PASCAGOULA, Miss. – Navy personnel from around the world who often spend months away at sea, now have a place to relax, get a bite to eat and build up their sea legs, thanks to a new United Services Organization (USO) facility built with the efforts and support of credit unions. Mississippi legislators earmarked $650,000 in grant money to build the USO but when bids were solicited, it was discovered that the facility would cost more than $1 million to build. Three credit unions here along with 50 other businesses and individuals raised $100,000 to offset the cost of building the U.S. Naval Station Pascagoula – the first in the state and the first to be built in the world by a Naval Construction Battalion, men and women trained to build Naval facilities. Former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) enlisted the talents of the Battalion, or "Seabees," as they're called, to build the facility using the grant money. Lott "christened" the new USO at a dedication ceremony last month in front of 300 residents, city officials, and USO World Headquarters executives. Keesler Federal Credit Union, Ingalls Employees Credit Union and Singing River Credit Union joined others in raising money for the USO when the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce and the Mississippi Coast USO Council culled a committee to accept donations. "We have a vested interest in the military people who pass through here," said John Goff, Keesler's senior vice president, "I think for everyone involved, it was the very least we could do." Keesler, the largest credit union in the state with $625 million in assets, has 75,000 active and retired military people as members, Goff said. The credit union has 146,000 members worldwide including at nearby Keesler Air Force Base. The 5,300-square foot facility will serve as a second home for more 2,500 sailors who pass through the Mississippi/Gulf Coast region. Here, they'll have access to computers, a reading room, a restaurant, video games, sports bar and transportation from Pascagoula to the mainland, a three-mile drive. It was the "patriotic duty" of Ingall Employees Credit Union to assist troops here with the USO, said Kathy Scarbrough, director of marketing. Approximately 10,000 of the credit union's 20,000 members work at the Northrop Grumman Litton/Ingalls Shipyard, which has built Naval cruisers and cutters for decades. "Pascagoula is a small town and because there's no public transportation, some of the troops felt stranded when they arrived here," Scarbrough said. "Now, they have a home away from home." Like many of the businesses here, Singing River Credit Union has membership ties to military personnel through its 65 select employee groups, said James Smith, president/CEO. "Our membership doesn't overlap with the other credit unions, but we have always had a strong connection to the people who serve here," Smith said. In 1993, Congress formed the Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC) to determine which military bases needed to close and how surplus materials would be used, said A. C. Weeks, president of the USO Naval Station Pascagoula. BRAC determined that the quality of life at Pascagoula was inadequate for sailors mainly because there was lack of public transportation here. "Sailors who don't have cars, live in a cubicle that's 6 feet by 8 feet and that's it," Weeks said. "We had to look at seriously improving their quality of life." Months at sea can be "claustrophobic" to say the least, agreed Lee Lechleidner, the USO's executive director, so "a welcome break to relax or watch a ball game" is a much-needed reprieve. Local military support groups have already asked to volunteer their time to assist the five full-time employees at the USO, Lechleidner said. According to the USO World Headquarters, USOs have been around for 60 years and the Pascagoula USO marks the 220th facility built in the world. Overseas centers are located in Germany, Italy, France, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Iceland, Hungary, Israel, Japan, Okinawa, Korea, and the Virgin Islands. -


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