Pfc. Thaddeus Roush, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, looks at his cellphone while Sgt. Marchial Barnes, Headquarters and Headquarters Company, U.S. Army Garrison, eats a hot dog during the USO’s weekly hot dog lunch Wednesday at the Fort Hood USO building.

By Amanda Kim Stairrett
Killeen Daily Herald

FORT HOOD — Hot dogs, drinks, chips and candy bars were flying Wednesday afternoon at USO Fort Hood.

Well, not literally, but volunteers stayed busy making sure hungry soldiers were happy during the organization’s daily free lunch hour.

Mondays are corn dog days, Tuesdays are chimichangas or Hot Pockets, Wednesdays are Hump Day Hot Dogs, “Nacho Average Thursday” is next and Friday menus rotate among several local restaurants that offer everything from pizza to burritos to pulled pork sliders.

‘Home away from home’

Daily lunches for soldiers are part of maintaining the organization’s goal.

“It’s all about the home away from home, and it’s all about making sure that we’re here to meet their needs all the time,” said Robin Crouse, USO Fort Hood director.

It’s a place where soldiers, many of whom are unmarried and living in barracks, can get some food and a cold drink and get on the Internet, play video games or watch a movie. It’s also a way that the public, even if it’s just through a free hot dog, can say “thanks” to soldiers, Crouse said.

Crouse has been involved with USO for nine years — five of that as a paid staff member. She wants to show troops they are loved and appreciated and the nation would be lost without them, she said.

“I think it’s very, very honorable to work among our heroes,” she said. “These young men and women are writing our history books. I get to be a part of their lives.”

The center averaged more than 5,200 visits last month, largely because of the popularity of the free lunches, Crouse said.

Fort Hood has two USO facilities: the main center located near III Corps headquarters and a site at North Fort Hood, which officially opened in mid-March.

USO Fort Hood also opened a service center/day room in June at West Fort Hood for the 504th Battlefield Surveillance Brigade, which recently deployed. Donations helped update a reading area, furniture, gaming systems and computers. Changes will continue throughout the year and are set to be complete by the time the brigade’s soldiers return from Afghanistan.

North Fort Hood is home to National Guard and Reserve units training under First Army Division West for upcoming deployments. They typically mobilize at Fort Hood and then depart for destinations across the world. Any type of comfort or hospitality Fort Hood can show them is good, a Division West official said in March.

Seeking sponsors

Crouse said Wednesday that USO North Fort Hood gets about 4,500 visits a month.

Everything the USO does is funded through donations as it is not a Defense Department entity. Businesses and organizations sponsor the daily lunches and other events and services USO Fort Hood provides. This includes morning pastries and coffee at the center, snacks and drinks at welcome-home ceremonies, Movies on the Lawn for soldiers and families and United Through Reading.

Crouse said she’d like to expand the free daily lunches to weekends, but is still searching for companies, organizations or restaurants willing to sponsor them. Visits are high on the weekends, Crouse said, about 200 to 300 people.

‘Fell in love’

Sgt. Derek Smith visits USO Fort Hood as often as he can, he said Wednesday while sitting at one of the center’s computer terminals. He’s a carpentry and masonry specialist in the 104th Engineer Company, 62nd Engineer Battalion, 36th Engineer Brigade, and likes spending time at the center because it’s close to work, peaceful and relaxing, he said.

His first trip to the facility was about two weeks ago when he heard it was a place he could eat lunch and get on the computer, he said.

“Wow, this is awesome,” was his reaction.

Sgt. Marchial Barnes of Headquarters and Headquarters Company, U.S. Army Garrison, encourages other soldiers to visit the center as a way to boost morale and do something different.

USO Fort Hood has a family atmosphere created by fellow soldiers and battle buddies, he said. Soldiers have a variety of things to do there and they can get to know others, he added.

He heard about the facility about six months ago and walked over from his office to visit.

“After that, I just fell in love with it,” he said.