New USO center opening at RDU

Staff WriterDecember 25, 2010 

  • The Cannon Foundation recently donated $95,000 to the USO of North Carolina - money that will be used to help upgrade the center at Raleigh-Durham International Airport and establish a new center at Fayetteville Regional Airport.

    About $60,000 of the gift has been earmarked for the RDU center, with the remainder to go to Fayetteville, said John Falkenbury, president and chief operating officer of the USO of North Carolina.

    The Cannon Foundation started in 1943 to help provide support for communities with Cannon Mills plants.

    "We're proud to support the USO of North Carolina," said Frank Davis, the foundation's executive director. "We know that the USO of N.C., as they have for nearly 70 years, is the organization that continues to make a difference in the lives of these warriors."

The space is temporary, just like the respite it provides.

But having movable walls does nothing to lessen the spirit of what happens inside them. At the USO center in Raleigh-Durham International Airport, the chili dogs, detective novels and phone calls are all free.

"They take care of us," said Pfc. Roger Muchnick, a 21-year-old Camp Lejeune Marine headed to his grandparents' home in Massachusetts for the holidays.

A brand-new USO center is scheduled to open in January at RDU's Terminal 2. It's a $750,000 project built with donated materials and labor and overseen by Archer Western, the general contractor for the airport renovation project. The company also paid for the temporary space.

Until the new center opens, the center's TVs, board games, books and recliners are headquartered in a temporary spot not far from the ticket counters, behind a set of tall cubicle walls.

It hardly seemed to matter this week that the digs had a tossed-together feel to them. Military members and their families sent text messages, took naps and shared stories about their family holiday traditions. Muchnick couldn't wait to tear into his grandmother's Christmas ham.

The center is remarkably quiet compared to the average airport waiting area. The portable walls have been decorated with Christmas cards from children, complete with hand-drawn American flags and valiant attempts at spelling: "Dear United States Army: Thank you for serving our contry. Thank you also for pertecting the U.S.A."

The USO of North Carolina has operated a center in RDU's Terminal 1 since 2004, said John Falkenbury, the organization's president and chief operating officer. Because the recent expansion and renovation of Terminal 2 has shifted additional passenger traffic to the new building, the USO is moving its center there.

The new center will feature 3,100 square feet of space and will be almost three times as big as the area in Terminal 1, said Patricia Dezetter, the center's assistant director.

The center is open 24 hours a day and is staffed by a group of 200 volunteers who sign up for four- and eight-hour shifts. The volunteers sign people in, prepare and hand out meals, and visit with young men and women who are sometimes thousands of miles from home. All of the food, toiletries and books are donated.

From mid-December through the beginning of January, the USO centers at RDU and Charlotte Douglas International Airport together are expected to receive about 20,000 visitors, Falkenbury said.

This week, all many of them could talk about was going home.

Pfc. Alex Coles of Buffalo, N.Y., is a machine gunner at Camp Lejeune. At home, his weapon of choice becomes a snowboard.

"I'm looking forward to the snow," said Coles, 22, a smile stretching across his face.

matt.ehlers@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4889

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