USO Plans Family Centers at Bethesda, Belvoir

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The project was inspired by the Army Community Services center at Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, said Sloan Gibson, USO Inc. president, who toured the facility in March. He said he got to thinking about construction under way at Bethesda and Fort Belvoir for new military medical facilities and decided the new facilities needed similar centers.

The 25,000 square-foot facility at Bethesda will feature phone banks and computer banks where people can stay in touch with home, as well as places to get together and watch movies and football games and for troops and their families to play video games.

"We want to have a huge kitchen, because we've learned from [Brooke] in particular ... that that winds up being a real gathering place," Gibson said. "It's a very important part of creating that environment that makes people feel very much like they're at home."

USO officials also want to include a major training facility, as many of the wounded warriors and their families end up spending months -- and sometimes years -- at the medical facilities.

"That's a long time, and many of these troops and their families feel like they're kind of treading water," Gibson said. "They're doing their therapy, and they're working to get better, but in terms of other things, they don't necessarily feel like they're getting ready for what's next. What we wanted to do was to be able to provide a robust training and education space inside the building."

Navy Vice Adm. John Mateczun, commander of Joint Task Force National Capital Region Medical, called the USO's proposal "serendipitous," Gibson said.

"He was sitting there trying to develop a joint solution to deal with a lot of the very issues that we were talking about," he said. "From that first visit, we proceeded to visit with every command element conceivable that would be involved, even peripherally, in a project there at Bethesda."

Those visits started the USO down a parallel track planning a similar facility for Fort Belvoir with the Army, Gibson said.

The Fort Belvoir facility, though smaller at a planned 15,000 square feet, will possess all the qualities of the Bethesda center. The only true difference, besides floor space, is that the Bethesda center will have office space for governmental and nongovernmental organizations that wounded warriors and their families rely on for essential support. The same accommodations were offered for the Belvoir center, but the Army had already made provisions for them in a nearby building, Gibson said.

"One of the biggest challenges that these families have [is that] there are a lot of resources out there to help them, but finding those resources and actually benefitting from the service sometimes is a real challenge," Gibson said. "One of the thing we've offered to do at Bethesda is put, under the same roof, offices for the Veterans Affairs, offices for the Social Security Administration, offices for the billeting office."

USO of Metropolitan Washington, the local USO affiliate, will staff both facilities with some full-time staff and many volunteers, but just how many is still unknown.

"I think that's going to be one of those things we're going to have to wait and see," said Elaine Rogers, president of USO Metro. "We have about 5,000 USO volunteers in the metropolitan area, but [they're] not all hospital-related. We have hundreds of volunteers right now who help us with hospital programs, and we'll be expanding that."

And USO Metro plans to provide many programs, including everything from celebrities coming for autograph sessions to possibly having chefs come in to do cooking programs.

"We're really, really excited about this," Rogers said. "[We're] trying to take some of the things that everybody experiences in life and kind of bring them to that center."

The chance to get out of a hospital environment and relax somewhere that feels more like home is an important part of the healing process, said Deborah Mullen, wife of Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a nonvoting member of the USO Metro board.

"I really do believe [this] is going to be a significant assist in the healing process, just because of the ability to get away, to be calm, to be out of the hospital with the noises and the smells -- all of the things that go on in a hospital," she said. "This will be just a very quiet peaceful environment."

Mullen said she knows first-hand the effect these centers can have on wounded warriors and their families. When she travels with her husband, she makes a point of trying to visit USO airport centers or nearby family centers.

Recently she visited a family center in Germany.

"What they're going to do here, it's very similar to the [USO Warrior Center] in Landstuhl, which Michael and I just visited before Christmas," Mullen said. "I think what we can expect is the same sort of place that's almost a home away from home. It's outside the hospital, but yet on the campus, easily reachable. It's a place, really, for rest, restoration, respite -- a comfortable place to go where you can just renew."

But it's not just the warriors who need to be able to get away from the sights, sounds and smells associated with a hospital stay. Family members also need that respite. The USO centers will give families a place to relax outside their rooms at a Fisher House, the Navy Lodge or motel where they're staying.

While the homey feel surely will be welcome, Mullen said, at some point those relaxing in the new home-like family centers will recognize that these centers are really the American people showing their support and gratitude to the nation's servicemembers and their families.

"I think this is an expression of the citizens of our country wanting to help support our men and women," Mullen said. "I think that will register with them."

Gibson said he expects the two facilities to cost about $25 million to build, equip and furnish. The USO, however, is hoping to raise $100 million. That would cover the cost of the construction another $20 million to $25 million to endow their perpetual operation, including permanent staff and some supplies, and $50 million to support an array of "best-in-class programs" to support wounded warriors and their families.

Should fundraising go smoothly, Gibson said, he's hoping to break ground on the Bethesda center July 4 and would like to see both buildings completed by Sept. 15, 2011, the day the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., is scheduled to close, with its patients moving to Bethesda or Fort Belvoir.