the center is able to stay open and provide support to service members or military families who might find themselves unexpectedly stuck at the airport overnight.

“Before Tom [Rowan] was a volunteer, we struggled to fill the midnight shift,” said Lindsy Wadas, the center manager at the O’Hare location. “Tom [Rowan] is very dependable. We always know he’ll be there if he’s on the schedule and that everything will be done perfectly.”

Another one of the shifts Rowan volunteers to take every week is on Saturday morning, when hundreds of Navy sailors arrive at O’Hare from Naval Station Great Lakes. Rowan never skips an opportunity help out USO staff who are also on the ground to support the incoming grads and he happily helps the young sailors settle into the USO.

“Tom [Rowan] is selfless and we can always count on him to do the right thing and put our military and their needs first,” Wadas said.

In addition to stepping up to volunteer in the early morning hours, Rowan can also be counted on to help orient and train new volunteers. “Many of our new volunteers … have said how thorough he was and how much they learned on their shadow shifts,” Wadas said.

“He is truly dedicated to carrying out the USO mission and is always eager to serve and support our traveling military.”

Patty Mar Simmons | West U.S. | USO Nevada

It’s hard to overstate the role that Patty Mar Simmons plays at USO Nevada and throughout the West region.

From assisting with the development of all marketing materials for USO Nevada activities, to managing center seasonal decorations in the Las Vegas area, to leading the planning of the annual Volunteer Appreciation Dinner, Mar Simmons wears many hats as a dedicated volunteer. She also leads the Boyd Christmas Tree fundraising event in December and assists with countless behind-the-scenes administrative and operational tasks.

“Patty [Mar Simmons] has been instrumental,” said Regional Director of Operations David Thorson.

In her years volunteering with the USO, Patty has spent over 1,900 hours serving the local Nevada military community through the organization.

“She is one of the lead volunteers that can fill in for staff … when staff is not available,” Thorson said.

During the past year, Mar Simmons was an unwavering force of consistency for USO Nevada during periods of uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and staffing changes. Mar Simmons not only kept the ball rolling on several key initiatives for USO Nevada during a year full of change, but also helped new center staff members as they settled into their new roles.

“She devotes countless hours to providing support as, and when, [it is] needed,” Thorson said.

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