For about four years, United Service Organizations volunteers have been providing a meal to service members. Many of the 160 USO locations around the world host these dinners, the idea originating from a monthly event at the Fort Riley, Kan., location.
The Joint Base Lewis-McChord USO Northwest location, on McChord Field, has hosted nearly 40 of these dinners. Andrew Oczkewicz, USONW Shali Center manager, said each month is set aside for a different unit.
“We do a plated dinner (in) the middle of every month around payday, when the troops have no dough, which is why we call it a ‘No Dough Dinner,’” he said.
Most months, the USO volunteers at the Shali Center feed about 50 service members at the 11-table dining room. But the warm weather typical in July and August gives them a chance to host the dinner outside, with room for nearly 300 guests. The outdoor dinners offer a bouncy house, live entertainment, ice cream and plenty of food.
The meals are either prepared by USO volunteers or outside organizations. Nearly all of the meals are financially sponsored by those who buy meals at the yearly USO auction.
“The troops, and sometimes their families, depending on what the needs are, get a fabulous meal for free,” Oczkewicz said. “And the volunteers love it. I have volunteers who look forward to it every month.”
Three volunteers travel more than an hour each way to prepare for and then attend the dinner. Kathy Fies has been volunteering for these dinners since they began. In fact, she was the first sponsor of the “No Dough Dinner” on JBLM.
“At the first gala I attended, they had 12 sponsor spots open for auction so I won and ended up being the first,” she said. “Since then, I have attended around 25 of these dinners and it’s such an amazing privilege. These service members chose to serve this country and sacrifice their time for us. It’s uplifting, rewarding and enlightening experience to be able to give back to them.”
There is always plenty of food for second and third portions. Each table is assigned a volunteer to serve the food. Service members only need to get up to grab a dessert, Oczkewicz said.
On Jan. 14, 1st Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division attended the dinner. Colonel David C. Foley, 1st Bde., 2nd Inf. Div. commander, gave a handshake and unit coin to each volunteer to thank them for their time that
“We totally love it when the service members get to interact with volunteers,” Oczkewicz said. “We encourage that.”
The January dinner was mostly prepared by the Tacoma Rotary Club. The Italian meal featured ambrosia salad, spaghetti, garlic bread, Italian sodas and chocolate desserts. The Rotary Club attended to serve the meal and meet service members.
Pat Steel, Tacoma Rotary Club member, served in the Army for 28 years. The club has hosted more than four of these dinners and members always enjoy them, he said. He accepted a certificate of appreciation from the unit commander.
“I joined the service to answer the calls of my friends and neighbors to fight for our country,” he said. “And I ended up working in Washington, D.C., right next to the national headquarters of your unit. I have to say, it is made up of the greatest Soldiers still today. I thank you for your service. Thank you for being here tonight and God bless you.”
The events continue to evolve based on feedback from attendees. The dinners now start at 5 p.m. to allow service members to attend right after work instead of driving home and back again.
Unit leaders who want to sign up their service members can contact Oczkewicz at 360-789-2972 or firstname.lastname@example.org. As of Monday, the month of April was open to an interested unit.
“Last year, almost all of our new units were McChord-centric while the Unity Bridge was being built and traffic was a bear,” Oczkewicz said. “Now that it is open, we are going to be serving mostly Army units this year.”
Due to deployment and training schedules, Oczkewicz sticks to scheduling only three to four months in advance.
The USONW Shali Center is located at 1421 Union Ave. on McChord Field.
For more information, visit usonw.org/mcchord.php.