USO Opens 'Oasis' in Basra Desert

By Army Sgt. Frank Vaughn
Special to American Forces Press Service

CONTINGENCY OPERATING BASE BASRA, Iraq, June 26, 2009 - The familiar refrain of "There's nothing to do around here after work" will hopefully be a thing of the past here with the opening of a new center for rest and relaxation.

The local United Service Organizations office and the Morale, Welfare and Recreation coordinator for 34th Red Bull Infantry Division are teaming up to create an oasis in the middle of the Basra desert for servicemembers and civilians to escape the pressure of operations.

Sarah McConnell, USO director here, said the center, housed in a former dining hall, already has undergone a "soft opening," meaning there are some services already available.

"We have 13 Internet stations set up already, along with 18 phone lines for people to call home," McConnell said. "Both services are free of charge to anyone who uses them.

"We wanted to get something started for the troops here right away," she continued. "We're not fully functional yet, but we got the computers and phones set up so we could at least offer some services."

The USO center is designed from the same template as a similar facility that opened recently at Camp Buehring, Kuwait, according to Army Col. Ronald Albrecht, deputy chief of staff for the 34th Infantry Division.

The USO will share the space with MWR, Albrecht said.

The fitness center is under construction now and has a target opening of July 1, said Army Sgt. 1st Class Deborah Allen, MWR and event coordinator for the 34th Infantry Division.

In addition to cardiovascular machines already in place, the fitness center will feature Nautilus equipment, free weights and ample space for aerobic training and various self-defense classes, including Modern Army Combatives, she added.

"We will be putting padding on the floors and walls in one of the large rooms for combatives training," Allen said. "We will still have a large amount of space on the other side of the room for additional fitness machines."

Albrecht said the fitness center will be an important part of the division's emphasis on physical fitness.

"We wanted to create a clean environment for soldiers to work out," Albrecht said. "We'll have all new machines in place for them to train."

Though the USO and MWR areas will be separated by a wall, extensive cooperation between the two has marked a positive beginning for the cohabitants.

"Cooperation with [the USO] has been splendid," Allen said. "I really look forward to working with them in this building."

McConnell added that she is appreciative of the help she has received from the military in making the USO presence a possibility here.

"I am very grateful to the military leadership here for the generous space allotted to the USO," she said. "Thanks to them, their soldiers will have a place to escape when they are able."

Soldiers who are interested in volunteering with the USO may sign up at the center, McConnell said.

"The USO thrives on volunteers," she said. "They are the backbone of everything we do."

(Army Sgt. Frank Vaughn serves with Multinational Division South public affairs office.)

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