The USO plans to discontinue its popular Discover program in Germany, bringing an end to free train trips and tours that introduced military personnel and their families to local attractions.
The program will end in the Kaiserslautern, Stuttgart and Wiesbaden military communities at the end of December, Walter Murren, USO Europe regional vice president, said Friday.
Murren said the USO in Kaiserslautern will still provide downtown orientations for Army and Air Force newcomers, and free cooking and language classes will be offered in Germany, but on a less frequent basis.
Ending the Discover program will free up more of the nonprofit’s limited funds for the agency’s 20 centers throughout Europe and other programs that more directly support the needs of the military communities, Murren said.
“We’re not stopping the programs we do at our centers and the outreach we normally do,” he said. “It’s just that we won’t be focusing on train tours and stuff like that.”
The USO Discover program began about two years ago, after the USO ended its long-standing express and overnight leisure bus tours from Kaiserslautern, Stuttgart and Wiesbaden. Customers paid for a seat on those tours, which went all over Europe and brought in extra revenue to the USO. But the agency wanted to provide programs free-of-charge, while avoiding duplication of trips and business competition with Army and Air Force agencies that offered similar excursions.
The Discover program introduced people to the German train system and the group then toured a local destination with a guide.
But Murren said a USO analysis found the Discover program also was duplicating some Army and Air Force offerings, and that some people were going on the same trips, “so we were orienting people to the same thing.”
Participants were limited to two free trips by bus or train and three classes per year, unless space was available.
One of the final trips of the year will include a Dec. 27 trip to the New Year’s market in Speyer.
People expressed disappointment that the program was ending after the news was posted on social media beginning Thursday night.
“This is very sad,” one person wrote. “We saw most of Europe through the USO tours and I was lucky to be able to attend many of the cooking classes. Thank you for being there for my family and helping us explore the world.”
The Discover program was “very popular,” Murren said. “We love doing things for people for free but we’ve got to stay within the constraints of our budget.”
The USO receives some funding for downrange operations from Congress, but donations from individuals, organizations and corporations provide most of its financial support.
“We’re not seeing budget cuts but more of a flat trajectory on funding,” Murren said. At the same time, the USO has expanded the number of centers in Europe and its support to personnel deployed to Africa and Eastern Europe.
“Our centers should feel like home,” he said. “That costs money to do that.”
“The other stuff was a little bit of gravy,” he said of the free trips.
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