By Marianne Coil
The USO is seeking volunteers for its center at Camp Atterbury, where hot, tired and thirsty soldiers look forward to getting a drink of water in an air-conditioned room.
The conveniences of home sometimes are not easily found on a military base, and throughout its history, the USO has tried to create a homey place offering friendship, food and entertainment.
Although many equate the USO with Bob Hope and his touring company, the USO is about more than song and dance. A brick-and-mortar group, it operates facilities on or near military installations and airports.
The hosts at Camp Atterbury typically greet the guests, assign them computers and gaming equipment, help to prepare snacks and meals and keep the facility tidy.
Three volunteers from Johnson County who perform these duties shared their stories about what led them to Camp Atterbury.
A U.S. Marine from St. Louis, Jerry Shepherd and his buddies were stationed in California in the mid-1950s. They liked to visit the USO, a “haven to all,” at Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street in Los Angeles. Sinks and clothing lockers were available if a soldier needed to wash up, and a visitor could look forward to coffee and doughnuts.
Shepherd often checked with the front desk to see if free tickets from donors were available for entertainment venues. On one occasion, he and a friend received tickets to the Hollywood Bowl.
The men went to see Jane Powell in a salute to Rodgers and Hammerstein. With gratitude, Shepherd and his friend wrote a “real long letter” to the ticket donors.
After sending the thank-you note, he and his friend got a letter back inviting them to lunch. They were to be picked up at the USO.
On the appointed day, a chauffeur met them, and they went to a home in Beverly Hills. The soldiers found out the hosts ran a catering business serving the movie industry.
Shepherd said the couple invited them to lunch, because it was the first time anyone thanked them for donating. Over the next year, the hosts arranged to give the pair a number of premium tickets for events like the Rose Bowl Parade.
Widowed 10 years ago, Shepherd now lives in Greenwood with his partner, Barbara. After retiring from the transportation industry, he began to volunteer every week at the USO. He said the highlight has been making 200 grilled cheese sandwiches in one day for the servicemen.
Charles G. Hylton
Charlie Hylton remembers how Vietnam veterans were ignored when they came home, and he wanted to volunteer at the USO to express thanks to the current generation of soldiers.
A graduate of Southport High School, Hylton was a newlywed in 1965 when he boarded a troop ship for a 30-day journey to South Vietnam. A military police (MP) officer in a unit of roughly 300, he was involved in training local soldiers to be MPs.
Hylton’s unit also visited an isolated leper colony at the base of a mountain. Using lumber, the Americans rebuilt quarters for the residents, who were living in structures made with flattened beer cans.
While at Bin Hoa, Hylton attended a Bob Hope show featuring Ann-Margaret in 1966. “Quite an experience,” he said.
Away for 12 months, he returned to the U.S. to finish his three-year commitment. He and his wife lived near Fort Dix, N.J., where he supervised prisoners in the stockade, some of whom he accompanied by train to the prison at Fort Leavenworth.
Finally home in Indiana, the Hyltons raised a son and a daughter. Hylton’s wife, Rebecca, attended Purdue and became a registered nurse. Hylton worked until retirement for Eli Lilly & Co.
In 2017 Hylton received a lasting acknowledgment, “such an honor,” when he was chosen to be a presenter in a ceremony at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, known as The Wall, in Washington, D.C. Over several days, Hylton and many others read the names of 53,000 fallen soldiers.
As a USO volunteer at Camp Atterbury, Hylton said his favorite event so far was a St. Patrick’s Day celebration, where partiers wore hats, played bingo and competed for raffle prizes.
Pamela Siefers’ only child, Clint, was a Seabee in the U.S. Navy’s construction brigade. After five years on active duty, the Center Grove graduate started his own construction firm, but he and his fiancée, Amber Woods, are also in the Navy Reserve.
Siefers retired from AT&T after 36 years in customer service, and afterward, she was careful not to commit to more volunteer work than she could handle. Later on, she started looking for more opportunities, and she heard the USO Center at Camp Atterbury needed help.
That was three years ago, and she’s committed to helping soldiers in the way other military parents could be helping her own family.
A graduate of Boonville High School, Siefers began her career at the old Indiana Bell in Evansville. She attended Indiana University at Bloomington for a while and then completed an associate degree from Ivy Tech in medical assisting. She worked in healthcare and other industries before she realized the best job would be in customer service.
After she married, she worked in the Kokomo telephone office until it closed, and she relocated to the Center Grove area to continue with AT&T. During her career, she was also a union officer for the Communication Workers of America.
Now divorced, she babysits with Clint and Amber’s 11-month-old daughter, Ramona. Despite her responsibilities, Siefers has found a way to encourage donations to the USO by using social media.
Her efforts spur donors to come forward. “I’ve met some great people that way.” They’ve brought items from car trunks full of snacks, books, DVDs and household supplies, and some have written checks.
She said donations of food would address the USO’s biggest need, and more generous gifts would help to cover the cost of replacing worn-out computer parts and gaming equipment that soldiers use.
Siefers said the USO is important to Camp Atterbury, because the remote base is not within walking distance of retail and entertainment outlets.
And she makes a point of saying, “The comment we hear the most is, ‘this is the best USO we’ve ever been in.’”
Seventy Pounds of Pancakes
Waiting for pancakes on a Saturday morning, the soldiers stood in a line wrapped around the USO Center. Its manager, Jaclyn Bolin, noticed one serviceman who looked upset. “You could tell he was having a rough day.”
Bolin asked him how he was, and he explained that at home, he would eat pancakes with his children on Saturdays. The USO breakfast was connecting him to his family in a symbolic way.
Through the efforts of donors and volunteers, the USO made 70 pounds of pancakes that day – and brought at least one man’s family to him on a lonely prairie in Indiana.
Volunteering at Camp Atterbury USO
To start the application process, contact the USO by phone, email or their website:
Call (317) 991-1073
Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org
Those age 18 and over are welcome to volunteer.
Volunteers age 17 must have permission of a guardian.
Fill out an online application.
View training videos online.
In-person training and tour (90 minutes).
Shadow shift (four hours).
Two volunteers for each four-hour shift, seven days a week.
Special programs include:
Bob Hope Legacy Reading – soldiers can make videos of themselves reading books aloud in a room decorated like a child’s bedroom. The USO will send a soldier’s video and the chosen book free of charge to the service member’s family.