USO-NW adapts to COVID challenges

By J.M. Simpson on February 14, 2022

Since 1941 the United Service Organizations (USO) Northwest has supported the area's service members and their families while adapting to meet their needs.

The USO Northwest - which celebrated its 81st birthday on Feb. 4 - is present throughout the states of Washington and Oregon. With approximately 300 volunteers, the organization annually serves hundreds of thousands of service members and their families.

"I like to say that volunteering at the USO is ‘Americans taking care of those Americans serving our nation," said Don Leingang, executive director of USO Northwest. "This has been true since our inception and continues every day."

There are five USO Northwest centers located at Sea-Tac International Airport, the Portland USO Airport Center, the Shali USO Center at McChord Field, the Camp Lewis USO Center at Joint Base Lewis-McChord Main, and the Mobile USO Program that covers Washington and Oregon.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Team USO Northwest has persevered.

"The Sea-Tac Center has had to reduce our operating hours so we have focused our efforts to support the time periods when we experience the largest number of travelers," said retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Matthew Sult, the center's manager.

Impressed with the positive way in which USO volunteers had treated him as a young officer in 1992 and as a senior officer in 2010, Sult volunteered in 2015.

"The biggest challenge is that the majority of volunteers are well over 65, and they have been very concerned about returning," he said in relationship to the pandemic. "We can always use more volunteers; our volunteers have a huge impact on taking care of our military and their families."

At the USO Camp Lewis Center at JBLM Main, manager David Dutcher has dealt with the pandemic by shortening hours, maintaining social distancing, and using extra sanitizing measures to ensure a clean and safe area, particularly around the computers.

"Most guests coming to this center are looking for computer and internet access to achieve certifications, process forms and even search for apartments in the area," Dutcher said.

After his corporate career, Dutcher was a volunteer for six years before becoming the center's manager about nine months ago.

"I did not serve in the military when I was a young man, so I am doing my best to serve America's military now."

 In terms of adapting to COVID while maintaining contact with friends and loved ones, Dutcher also explained the Coffee Connections and Military Virtual Programming initiatives.

"The Coffee Connections program provides an opportunity for military spouses to come together, complete a fun craft, meet new friends, and learn more about services that are available to them," he explained.

In further adapting to the COVID pandemic, USO Northwest has transitioned away from traditional USO Tours to Military Virtual Programming (MVP) to provide talent engagements for soldiers and their families.

"We are always looking for adults who are warm, welcoming people who can convey the mission of the USO to provide an oasis of a friendly, relaxed and welcoming environment," concluded Dutcher.

At McChord Field, retired Navy Chaplain Daniel Lochner manages both the USO Shali Center and the Mobile Events program.

After moving to the Northwest in 2016, he became a USO volunteer. Soon he served as the USO Sea-Tac Flight Night manager before becoming the Mobile Events and Shali Center managers.

"My wife and I wanted to find something to do together as volunteers. ... We soon learned that no other organization served the active-duty military community like the USO," he said.

He also said that the pandemic has been the biggest challenge the Shali Center has faced.

"We were open when allowed and closed when forced to."

At the same time, Lochner and his team found an innovative way to supports service members and their families through the Mobile Events program.

"Instead of our usual hot dog and chip mobile lunch events, we turned our vehicles into ice cream trucks - driving through housing areas, playing the ice cream truck song, and handing out ice cream," he explained.

"We did this multiple times at Camp Lewis, McChord Field, Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, Naval Base Kitsap - both at the submarine base and at Bremerton. We also supported many service members both in sequester and in quarantine - again at Camp Lewis, McChord Field, Bremerton, NAS Whidbey Island, and Fairchild AFB in Spokane."

Lochner also explained how the program has served hot soup lunches to those in quarantine at Camp Lewis, has begun a drive to give out Chick-fil-A sandwiches (500 at a time), and has on several occasions initiated special Saturday pizza giveaways for service members living in the dorms and barracks.

"My Shali Center and Mobile Events programs always welcome those who would like to volunteer," he concluded. "There is always a place to serve and contribute to our mission."

For those seeking to volunteer, go to or contact one of the Northwest Center managers mentioned in this article. 

"They will not be disappointed!" concluded Leingang.