Like any young recruit going through basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C., Pvt. Mark Echaure wanted desperately to spend his two-week Christmas break with relatives and friends.
But the 19-year-old’s plans went awry 6 a.m. Thursday when his flight out of Charlotte was canceled due to bad weather.
Echaure faced a 24-hour layover at Charlotte Douglas International Airport, which was understandably daunting to a kid from the tiny Pacific Island of Saipan, a U.S. commonwealth nearly 8,000 miles from Charlotte.
The USO’s Charlotte Center wasn’t about to let that happen.
Within an hour, the organization not only had Echaure booked on another flight, but it worked with American Airlines to get him free food and lodging during an expected 24-hour layover in Dallas.
“You’re going to get home. I promise,” said USO Charlotte Center Director Megan Grady, putting her hands on his shoulders. “Now, where’s a smile?”
It was one of countless small emergencies the agency solved Thursday during an operation called Victory Block Leave, an annual USO of NC effort to help soldiers leaving Fort Jackson near Columbia for their two-week Christmas leave.
Charlotte’s airport is the closest major hub, so as many as 2,500 soldiers – most in their late teens or early 20s – were bused to Charlotte Douglas on Thursday, with the first wave arriving at 3:30 a.m. and the last at 10:45 a.m.
In the hours that followed, soldiers encountered numerous obstacles: late buses, canceled flights, lost orders. One even tried bringing a bullet home as a souvenir.
The USO’s mission is to provide comfort for service personnel and their families, so for every problem, it had a solution. It also provided endless free food and drink (including desserts donated by Johnson & Wales University), conference rooms with TVs and space to sleep.
The latter became even more critical Thursday night, as more flights were canceled or delayed due to inclement weather in the Midwest. The USO responded by setting up 15 to 20 cots at its center for soldiers with no place else to go.
“Some may not have slept at all before getting here, so you’ll see them stretched out in the halls and on the floors,” Grady said. “Volunteers put Post-It notes on them, letting us know when to wake them up for flights. Our volunteers worry over them like moms and dads.”
Echaure, for example, said he had not slept since 4 a.m. Wednesday. He arrived in Charlotte at 5 a.m. Thursday.
Troops from Fort Jackson weren’t the only ones tended to Thursday. On average, 8,000 to 10,000 a month visit the USO Charlotte Center, including families escorting home the remains of a fallen soldier. The USO’s 250 volunteers in Charlotte learn the soldiers’ stories, including who might beheading home to ask a girl to marry him or who is about to see a newborn son or daughter for the first time.
In some cases, the trip home is even part of an elaborate Christmas surprise for their family.
All just want to get there as quickly as possible, like 29-year-old Elizabeth Stewart. She was among those bused out of Fort Jackson, headed to Los Angeles to be with her husband, Patrick, and three kids, ages 6, 4 and 2.
“It’s my first time away from my kids and its a lot tougher than I thought it would be,” said Stewart, who intends to be a combat medic.
“My husband has been in the Army 12 years and he’s taking care of them right now. He told me he didn’t realize how tough it was for me when he was deployed.”
Her eyes welled a little as she repeated what he’d said, but like any good soldier, she didn’t cry. She’d wait until she got home to do that.