Weekly USO Dinners Create Extended Family For Military
The Fourth of July is a time when many friends and relatives come together to watch fireworks and have a barbecue, but members of the military are often deployed or stationed far from their extended families.
There’s a place in San Diego, though, where active-duty service members, their spouses and kids can always share a meal with their extended military family: the USO Downtown Center.
That’s where I meet Scotty Wells, a self-described Navy wife, who’s here with her husband, Petty Officer 1st Class Benjamin Wells. She tells me about his job.
“He is a mine man in the Navy,” she says, naming a job I never even knew existed.
“They go in first to make sure the big aircraft carriers won't set off any mines and explode,” she explains. “And some of the mines, oh my goodness! They're as big as a car. They're huge. It scares me to death.”
So tonight, she’s happy to be out to dinner with her husband and their five children: Wesley, 11; Reagan, 7; twins Charlie and Ryen, who are 6; and 4-year-old Parker, who insists on being called Parker Princess. They’re among 200 people waiting in the United Service Organization's spacious first floor. A handful of service members sit at computers, sending email. Families gather around a pool table and tumble into couches next to a large-screen TV.
They’re all waiting for their number to be called, so they can go upstairs to a clean, bright room lined with folding tables, each with a collection of noisemakers, which the kids are pulled to like magnets. It’s a kind of joyful chaos.
A few feet away in an industrial kitchen, volunteers work on the finishing touches for dinner.
“We’re having spaghetti and meatballs … with Zuppa Toscana soup ... broccoli, salad and French bread,” says volunteer Sabrina Price. She has to stand on a stool to stir the huge pot of tomato sauce.
“We made the spaghetti sauce from scratch. There are whole bay leaves in there, fresh oregano and parsley.”
The USO has been supporting active-duty service members (and National Guard and Reserve) and their families since 1941. San Diego’s Downtown Center hosts dinner every week, says director Tiana Caylor.
“We do Tuesday night dinners because food speaks volumes," she says. "When you're at home, the first thing you do is you go into the fridge. You ask Mom to make you a sandwich. It's our way of being a home away from home. And food is a love language."
“It's like having a family dinner,” says Kameron Richardson, holding her 3-month-old baby. She’s here with her best friend, who’s also a Navy spouse. Richardson’s husband is deployed on a carrier that hasn’t reached its destination, so she doesn’t know where he is.
“He’s an airman, so he brings in the planes when they come in on the ships," she says.
They’ve been together for six years. Since her husband joined the Navy almost three years ago, “we've spent more time apart than we have together," Richardson says with a bit of a laugh.
Here, she can meet people who know what she’s going through. “We can talk about stuff that you can't really talk about, with even your own family, because they don't really understand all the time.”
A few seats away, Barbara Melendez tells me she’s a hospital corpsman, a medic for the Navy and Marines. She’s sitting with her daughters: Maida, age 6, and Melinda, age 5. They’re USO regulars.
“We love it here,” says Melendez. “Every once in a while they do a pantry where we get beans and rice and muffins. That helps me out tremendously.” The single mom says it can be tough in this economy, and in San Diego, to get by.
She’s grateful for the USO and the volunteers. “You seem to lose your faith in humanity sometimes, but then there's places like this where people come together and prove, ‘Hey, we still care. We still notice.’ ”
As the meal ends, Scotty Wells gets a rare moment to reflect on her future. It means the world to her to be raising these five great kids, and on top of that, she says, “My dream is just to grow old and sit on a porch someday with my husband. I know that might sound stupid, but it's what I want.”
She adds quietly, “I don’t want to lose my husband.”
Wells remembers a really difficult time, when he was deployed for four months, and she had newborn twins plus a 1- and 5-year-old at home.
“I can't even tell you how many times I brought that stroller here. I did that frequently, because you make friends, and they move,” she says, a fact of life for many military families in military towns. “So then you have nobody here."
She adds, "Sometimes, you just get lonely, so you come to dinner.”
That’s something she can do every Tuesday night at the USO.