"There's a lot of the things that are challenging for our military service members and their families," said Alan Reyes, chief operating officer of the USO. "They're having to deal with this same stressor that we are, on top of already pretty stressful lives where they're far from home or from family, friends and so their disconnection is even more."
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Organizations, such as the USO and Solider's Angels, see their efforts as more important in light of the pandemic, but it means changing their operations to keep volunteers safe and increase social distance. In some cases, that meant changing aspects of their operations and even turning away long-time volunteers who are at an increased risk of contracting the coronavirus.
Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced new guidelines that Americans wear cloth masks when they go out in public. A few days later, the Pentagon issued a new directive that anyone on Department of Defense property, installations or facilities must wear a cloth face covering when they cannot maintain 6 feet of social distance in public area or work centers. As an interim measure, service members were encouraged to make face coverings from household items or common materials.
Amy Palmer, the president and CEO of Soldiers Angels, a Texas-based, non-profit organization that provides support to service members, veterans and their families, told ABC News that it shifted a team of volunteers who sew and craft goods to sewing face masks -- first for veterans going to the Veterans Affairs hospitals for treatment and later to include in care packages for deployed troops.
Soldier's Angels is also grappling with shortages of hand sanitizer, which the organization has long included in hygiene care packages for service members.
Organizations that have traditionally offered entertainment and ways for service members and veterans to connect in person are trying to provide alternatives, which is more difficult with the social distancing guidance.
Reyes said that the USO has been focusing on digital offerings, from electronic gaming and streaming concerts to setting up devices with internet and social media services so that service members can contact loved ones.
Soldiers Angels also has more opportunities for virtual volunteering, particularly to engage with veterans and service members who may be in quarantine or have fewer visitors because of social distancing.
HOW TO HELP
- Soldiers' Angels, has volunteer opportunities and ways to donate listed on their website.
- The USO accepts donations on its donor page and lists volunteer opportunities on its website.
However, Reyes said that despite all the changes from the coronavirus pandemic, their organization and many others are still working toward connecting troops with the support they need.
"Our staff members are working as hard -- and in a lot of cases a lot harder -- now because there is so much need to fulfill ... that mission of connection when everybody is literally disconnected," he said.