By Danielle DeSimone
It’s 1 p.m. in the afternoon in Thule, Greenland, and it’s pitch-black outside. The sun set a few months ago and never rose – in fact, it won’t rise in the sky again until mid-February. A winter wind cuts across the plane runway and your parka barely shelters you against it. It’s only 4 degrees Fahrenheit, after all.
Welcome to “the top of the world”: Thule Air Base, one of the U.S. military’s most challenging and remote bases on the entire globe, and one of the most crucial locations for our national defense.
Hundreds of U.S. service members are stationed here each year, undertaking strenuous work in challenging living conditions – and as always, the USO is right by their side, providing support.
What does the U.S. military do in Thule, Greenland?
Located in northwestern Greenland, 946 miles away from the North Pole and 750 miles north of the Arctic Circle, Thule Air Base is the U.S. Armed Forces’ northernmost military installation on the globe. The base is home to approximately 150 American service members in the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Space Force, as well as Danish and Canadian military personnel.
Thule Air Base’s main role includes satellite operations and space defense of the United States, but according to the Department of Defense, it also has increasingly strategic value due to Russia’s continued attempts to militarily control the Arctic.
Photo credit DVIDS/JoAnne Castagna
A structure houses one of several radars that scan the skies for foreign military rockets and missiles on Thule Air Base, Greenland.
Notably, the base is home to incredibly important space surveillance technology that can deliver early ballistic missile warnings. This is crucial to our national defense because essentially, in the event of a nuclear attack across the Atlantic, Thule is the United States’ first line of defense.
The challenges of being stationed on Thule, Greenland
“Thule is one of the most, if not the most, austere environments the Department of Defense operates from, with around 150 Airmen and Guardians manning the watch 24/7, in deadly conditions that rival anywhere else in the world,” said U.S. Space Force Col. Mike Andrews in 2021.
This description is not an exaggeration. The physical conditions of Thule are extreme. In the winter, temperatures are incredibly frigid, dipping down to –30 degrees Fahrenheit. Winter storms with wind, snow, ice and sub-zero temperatures are so severe and destructive that they can trap service members in their dorms for days, leaving them with limited contact with the outside world or each other.
Photo credit U.S. Air Force
U.S. airmen explore an iceberg in Greenland in 30-degree water during a demonstration of Danish police water survival suits.
Another physical challenge of being stationed on Thule is daylight – or lack thereof. In the summer, the sun is in the sky 24/7, which can be disorienting, and through fall and winter, the sun completely disappears from view – Thule is immersed in 24 hours of pitch-black darkness for several months. Both extremes can be incredibly disorienting and can also have a negative effect on mental health and morale.
Resources are limited on Thule, as the location – which is 65 miles away from the closest town – is virtually inaccessible for most of the year due to the surrounding waters remaining frozen solid for months until an icebreaker ship can arrive in the summer to break through. Only then can cargo shipments enter to deliver food and supplies to the island, but options are limited. With only a few dining facilities on base, as well as single warehouse where service members can pick up weekly rations, those stationed on Thule often go months without their favorite meals, snacks or refreshments. This can be especially difficult during the holiday season, when service members are missing out on traditional, home-cooked meals shared among loved ones.
Additionally, when airmen and guardians are off duty, there are limited places for them to go besides their dorms to rest and recharge. Admittedly, in warmer months there are outdoor activities such as hiking – but polar bears also roam the area, so it’s not safe to walk alone through the wilderness.
But perhaps one of the greatest challenges of Thule is that amidst all of these extreme living conditions on base, service members are also stationed thousands of miles away from loved ones. This separation can be hard on military families, but it’s made even more difficult by the fact that internet access on Thule is sometimes severely limited. This means that aside from not being able to stream movies or music on those long, dark winter days, service members also have limited access to video calls, texting, emails and other ways to stay in contact with family and friends. This can have a huge effect on our military’s morale.
It is important to support all members of the military community, no matter where on the globe they are stationed, but when faced with such intense and difficult conditions as Thule, Greenland, it is especially important to offer service members support and resources.
That’s why the USO has remained steadfast in its pledge to “go where they go” and has opened a USO center on Thule Air Base, Greenland.
How the USO supports service members stationed on Thule Air Base
The USO center on Thule Air Base, which was fully funded by the NFL, is already having a huge impact on the military community in Greenland.
Given the high-pressure nature of these service members’ jobs on Thule, as well as the extremely challenging – and often isolating – physical conditions of the base, having a place to turn to recharge and relax can make a huge difference in the mental health and morale of those stationed there.
The USO center on Thule is currently being outfitted with brand new, comfortable furniture for service members to use when off-duty and will be running at full capacity toward the end of 2022. The center is also equipped with computers, TVs, gaming stations, reliable Wi-Fi, snacks and refreshments and other amenities that are the hallmark of USO centers.
Photo credit USO Photo
A service member at Thule Air Base, Greenland, gets a break from the high-stress responsibilities of daily life on the base through USO Gaming.
As service members deployed to Thule often struggle to stay in touch with loved ones back home due to weak or limited access to internet, having a comfortable space to contact friends and family through a strong Wi-Fi connection and computer access is an especially important aspect of the USO center on Thule.
Another way service members can stay connected to home is through gaming. Airmen and guardians can play games with friends or family members back home, or with each other, forming bonds and providing them with a break from the daily grind of their work.
Most importantly, the center serves as a home away from home for service members in need of a comforting place to turn to amidst the difficult conditions of Thule Air Base.
The USO has also supported service members through our signature USO Entertainment Tours. From Wilmer Valderrama, Chef Robert Irvine and Kal Penn to the USO’s most recent tour with Stephen Colbert, the arrival of some of America’s top entertainers shows airmen and guardians that the American people remember and are grateful for their sacrifices.
And as we enter the holiday season, when service members are in frigid weather, in total darkness 24/7 and far from loved ones, the USO will also be by their side. USO Holidays Care Packages are already en-route and holiday meals and parties are planned in the coming weeks to boost morale and to deliver a feeling of home to these dedicated service members.
Having a USO presence on Thule Air Base is crucial to maintaining the morale and mental health of those stationed there. When they turn to the USO center on base, members of the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Space Force working under strenuous conditions to keep our nation secure know that even in the most austere and remote of locations, they can still rely on the USO to lift their spirits and keep them connected to home.